We’re here now in the home stretch of episodes for Boardwalk Empire, a final season truncated to eight episodes instead of the usual twelve. After catching up, I’ve rarely seen a “prestige” television show that could pull off many brilliant moments and turns and then coast on its talented actors and impeccable production design to distract from the persistent wheel-spinning in between. It follows the Star Trek movie rule where the even numbered entries are the best ones, so for every compelling Nucky/Jimmy conflict in season two or Chalky/Valentin in season four, there’s the many aimless subplots that litter one and three. Does the season five premiere, entitled “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” continue the trend?
The first major, inescapable point that needs to be discussed is the time jump from the mid-20s to 1931. Series creator Terrence Winter has previously stated the he feels the show should end at the time when Prohibition does as well. It sounds like a reasonable place to hit for the endpoint of this story, but given that the show was several years away from that it means that a lot has changed since then or things have been dropped unceremoniously. Losing Arnold Rothstein (his real life death being in 1928) is huge for the show, given that Michael Stuhlbarg has been one of the show’s most consistently engaging performers since the very beginning and season four looked like it was opening up the next chapter for him.
One of the more interesting shifts occurs in Chalky’s arc. We find him in a prison chain gang following the death of his daughter seven years prior, and the episode pays plenty attention to showing him at his lowest. With only spare dialogue, Michael K. Williams finds new and sad depths within a character previously built upon his cool gravelly demeanor. The other side story catches up with Lucky Luciano, who decides that he’s done working for Joe Masseria and hires assassins to take out his boss. Now that he’s working for rival Don Salvatore, Lucky’s on the rise to becoming the famous mobster figurehead that his historical counterpart was.
The multiple contrasting rise/fall stories look like it’s setting them up as the major theme of this final season. None of this is more apparent than in Nucky’s storyline, which hasn’t changed as much as the others have but could lead to a major turn in the near future. As Nucky is resting up in Havana, Cuba and still in a relationship with Sally Wheet, the show switches back and forth between this and Nucky’s childhood. While initially this seemed like a hollow attempt to mirror Don Draper’s tortured childhood flashbacks on Mad Men (a show that Boardwalk has cribbed other characteristics from without integrating them quite as compellingly), these glimpses of young Nucky in 1884 instead recall the past/present timeline juxtaposition found in The Godfather Part II.
How much the viewer gains from this episode depends greatly on their tolerance of Nucky, given that he takes up the bulk of the screen time and, let’s face it, most of the supporting characters have been much more engrossing than him despite Steve Buscemi’s efforts. Every minute spent in Cuba drags the pacing to a crawl, even by this show’s pacing standards. This plodding section is broken up by an attempt on Nucky’s life, which may or may not be related to Meyer Lansky’s unexpected presence, and comes complete with gratuitous ear slicing (subtle Reservoir Dogs reference for Buscemi fans?).
The attempts at shock value extend to an aside with Margaret, where her boss publicly shoots himself for no reason other than to remind the audience that the Great Depression takes its toll on people. Capone, Van Alden, Eli, and Narcisse are left unseen until next week (hopefully) catches up with them, and if the show wants to go out on a high note I hope it remembers why the last season came together so well. The show realized that Nucky works better as a side player to the actual side players and that it didn’t need to rely on unexpected violence to keep viewers interested, so the quality of this season will likely depend on how much time it’s willing to give to its supporting cast even as it’s tying up the lead’s storyline.
Episode Rating: 6/10