SPOILER ALERT! The following piece has spoilers pertaining to the series finale of Boardwalk Empire.
Unlike HBO’s Sopranos finale when 12.3 million fans thought their TV sets went out, there probably weren’t any fists banging on TV sets at the end of Boardwalk Empire’s series finale, “Eldorado,” tonight.
In an ending that left no dangling strings, “Eldorado,” written by Boardwalk creator Terence Winter and scribe Howard Korder and directed by exec producer Tim Van Patten, closed the book on the life of Atlantic City kingpin-bootlegger Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi): Shot three times on the boardwalk by Tommy Darmody (Travis Tope), the teenage son of Jimmy Darmody, Nucky’s former protégé. In the season 2 finale, “To The Lost,” Nucky shot Jimmy after being double crossed, a moment which jarred fans. In a scene prior to Jimmy’s death, his mother, whore madame Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Moll) tells toddler Tommy, “You’re going to be a big man in this city one day.” She wasn’t kidding: Tommy lived to avenge his father’s life. Winter jumped from 1924 in season 4 to 1931 in season 5, given how it was a pivotal year at the dawn of the Depression: Al Capone (Stephen Graham) goes to jail, and Charlie Luciano (Vincent Piazza) forms the mob commission. What better time than ever to watch Nucky’s demise.
“This ending was so much more personal and more satisfying, Nucky is the cause of his own undoing, it’s an act of betrayal come full circle,” exclaims Winter.
As viewers, we didn’t see Tommy with a gun all season. Tommy casually wiggled his way into Nucky’s circle under the alias of Joe Harper, a do-good, lost, innocent kid. Nucky, ever the mentor, threw $1,000 at the young “Joe” in the pen-ultimate episode last Sunday, telling the kid to avoid the gangster life completely.
For Winter, the series finale shocker was poetic justice, with no other ending as an alternative. “Howard, Tim and I came to this conclusion at the end of season 4,” said Winter. The actual inspiration for Nucky Thompson, Atlantic City political boss-racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, didn’t die in 1931, rather lived until he was 85, dying in the Atlantic County Convalescent Home in Northfield, New Jersey. In the wake of the roaring 20s, the real Nucky served a four-year prison term during the early 1940s for tax evasion, then worked in sales for Richfield Oil Company and Renault Winery.
“There’s the true to life version of Nucky’s end where he went off into the sunset and into obscurity, but our Nucky isn’t Nucky Johnson, and this ending felt like the more dramatic choice, the better choice in wrapping up his life,” said Winter.
Watching the series finale “Eldorado” is akin to observing an elephant on his death march. The episode begins with Nucky taking a swim in the ocean, his first in 45 years. It’s a foreshadow for his death, particularly when Nucky later tells his brother Eli (Shea Whigham), “I went past the surf line, further than I ever did as a kid…Keep going until you can’t go back; I swear there isn’t any choice. You can’t know until you pass it, then it’s too late.” Nucky meets Margaret and Eli, making that they’re both squared away financially. Nucky cryptically tells his brother, “You and I won’t see each other again.” Nucky makes good with Gillian Darmody at the insane asylum; a woman he was much closer to, then we ever thought: As a young police officer, Nucky tried to save her from being a vagrant on the boardwalk. But for the advancement of his career, Nucky trades her into the Commodore where she becomes his concubine. Nucky returns to the club to collect his belongings and isn’t gunned down by Luciano’s guys.
All of which begs the question: If Nucky wasn’t shot, then where was he headed?
Says Winter, “Nucky was probably going to rent that apartment at the El Dorado in Manhattan and live the life of a retired businessman. Maybe those plans would last two weeks before he got himself in trouble again. But he wasn’t going to have a life with Margaret. From the look on their faces, both knew it was the final goodbye.”
While Winter was beholden to Nucky’s death as the absolute ending, there were several options in which he could have met his end. In the first two seasons, there was an Eliot Ness-Al Capone-like feud set up between Federal Prohibition Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Nucky. Van Alden went on the lam after season 2, ultimately becoming Capone’s lackey along with Nucky’s brother Eli. Fans wondered whether the square-jawed guy was making his way back to Nucky. During their limited scenes in the series finale, we think for a moment that Charlie Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel are plotting to gun Nucky, but alas they take down Harlem kingpin Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright).
