“He’s offered to help us both. Would you like to meet him? I promise I’ll always look after you.”
“Eldorado” opens, sans credits, with a shot of Nucky’s shoes and clothes lying abandoned in the sand. Echoing the opening credits, the tide finally swallows Nucky up, as it has threatened to in the beginning of every episode. We see him swim against the current, interacting with the ocean itself for perhaps the first time in the series.
On the heels of Sherriff Lindsay stepping down last week, young Nucky approaches the Commodore at his hotel and asks to be promoted to Lindsay’s old position. The Commodore shuts Nucky down by philosophizing about legacies, and what powerful men leave behind. He scoffs when Nucky tells him that he is expecting his first child and (ironically, given his proclivities) says that children only get in the way. We see the seeds of Nucky’s operating principles taking root in his mind – leaving behind an empire is what’s most important. Not willing to take no for an answer, Nucky brings up the “chore” he did for the Commodore last week, but is interrupted by a schoolteacher and a horde of little girls, dressed up to perform a song for The Commodore. Cue audience skin crawling.
Back in 1931, Joe Kennedy is meeting with the Mayflower Grain board, who are convinced that Prohibition isn’t going anywhere. Joe has come around to Nucky’s thinking on this issue, and insists that they hold off on selling while he “sorts out” their stock issues. He heads immediately to Margaret’s firm and calls her out on their scheme. Margaret plays coy, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Joe rightly recognizes that she is the mastermind behind this plan, and she advises that he also unload his stock and sell it short, as she and Nucky are doing together.
Elsewhere, one Italian mobster’s star is falling, while others are rising. Lucky, Bugsy, and Lansky are putting together the list of mobsters from across the country they are inviting to join their coalition. Lucky sneers as he gets his nails buffed like a stereotypical boss – anyone who does not comply will be taken out. In Chicago, Capone’s lawyer breaks down the charges against him, and advises him to turn himself in. Capone plays it off like he is less upset about the jail time than he is about being taken down by an Irishman masquerading as an Italian (D’Angelo’s real name is Malone).
When young Nucky comes home from his confrontation with the Commodore, we can sense the dread as he slowly walks through his house. He finds a bloody dress on the floor, confirming what we knew was about to come. Mabel is sitting in the kitchen, catatonic, staring at the wall. She says there was a “mishap,” and that there’s no need for a doctor. “Not a baby,” she insists, “Just a mishap.” We are left to imagine what it must have been like for her to lose her first child, alone and without medical help or her husband. Nucky gets down on his knees and apologizes for not being there, but this is not the first or last time his professional life will keep him from attending to a personal tragedy. Before Nucky can break through Mabel’s distant stare, Eli knocks at the door and tells Nucky that their mother needs him.
At Margaret’s office, the trading floor has turned into something out of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, with brokers falling over one another and throwing punches as the Mayflower stock plummets. Joe and Margaret watch as the stock falls, and although Joe wants to jump the gun, Margaret tells him to wait for it to hit bottom. I understand almost nothing about the stock market, but the scene is still full of tension. Margaret experiences the most power she’s ever had in the life of the series. Her holding pattern pays off, and once the stock does bottom out, she instantly makes Joe, Nucky and herself a boatload of money. Joe tries to condescend to her, dropping a line about the inscrutable nature of women. Margaret shuts him down with one of her best lines in the series, “Think about the things you want in life and then picture yourself in a dress.”
We cut from one of the finale’s most triumphant moments to one of it’s saddest. Capone is shown at home with his wife for the first time in years. She is worried about Al’s upcoming sentence, and all the questions she’s getting from reporters. Again flippant about his predicament, he tells her not to worry and goes upstairs to say goodbye to his son. In season 3, Capone learned that his son was partially deaf, and the now early-teenage boy is reading in his room when Capone walks in. Stephen Graham plays their interaction with an incredible amount of humanity, and he drops the guise of yucking mobster as soon as he sits down on the bed. His son says he wants to help him and puts up his fists, echoing the scene seasons ago where Capone teaches him to box. It’s a huge testament to the show and Graham’s performance in particular that this ruthless criminal could also be depicted with such effective sadness and empathy. Not going to lie, it got real weepy in my living room during this scene.
