This review contains spoilers
‘The first time I got a nickel I thought, the world is a marvellous place, but then I thought – a dime, a dime would be better.’
Nucky Thompson’s abiding motivation was a simple one, a theme of ambition that could be expressed in an anecdote so pat that it might have come from a parable. Everything else he’s striven for, love, power, his personal security, fleeing his father, all of these were merely nodes in a network that had money at its centre. In our final hour with him, and his final days on earth, the inadequacy of that ambition was laid bare. He was still, even at the lowest ebb we’d seen him, capable of making a huge amount of money (even if most of the work was left to Margaret) but it couldn’t solve anything for him and his series of goodbyes proved it.
The shorting of the Mayflower Grain Corporation worked very well indeed, but was rather more successful for Margaret (and deservedly so), who may not have made as much in cold cash as her estranged husband, but who nevertheless managed to leave the series with a heightened confidence in her own abilities and with the promise of a lucrative relationship with Joe Kennedy. This, it turned out, was the greater prize. The steeliness that she has shown since her first appearance paid off for her and justified the combination of intelligence, foresight and sheer nerve that enabled her to see the project through to its tense conclusion. She ends the run with something that she alone of all the fictional characters can enjoy; a future. Indeed, were it not for the historical necessity of having Luciano, Lansky and Siegel consolidate their power into a new, more stable form, she may have been the sole lead to exit the finale with something to look forward to.
Money, and her lack of desire to attain it for its own sake, is what saved her. Nucky, however, made it all the way to Eldorado only to find an empty room that he didn’t really want and which had another set of potential customers waiting for it anyway. The conclusion confirmed Nucky’s arc to be that of tragedy and in this quiet scene we saw that his fall was not only complete but, finally, that he could see it as well as the rest of us. Having refused Johnny Torrio’s counsel that he should retire and get out while the going was good, he had no other option but to stick around until he had lost everything but the money. ‘There are things’ he told Margaret, ‘that I won’t do any more’. Even if he couldn’t bring himself to say the words, he knew that the game was up and that all he had left to do was wander through his former life like a ghost, taking a final tour of his failures.
He’s spent much of the season doing this in one way or another. The flashbacks have brought us a more intimate relationship with him and have revealed the core connections that turned him from eager young man to embittered grandee. Those that remain -with his brother, with Gillian, with Tommy- have all failed and, despite his efforts, cannot be repaired no matter how much he’s prepared to spend.
That was his central error of understanding. He cannot see that his motivating ideal is not shared by everyone else. It’s notable how in his final scenes with Eli and Gillian, he expressed the view that he would not see them again, even though he was ignorant of his impending death. This created a sense of finality that should have signalled his end to the viewer, had it not been so firmly established since the first episode of this season.
He left his brother some cash to get himself sorted out but it was an insufficient emollient, ‘She won’t even open the door’ said Eli of his wife and no amount of Nucky’s dirty money can fix that. Nucky approaches the moment like a negotiation, saying ‘you and I, we won’t see each other again. I think that’s best. Don’t you?’ The tag question is an old tactic to make Eli complicit in his own abandonment. Nucky, ever selfish, cannot see that. All he can do is offer money, a cold embrace and exit.
A far warmer, and in many ways sadder, embrace was enjoyed by Al Capone and his son in a scene that very smartly ran against the grain of the character as he has been presented this season. It made good business sense for Capone to be a larger than life figure, the grinning, wisecracking king of his own court. He’d found a way to make his native brashness work for him and turn him from low-level hoodlum (and Johnny Torrio’s driver) to a national figure of epic notoriety. However, there has always been a more emotionally raw human being underneath the bluster, particularly in the way that Stephen Graham has played him and this was particularly evident this week as he moved from making unreasonable and loud demands to fix his problem, yelling at his lawyer to ‘make some calls, grease some palms and deal with it ferchrissakes’, before tenderly telling his son, through the medium of sign language, that everything he did, he did for him. That might be a bit of a stretch, but there was more than a grain of truth in it and it marked a contrast with the goodbyes that Nucky could offer his loved ones. Whatever Al Capone was, he could still make his exit with love.
While the same could not truly be said of Valentin Narcisse, his hypocritical quoting of scripture carried with it its own grain of truth even if the speaker did not realise it. His words, taken from Ecclesiastes 1:4, ‘one generation passeth away, another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever’, carried a depth of secular meaning of which even he, with his vaunted education, was ignorant. A new generation has arrived and, with Luciano’s unsmiling celebration, have succeeded where the previous one failed. Recalling the meeting he had with Rothstein, Torrio, Colissimo and Nucky back in the very first episode, Luciano remarked that he felt he was ‘with the big boys’. That was true, but he ended the run as one of the big boys himself and, smart enough to professionalise his endeavours, a rather bigger boy than the one who permitted him to sit at their table in 1920.
Such generational handovers aren’t always so successful for the rising cohort as the combination of memory and circumstances showed. We now see how Nucky has destroyed three generations of Darmodys in the pursuit of his ambitions. He made a game attempt at reconciling his decisions, focusing on the violent abuses of his father but ultimately, in escaping that monster he made a monster of himself. The moment on the boardwalk, his pride skilfully manipulated by the Commodore and Leander Whitlock, proved to be the point at which he crossed the line. Everything that happened since that moment, everything he remembered, everything we’ve heard, everything we’ve seen him do, all diminished in the sickly light of that single instant of corruption at which he destroyed not just one life, but three.
Four, of course, if we count his own. As well we might, as this Nucky-heavy final season has shown, for all Boardwalk Empire’s excellent touring of the 1920s and 30s, it’s skilful blending of fact and fiction and for the superb combination of writing, design and performance that secured its place in the top tier of recent TV, the story was really about the rise and fall of that man on the beach who, in seeking to escape his past, locked himself in it and found that in the end, money is no substitute for morality, no matter how much of it you make.
Thanks for reading.
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