“Yes, these (options) are all on the table. ‘What happens when you go down this road and what are the permeations of the story when it is played out. There’s an easy version where Van Alden went off in the sunset, but ultimately we dismissed him,” said Winter. However, one of the takeways from working with Sopranos creator David Chase, that lingered with Winter, was the storytelling rule of thumb to “dismiss the first five things that occur to you” in the writers’ room in order to keep the story fresh.
When it came to upsetting fans with the murders of the their favorites Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and sniper-man Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) at the end of season 4, Winter has no regrets. “There’s not a thing I would do differently creatively. How many times can I have Richard Harrow retire and come out of mothballs again (to shoot)?” says the Boardwalk Empire creator.
During the course of the series, Van Patten has called Boardwalk Empire executive producer Martin Scorsese’s notes as “precision bombing. He identified problems right away,” in the script. But in the case of the series finale, “he had little input in the sense of notes,” says Winter, “He loved the entire season, and was a cheerleader.” After their work on Boardwalk Empire and the Oscar-nominated feature The Wolf of Wall Street, Winter (who wrote the latter) and Scorsese are teaming up again on HBO’s untitled Rock n’ Roll drama, which they’re exec producing with Mick Jagger. The pilot was shot this summer and “Marty is editing as we speak,” says Winter. The show hasn’t been given a title or a series order yet, but Winter says “I’m meeting with writers in a couple of weeks to see what season 1 might be.” Whether Korder and Van Patten will join him on the series, Winter says, “I don’t know what the future is with them, they’re both resting right now.” The untitled series, set against the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll of 1970s New York, follows record label president Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) who is looking for the next sound. Unlike Nucky Thompson, “Finestra isn’t based on anyone in particular, the story is an amalgam time period,” explains Winter.
Boardwalk easily begs comparison to HBO’s Sopranos: Boardwalk was the big, period epic gangster show intended to carry the mobster genre torch from the Chase series, and it was being steered by Winter and Van Patten, both part of Chase’s creative posse. The last we saw of the Sopranos was wolfing down onion rings in a New Jersey diner, surrounded by a number of suspicious types who they potentially wronged, and listening to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the jukebox. When the screen suddenly cuts to black, Americans didn’t know if the family lived or died. Tack it up to Chase’s means to defying storytelling convention. What merited Tony Sorpano to earn an avant garde ending, while Nucky Thompson’s received a Shakespearan one, Winter, explains, “We didn’t set out to avoid being ambiguous, we just made a different creative choice and didn’t have Sopranos on our mind.”
“David (Chase) didn’t often engage in wish fulfillment for the audience. If it didn’t work for him for the storyline, he didn’t feel obligated to pay things off. I don’t necessarily feel obligated, but I enjoy setup and payoff,” Winter told Deadline about the difference between his style and Chase’s.
If anything Boardwalk Empire defied the guns, blood and cannoli tropes of the gangster genre: Humanizing hoods, read Al Capone’s tender goodbye to his deaf son in “Eldorado” and serving up stylized meditations on life, i.e. Nucky telling Joe Harper what death feels like in the penultimate series episode “Friendless Child” after watching his cronies get gunned down by Luciano and Lansky.
“The luxury of doing a long-running series is adding the smaller moments and the time we spend digging into these characters,” says Winter, “prior to Boardwalk Empire, most audiences knew Al Capone as this big blustery guy with a baseball bat from the movie The Untouchables.”
But what truly stoked Winter in tackling Boardwalk Empire, which was based on Nelson Johnson’s book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City, was the fact that America hasn’t changed dramatically since the 1920s. “We’re still debating birth control, there are guys still coming home from war, and the drug business today in many ways is what it was like during the days of Prohibition.”
Says Winter, “If you hold Boardwalk Empire up to today, we’re still debating a lot of these issues.”