In spite of the numerous colorful characters that have popped up on Boardwalk Empire and evolved over the years (and then died brutal deaths, usually), this Prohibition gangster story has always been about Nucky Thompson. Even when the show digressed into subplots and pushed the Atlantic City bootlegger aside to make room for others, he has always hung around the sidelines shifting them to fit his needs or the needs of others on his side. Now, five years after Boardwalk Empire premiered on HBO and ten years after the show’s timeline began, Nucky Thompson’s story draws to a close in the series finale “Eldorado.”
But “Eldorado” is the end of the line for others, too, especially for Al Capone and his little tax troubles. Until the final minutes, this finale is a mostly quiet farewell for these characters, taking its time to wind things down. This is especially true for Al, who gets to have a scene alone with his deaf son to say his goodbyes. The interaction is not entirely successful at the resonance that it strives for, given that the son has been almost entirely absent from the show for a long time, so this “payoff” doesn’t feel truly earned. However, Stephen Graham’s performance dials back the grandstanding to such a degree that it reveals Al’s rare tender side, adding one last sliver of dimension to the legendary figure before his court time.
Even Margaret Thompson, no one’s favorite character, gets to go out on her own terms as she makes some more money for her husband and a concerned Joe Kennedy, who unsuccessfully asks her on a date. For a character whose primary function has mostly been to play the doting wife, Margaret’s shown a remarkable amount of agency for herself in what little time she has had in this truncated season. She’s certainly achieved more than poor Gillian has, though we’ll get to her in a moment.
With their grudge against Nucky mostly settled, the Lansky/Luciano double team set their sights on tying up other loose ends. After dispatching two assassins to take out Valentin Narcisse in a public showing (RIP), the head honchos contemplate about their futures, which have them laying the groundwork for the organized crime tree that would spring up in the coming years. Meanwhile, Eli doesn’t have nearly as much to show for. Disowned from his family and living in a crappy tenement, it will be a long time before the younger Thompson brother can pick himself back up, although the bag of cash and a shaving razor (a subtle little bit of humor for the increasingly disheveled Eli) left by Nucky will surely help things out.
As I said earlier though, “Eldorado” is Nucky’s time, both Nuckys in fact. Following last week’s advancements, the young Nucky storyline finally caught a second wind and justified its existence even with the spinning it took to get to this point. Talking about them separately wouldn’t do them justice, since the fates of Marc Pickering and Steve Buscemi’s incarnations of this character are intertwined thematically and literally. Contrary to what I thought in last week’s penultimate episode, Gillian’s letter to Nucky does not lead him on a path of redemption for the life-shattering choice he made by giving her over to the Commodore.
They have a reunion, but it’s clear that Gillian is pretty much beyond salvation, drained of most consciousness by the terrible asylum conditions she lives in. Instead, the choice that led him down the dark path is also, in a far-reaching sense, the choice that ultimately kills him. Young Nucky’s strive to climb the social status ladder and old Nucky’s attempts to fix all his problems with money have been his major weaknesses, as boy Joe points out on the titular boardwalk. Joe, as some fans predicted, is actually Tommy Darmody coming to avenge the fates of his father and grandmother.
In a marvelously inspired piece of editing that ranks among the most memorable sequences this series has pulled off, the episode cuts between young Nucky extending his “helpful” hand to Gillian and Tommy executing vengeance on the man who sent Gillian on her tortured path. Nucky Thompson’s end recalls Walter White’s in the meth lab, with him slumped on the boardwalk he used to rule over with a bullet in his face due to his past transgressions. Boardwalk Empire may never have been the most even show around when it came to moving its pieces along, but when it saw an endpoint in sight it dived forward with gusto to nail those payoffs, and the series finale “Eldorado” was no different.
EPISODE RATING: 9/10