This review contains spoilers
5.1 Golden Days for Boys and Girls
The last season of Boardwalk Empire, the one we now know to be its penultimate, was probably its strongest. A superb show from the outset, the season nevertheless saw a firm confidence in its characters and its storytelling that allowed it to handle multiple themes and chart several destinies with subtle skill. While a joy to observe, it meant that the disappointment in finding out that the fifth season would be the last was felt more severely than it perhaps would have been a couple of years ago. To a significant extent, Boardwalk Empire had only just got going.
With a firm hand at the tiller, it could easily have seen out the 1920s over three or four additional seasons. Following Prohibition from enactment to repeal might have required the occasional skip or fast forward but the pace of history and certain key events, among them Arnold Rothstein’s murder, Al Capone’s blood-soaked rise to dominance, Charlie Luciano’s deft navigation of the Italian-American underworld and the Crash of 1929, would have played out in suitably dramatic fashion. As it is, we find ourselves thrown forward into 1931 and back among a familiar cast of characters who are trying to deal with the aftermath of earlier, off-screen events while preparing to face an uncertain future.
As is customary in such situations, showrunner Terence Winter has been keen to stress that he and his team felt that they were coming to a natural end and that they didn’t want to run out of steam and resort to ‘Villain of the Year’ storylining. It was a game effort at seeing the best in the situation, but a tired, formulaic approach seems unlikely in this case –the show is far bigger than that. Although significant protagonists have been a feature of the show, think Gyp Rosetti in season 3 or Valentin Narcisse last year, they’ve always been made to fit in with the programme’s wider concerns and, while the drama is often led by the characters’ decisions and the joy and despair of life is theirs to deal with, the show is less about them than it is about inviting us into a world and giving us a tour through its politics, economics, society and criminality. It is, and always has been, more The Wire than The Sopranos.
This season signals something of a break with that, for reasons both superficial and deep. On a surface level, we are getting very close to Sopranos territory and not just because of the variety of gangster film references that lie abundant (The Godfather Part II and The Untouchables are clear markers, but this episode’s tale of young Nucky’s winning the favour of the Commodore had a shade of Goodfellas to it).
Getting a little closer, we find Nucky as loud an echo of Tony Soprano as he’s ever been. His mile-wide sentimental streak, present from the outset, is now being used, as it was for Tony, as the motor for a flashback device that has been designed to explain the central character’s motivations and provide a contrast between different generations, with the Commodore and Ethan Thompson sharing the Johnny-Boy Soprano role. This narrative shorthand means that Boardwalk Empire is more heavily Nucky-focused than at any time in the past few seasons and suggests that the fate of the lead character is inextricably bound up with that of the show.
Nevertheless, the flashbacks are done well. From the rather beautiful visual metaphor that opens the episode, through the seductive appeal of the Commodore’s wealth and power to the drive to escape a suffocating family background, Nucky’s early years correspond with the adult version we all know and offer enough dramatic tension to make his path fascinating even while his destination is clear. It’s no spoiler to know that he will win over the Commodore or that he will find a partial escape from his father’s occasional tyranny, but it does shade in more details about the man we know.
That man is familiar in Cuba. Smooth but insistent, at turns oleaginous and prickly and one step ahead of whichever politician or official he needs on his side at the time, he’s still a man with an eye on the future, even if he has to manufacture it himself. He prides himself on his ability to look ahead and place himself in the position of best advantage when the winds of history change. In 1920 he was ready and waiting for Prohibition with his underground distribution networks poised. Now in a position to shoulder Volstead off the statute, he’s ready to switch tracks and have his fully legitimate business arrangements in place the minute it becomes possible to once again deliver liquor in daylight.
And yet, beyond the skilful politicking, we see his life’s dilemma writ large. For all his cynical clairvoyance he cannot help but look backwards. Like a New Jerseyan Marcel Proust, the merest hint of a memory sends him tumbling back in search of lost time. It’s a defining character trait that steers him in both public and private; from his first episode speech to the Women’s Temperance League (itself an example of his ability to ally himself to whichever group has the winning hand) to the story of his father and the stolen baseball glove, it’s all him. Sure, he salts his tales with fiction, but the impulse is the same. Nucky’s psyche is heavily biographical, at times of stress, his own past is the first place he goes.
As well he might. While his lessons at the Commodore’s knee will doubtless form the greater part of the flashbacks, it’s instructive to note just how much of Nucky is present from the outset. The family background that motivates him to out-do his father, to valorise certain women, to see the bigger chance in a slice of good fortune and to deploy cynical pseudo-honesty in pressing his claim, all of this is here. He needs to learn the ropes but the character traits are all present and his eyeline falls beyond an easy fifty dollars and onto the means by which he can ‘get himself ahead’. Looking forward, even as he gazes backwards.
It’s a luxury that isn’t afforded to all. Chalky remains condemned to live firmly in the present, which for him is as diabolical as it ever has been. His presence on the chain gang and his obvious (and understandable) weariness at it all conveys the passage of time in the most appropriate way, which is to say almost wordlessly. As ever with Chalky, less is more and his state of mind is demonstrated by expression and the deliberate limitations of his movements. His insolent pause on the convict wagon and the slow shuffle down the gangplank prompted as much by petulance as by the weight of his chains. His defining moment, even more than his fortune-forged escape, was the snapping of his shoelace, proving that even in hell there are days and then there are bad days. For Chalky the latter always outnumber the former and the present is always too much of a concern to indulge in wistful nostalgia.
The passing of time in the main narrative was also done without words wherever possible. There were a handful of references to the events of the later 1920s, such as Lansky’s offhand remark about ‘AR’s funeral’, Mr Bennett’s pre-mortem speech about the lessons from a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and in the portrayal of political and popular unrest in Cuba which was suffering rather heavily from the fallout of America’s economic woes, but much of the heavy expositional lifting was done through the intelligent production design that we have come to expect from the show. It was as clear and yet subtle as ever. Time’s passage was shown through such details as Margaret’s slightly changed hairstyle and rather more drab outfit, Sally’s marvellous circular-lensed sunglasses and the slight droop in Luciano’s right eye, the result of a 1929 beating and as much signal of his intensified involvement in the violence of gang life as his careful absence from Masseria’s murder.
Luicano’s elevation and Meyer Lansky’s careful (though not careful enough) gaming of Nucky in Cuba suggest that the wider theme of this season, other than the tying up of Nucky’s story, will be the handing over of power to the next generation. This has been hinted at before but must now be fast-tracked to keep pace with the relentless march of events. The bloody removal of Masseria that granted Luciano his place as the second in command to ‘boss of bosses’ Salvatore Maranzano signals the intent here. Neither he, nor Lansky nor Capone will ever be satisfied with what they have already got. They’re striding into their own future, heedless of whatever obstacles lie in their way, even if that means shedding inconvenient loyalties. The advantage that they have is in disregarding the past and focusing purely on the future. It’s not a bad way to look at life, as Sally tells the plaintive Nucky, ‘where’s the sense in looking back? It doesn’t do any good.’
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Farewell Daddy Blues here
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