Boardwalk Empire's fifth and final season starts Sunday night, but even its fans can't muster up the enthusiasm or the pathos that greeted the beginnings of the ends of Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Its critics, meanwhile, have been trying to burn this thing down since it began.
It's something of an inglorious exit—a truncated eight-episode run, a rushed time jump from 1924 to 1931—for such a lavish show, especially given that last season's narrative density and darker tone were relatively well-received, and the show as a whole had largely recovered from the questionable decision to kill off a major character, Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody, at the end of season 2. But really, this was inevitable. Boardwalk Empire's extravagant sets and period details made it expensive to maintain, and there's no way to argue that HBO was getting the best possible return on that investment: The show never ascended to the top tier of prestige TV like it hoped, and it certainly couldn't compete with a certain other program on the same network in terms of gore, nudity, and, you know, dragons. Boardwalk's de facto cancellation inspired little grief, and little surprise.
This is a shame. I'm not going to say this wasn't a flawed, uneven show, but I've often found myself inclined to defend it. Certain characters and subplots have simply dragged, and it's perhaps the worst prestige-TV offender when it comes to introducing a slew of brilliantly crafted, brilliantly acted supporting characters with no idea how to use them properly (or enough). But it's always aspired to be an expansive American origin story—the beginning of not only organized crime as we know it, but also a certain version of America as we know it—that could never be confined to Atlantic City alone. It could feel diffuse, almost rambling. But that's not as huge a hindrance as its critics insist. The show has also had strong writing, a handful of truly great episodes, and plenty of striking imagery. True, it'd be plenty fatiguing to watch it shuffle onward, unchanging and unhurried, for another three or four seasons. But this abrupt cutoff denies it the chance to fully realize its potential.
After the show's third season, showrunner Terence Winter talked to Vulture about "the bigger picture—the formation of the Big Seven, the gangster conference in Atlantic City, the beginnings of a national crime syndicate." Since its earliest episodes, Boardwalk Empire had a habit of combining history and fiction—after all, its protagonist, Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson, is based on a real person. For a while, though, it was unclear whether something like the entirely fictional Jimmy Darmody's copious plot time in Chicago with Al Capone suggested a bigger picture or a longer game. This is the sort of thing that rankled fans and critics alike: The show has always taken its sweet time, as if it just assumed it would have a good eight seasons to sprawl out in. As the action spread out to New York and Chicago and Miami and now Cuba, it was hard to envision how it could all lead to a sensible and rewarding conclusion.
If it did have eight seasons to sprawl out in, though, that diffuseness could've wound up becoming its central power, once all those disparate strains came crashing back together. (Not to keep comparing a 1920s gangster drama to Game of Thrones, but you know those guys will—deservedly!—get all the time they need.) As Winter forecasted in that Vulture interview, "Certain people will come and go, and minor players or certain people we meet along the way will come to prominence in later years." We've already seen a bit of this: One-time peripheral characters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky are now major figures in the show's New York crime world, ascending to their real-life historical prominence. We've seen part of Capone becoming Capone.
The problem is that "part of." This show has run out of time, and patience. In the fifth season's first few episodes (no spoilers, I promise), we catch up with everyone who's still around—some people's fortunes have risen, others' have plummeted. But in many cases, it feels more like one year has passed than a full seven: It's almost as if the writers were preparing to set the action in 1925, got the bad news, and hastily improvised the leap to 1931.
Of course, once the cancellation was official, there was no way to avoid that time jump: Boardwalk's obvious endgame from the beginning involved tracing the arc of Prohibition (which ended in '33), of seeing Nucky's reign strengthen, then dwindle as the next generation of gangsters rose up around him. There's no sensible way to end this show in the mid-twenties if its writers had any interest in staying somewhat historically accurate. The real-life Nucky wasn't imprisoned until 1941; despite still not quite matching up chronologically, the new season's end-of-an era tone at least could bring some sense of finality to the story.
All that previous dawdling aside, I still wish the show had been given the chance to do this right. Or, perhaps more crucially, I wish the show had the guts to do this right, to take Winters' long-threatened B-story about the rise of organized crime and make it the focus. All along, the only real thing handcuffing Boardwalk Empire to Nucky and Atlantic City has been its title; otherwise, you can imagine a whole other show developing. You start with Nucky and his operation and the onset of Prohibition, with Luciano and Lansky and Arnold Rothstein flitting in and out of his life. But after five or six seasons, things shift so dramatically that Nucky isn't the protagonist anymore—he was essentially sidelined and largely ineffective last season as it is.
So now, we could watch Capone and Luciano and Lansky build their new empires. It could've been, as Winter suggested, novelistic. It could've been an epic, intricate show about not just one only-sometimes-compelling protagonist, but about the whole network of warped figures who loom large in the seedier pages of our nation's history, who still tell us something fascinating and seductive and worrisome about America's id. Nucky, for all we care, could be a supporting, occasional character while we spend the vast majority of our time in New York and Chicago.
Not many shows have done anything like this. But Boardwalk Empire had all the elements and characters—and, until now, seemingly all the network support—to take a gamble, to be a non-anthology show that starts with one premise and set of protagonists, and ends with entirely different ones. Realistically, the show never could've been that daring. But while I wonder how they'll manage to wrap it all up now, what's really bittersweet is that I'll also be daydreaming about what might have been.
Ryan Leas is a freelance contributor to Stereogum. He has also written for Salon, the Village Voice, and GQ.com. He lives in New York and is on Twitter.
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