“You thought you were going to get something for being honest?”
Toward the end of BOARDWALK EMPIRE’s final season premiere on Sunday, real-life gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) spills old blood in order to form a new alliance. In typical Terence Winter fashion, Joe Masseria is not the only corpse left at the end of the episode. Lucky, like all of the characters featured in this episode, is closing one chapter of his life and beginning a new one. After four seasons of boom, Nucky, Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams), Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) et al. are feeling the bust. Winter’s decision to jump forward 7 years in the show’s timeline to 1931 offers a very different perspective on Nucky Thompson’s world, which is rapidly approaching the end of an era. With only 7 episodes left in the series run after the premiere, Winter begins the season by initiating his characters into the next phases of their lives.
Nucky has expanded his Florida interests from last season into Cuba, with Sally (Patricia Arquette) as his partner. Despite political unease among the locals, Sally’s club seems to be thriving. Using Sally’s club as a base of operations, Nucky provides an influential Senator with a nubile Cuban companion in exchange for his willingness to speak frankly about the possible repeal of the Volstead Act back in the states. While the Senator tries to temper Nucky’s expectations, Nucky takes this information straight to the head of Cuba-based Bacardi Rum, with whom he intends to begin another partnership. Nucky (over?)promises his ability to set up a lucrative and legal Bacardi import into America, given his existing pipelines running up the coast.
Back on the mainland, the other two characters that share the majority of this episode’s screen time are in transition as well. Chalky White, last seen fleeing Nucky’s club after his daughter’s accidental murder at the hands of Richard Harrow (fan-favorite and now-deceased), is imprisoned in a chain gang for an unknown crime. The quiet rage that Michael Kenneth Williams plays so well bubbles under the surface, while almost cartoonishly evil supervisors hurry him along. Fortunately, Chalky is not confined to his chains for long, and a fellow prisoner finally snaps and incites a riot. Chalky seizes this opportunity to run, and his unnamed compatriot chases him down and demands his help in working with a telephone line.
Back in New York, Margaret is still working for the questionable stockbrokers that she allied with last season, despite Arnold Rothstein’s absence. The real Rothstein was killed over a gambling debt in 1928, and thus Michael Stuhlbarg unfortunately won’t be appearing this season. In the episode’s best scene, Margaret’s boss Mr. Bennett dramatically extolls the values of the latest wholesome Mickey Mouse cartoon before putting a bullet in his own temple in front of the whole office. The Depression has announced itself in no uncertain terms, and it is obvious the rest of the season will heavily feature this new, harsh economic reality.
There are several major characters that are left out of “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” although it is clear from this season’s promos that we will still be seeing Gillian, Eli, Capone, and whatever name former Agent Van Alden is calling himself these days. However, the first episode certainly benefits from an increased focus on a limited amount of locations. I must admit, when I first heard that we would be getting flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood in the final season, I was a bit apprehensive. Last season ended on such a strong note, tying together the worlds of Chalky, Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), Richard Harrow and Nucky himself in an organic and explosive manner. While I’m not necessarily in agreement with the many critics that say that Nucky is the least interesting part of the show, BOARDWALK is at its best when the spotlight is shared more equally. It is telling that last season, far and away the show’s best, heavily featured Chalky as almost a co-lead. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at the integration of the flashbacks in the first episode.
The plot of the flashbacks comes as no surprise: we get a glimpse of Nucky’s abusive home life, sick sister, and the beginning of his relationship with The Commodore, all of which the show has touched on before. Because of the more narrow focus of this episode, the flashbacks are thematically integrated with the other plotlines in a more effective way. Again and again in the flashbacks we see a timid young Nucky learning not to let others take advantage of him. The other boys beg and pilfer for pennies, but Nucky is more shrewd than the others. He recognizes that, while he may not be the most physically capable, he is inherently the better businessman. The Commodore recongnizes a kindred spirit in Nucky after his stunt returning the Sheriff’s cash. In the “present” 1931, we also see characters rising up and not taking shit from anyone else, so to speak. Chalky escapes, Lucky gets made, and there is no doubt that Nucky will retaliate against the person who ordered the hit on him (it’s pretty obvious it was Meyer Lansky, right?) The bodyguard even takes an ear from the would-be assassin to make a point. According to history, Lansky went on to become on of the most successful and prolific gangsters featured on the show, but because Nucky Thompson isn’t quite the historical Nucky Johnson, the show has some wiggle room there in terms of their relationship going forward.
While I did miss the electric presence of Stephen Graham’s Al Capone and Michael Shannon’s unhinged Nelson Van Alden (among others) in this episode, the more narrow focus of the premiere bodes well for the rest of the abbreviated final season. It is always difficult to judge BOARDWALK until the shape of the season becomes more apparent down the line, but there is one especially exciting element that I’m hoping shows up sooner rather than later. Jim True-Frost (HBO Actor Alert: THE WIRE’s Pryzbylewski!) is joining the cast as Eliot Ness, promising a reckoning for some, even if he maybe actually wasn’t Capone’s greatest foe. The 8-episode structure of this season is even more promising in this regard, since the abbreviated order possibly means that Ness will not adopt the more familiar “big bad” role, instead positioning Nucky to face opposition on both sides of the law.