Warning: contains spoilers for Boardwalk Empire up to season 4.
We ended last season of Boardwalk Empire with a mixture of continuation and change. The things that remained intact, among them Nucky’s slippery survival instincts, Chalky White’s igneous anger, Gillian’s appalling luck, were matched by the sense that things were changing, embodied by Richard Harrow’s lonely passing and Al Capone’s escalation to a position that we all know he’ll manage to commute to legendary infamy. That blend left the series with wide possibilities for the follow-up, or at least as wide as they can be when they need to cleave to historical events.
As we all know by now, this forthcoming fifth season will be Boardwalk Empire’s last. Truncated to a running time two thirds of its standard twelve episodes, the final eight will continue with the blending of continuation and change, while pressing on to what we hope will be a satisfying conclusion. Speaking to Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall, showrunner Terence Winter confirmed that the decision to limit the final season’s length was a mutual one between the show’s producers and HBO and that he believes eight hours ‘is the right amount of time to tell the story’.
Time is an interesting concept for Winter to raise, given that season 5 will not be as straightforwardly linear as earlier ones. Each preceding season has progressed through the 1920s at roughly the pace of one season to every year, taking us up to 1924 by the time we saw the end of the fourth. The main threads will now skip ahead to 1931, while there will be significant flashbacks to to 1884 and 1897, when a young Enoch Thompson comes under the spell of Commodore Louis Kaestner and takes the first steps towards his criminal career.
If this device recalls The Godfather Part II (an inevitable comparison) then the main narrative looks likely to draw links to that another Oscar-winning gangster flick, The Untouchables. The time jump takes us out of the Roaring Twenties and right into the Hungry Thirties and a world that may appear at first glance to be similar to the one that Winter and his team have spent the past few years recreating but is actually rather different. The attachment to the historical domain means that certain changes are largely unavoidable, the liberating effect of artistic licence notwithstanding. A few key ones follow, look away now if you’d like the next eight weeks to come as a surprise.
The defining event of Boardwalk Empire up to this point was the enactment of Prohibition, the enforcement of which began in the very first episode. The key driver of this season has happened off screen a couple of years before we rejoin Nucky and co. but will colour everything we see from here on in. Economic historians are divided on the precise causes, and even the precise timing, of the Great Depression of the 1930s, but what is certain is that by 1931 it was pretty clear to everyone in America that the party was over. In a move that now looks like historical irony, that was also the year that the end of Prohibition became almost inevitable.
Approaching the point at which Uncle Sam pulls out the cork would provide a neat finish to a show that started just as he called time at the bar. Another satisfying development would take a certain Italian-American from anonymous driver and dogsbody to a status that will see him recognised as the twentieth century’s definitive gangster. Al Capone seemed to be doing all right for himself when we left him in 1924 but his absence from the screen saw him continue the rise to infamy that, had Boardwalk Empire begun its run in 1931, would have earned him top billing. Having spent the later 1920s consolidating his power and prosecuting his war with the North Side gang (against which he probably orchestrated 1929’s Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre), Capone achieved national fame and was named Public Enemy Number One in 1930. Such prominence cannot go unrewarded and as we rejoin his story we find him on the radar of a particularly zealous investigator in the shape of Eliot Ness, played by The Wire’s Mr Prezbo, Jim True-Frost.
Capone is not the only star of Boardwalk Empire who had a place on gangsterism’s fast track scheme. Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky also spent the remainder of the 1920s causing so much carnage (and making so much money) that it was impossible for them not to come to the attention of the wider public. As we enter the 1930s we find ourselves dealing not just with gangsters, but with a curious type of celebrity.
Sadly for his many fans, elegant gangster Arnold Rothstein will not be joining us for the season, having been unfortunately (for him) murdered in 1928 after yet another gambling session went badly wrong. Still, his presence won’t go entirely unfelt, no man can put his fingers in so many pies without leaving an awkward legacy. The impact of this will be felt mostly by Margaret, who established a connection to the dapper gambler in the fourth season and who finds that this link has consequences even after his death.
Being wholly fictional, Margaret offers her writers more flexibility than they have with their historical characters. The same is true of Chalky White, whose 1920s could have taken a variety of routes, all of them doubtless difficult. A degree of liberty is also available for quasi-fictional characters such as Nucky Thompson (originally Johnson). This will likely be a useful wheeze. The dual flashback device may make this season more biographical than previous ones and mean that Nucky’s character and personality will have a greater impact on the outcome. Boardwalk Empire has steadily spread out from this initial conceit and, by the fourth season, had reached a point at which it was possible to envisage an episode that didn’t feature Nucky at all. Making his personal story central to the final season is a signal of Winter’s intent and even suggests that his writers may take the opportunity to seek a major divergence from the historical Enoch Johnson story. As Winter says ‘Nucky is not Nucky Johnson’. It would be advisable to read that statement carefully, but not too carefully. Really, we could be anywhere in eight weeks’ time.
Season 5 of Boardwalk Empire starts on the 7th of September on HBO and on the 13th of September on Sky Atlantic. Read more about Boardwalk Empire on Den of Geek here.
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