In keeping with the theme of goodbyes, Margaret meets Nucky at the Eldorado on Central Park West, a building whose Art Deco architecture ushered in a new era of design, symbolizing a new world in which Nucky does not quite fit. She tells him how much money he made (over 2 million) and her considerably smaller haul as well. Here is one of the biggest differences between Nucky and Margaret on display. Margaret has always been prudent enough to not draw attention to her schemes, but Nucky can never have enough. He is always reaching for the gold coins thrown down from the boardwalk. “First time I was tipped a nickel, I thought the world is a marvelous place. But a dime would be better.” Margaret also finally acknowledges her complicity in their relationship. “All you did was offer,” she says. “I’m the one who took.”
It was at this moment that I knew Nucky was a goner. Everything was working out too well for him – he lost his empire, but still had cash, and gained the forgiveness of the only romantic partner in the series that was truly his equal. I’ve seen differing interpretations as to whether or not Nucky and Margaret would have gotten back together at this point. Their slow dance could certainly signify a new beginning in the lavish new building, or the quiet, amicable end of a partnership. Either way, from this moment going forward, Nucky and Margaret would have been true equal partners for the first time, having let go of everything they felt they owed one another, from sex to money and power. But Nucky and Margaret are interrupted by another, younger couple. This building belongs to a new world, and Nucky is about to leave this one behind.
Just down the street, Bugsy asks Luciano and Lansky, “What are we going to do about our…friend?” “Two shooters, in public,” Luciano answers, “So people know.” The cut suggests they are talking about Nucky, but more on that later.We see two suspicious-looking men following behind Nucky on the boardwalk, but a young woman in a futuristic costume approaches him and they fade into the background, for now. The scene takes on an otherworldly look straight out of David Lynch, and I half suspected the woman to tell Nucky that the owls are not what they seem. She leads him into the tent, and there he gets a glimpse of another aspect of the new era – television. The woman sings on the small, staticky screen, and Nucky is puzzled, confronted with another element of the new era.
Young Nucky arrives at his parents’ house with Eli, where he discovers that his father has hit his mother in a drunken rage, and apparently this isn’t the first time. Coming on the heels of Mabel’s miscarriage, Nucky has had enough. His father, apparently enraged that Nucky kept the pregnancy a secret from him, points a gun at Nucky’s head, but Nucky refuses to back down. He pulls the gun away and the two get into a nasty fistfight. Nucky leaves, threatening his father if ever does this again, but his father yells after him that his past will always be there to haunt him. A little on-the-nose for my taste, but an effective scene nonetheless.
Just as Nucky walked away from his father in the past, he shows up at Eli’s on the boardwalk to say goodbye to him in 1931 as well. At first Eli doesn’t open the door, but Nucky points out that it was Eli who called him there in the first place. Nucky tells Eli about his swim that morning, which we saw in the opening scene, and his desire to swim out into the ocean until it was too late to turn back. He tells Eli that this will be the last time they see one another. Eli asks what he’s supposed to do from here, but Nucky tells him that it’s time he figures that out for himself. As we saw both in the flashbacks and throughout the life of the series, Nucky has always resented Eli riding his coattails, so it’s understandable that Nucky still holds a grudge against Eli for plotting against him seasons ago, and for squandering everything that Nucky helped him build. The brothers hug one last time, and after Nucky leaves we see that he’s given Eli what looks like a considerable amount of his new cash. He also leaves him with a shaving cream brush and a razor, which Eli has sorely needed all season.
Capone gets one more scene, and it opens quietly in the back of the car before he turns himself in. Stephen Graham gets to play one more still moment, as Capone steels himself, almost putting on a character before stepping out into the limelight. When the door does open, he’s all cigar and smiles, once again joking around with the press and laughing off his predicament. He tips his hat to D’Angelo/Malone on his way into the courthouse, betraying none of the sad, broken man that will die of advanced syphilis after years in prison.
Luciano opens his meeting by telling everyone their “friend from Chicago” can’t make it. He lays out the territory covered by the new arrangement, from the Five Families in New York, Buffalo and Chicago. Everyone gets final approval of anyone getting made, and alliances with other ethnic groups (he gestures to Lansky at his side) are encouraged as long as they are good for business. They toast, and we cut to the true subject of their conversation earlier in the episode. In Harlem, Narcisse is leaving a church, with a crowd of supporters surrounding him. He quotes a particularly prophetic Bible verse about the passing of generations, just before a couple of wiseguys roll up and shoot him. Ever the proud man, he struggles to his feet, but they double back and shoot him in the head.
While one of the series’ most powerful villains is disposed of rather quickly, Nucky spends the rest of the episode reckoning with a villain of his own making. Throughout the series, Gillian Darmody has behaved as an outright antagonist, a tragic figure with a tenuous grasp on reality, and a savvy businesswoman all in one. We always knew that it was Nucky that put her on the path to destruction, but it is still heartbreaking to watch the beginning and end of her story play out in front of us, expertly intercut with one another.
Nucky finally goes to visit Gillian in the institution, and clearly arrives with the intention of not being bullied by her. He starts out speaking very aggressively, and refuses to have her released. In my opinion, this is Buscemi’s best scene in the finale, as he slowly breaks down in her presence. All the while, Gillian stays perfectly still, not speaking and watching the ladybug crawling on her hand. In reaction to her silence, Nucky betrays more and more emotion, telling Gillian about the trust fund he has set up for her if she is ever released, and telling her that he intends to start over elsewhere. The way he tells her “I won’t be coming back,” reads more like “I wish I could go back.” He asks her if she wants him on his knees (as he did reluctantly for Luciano, and for Mabel earlier this episode,) and begs her to tell him what she wants of him. He is completely disarmed by her refusal to answer. The nurse comes over to the two of them and asks Gillian if she enjoyed her visit. She says yes, and reveals in the way she stands up so slowly and painfully that she’s already suffered a hysterectomy from Dr. Cotton. While I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was so mesmerized by Nucky in that moment that I gasped at this reveal, I was as caught off-guard by her as he is.
After his visit with Gillian, Nucky goes to the club to collect his things. While he receives less than a warm welcome from Luciano’s guys, they let him in to his old room just as the phone rings. He answers, and it’s the manager from the Ritz telling him there’s a “situation that needs your attention.”
Young Nucky, in uniform and sporting a black eye from his father, is attending the King Neptune parade on the boardwalk. He spots Gillian dressed up on one of the floats and chases after her. He tries to level with her, telling her that he also has an unsavory past. She begs him to leave her alone, and he is summoned to meet with the Commodore and asks her to stay put while he does. The scene begins to intercut quickly between the past and present, as 1931 Nucky bails a drunk “Joe Harper” out of jail. Flashback Commodore asks for Nucky’s badge, stating that he doesn’t trust him. The Commodore clearly saw young Gillian with Nucky and needed a way to convince him to hand her over. Nucky is taken aback at this development, and again throws the Commodore’s pedophilia in his face.
As he so often has, Nucky starts to peel off a chunk of bills from his wallet to give to Joe. Joe takes the money, but swears that he’ll pay it off by working at the club. Nucky tells him that he doesn’t even own the club anymore, and tells him to go home. Joe says he doesn’t have one. Joe takes the money that Nucky places in his pocket and rips it to shreds, putting on his best Michael Pitt pout. Nucky starts to walk away, “O.K., kid. You showed me. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”
In the past, Nucky is also walking away from the Commodore, just before his lackey calls him back. In the most creep-tastic language possible, he tells Nucky that there is a “youth” that the Commodore wishes to bring into his service. Again, cue audience skin crawling. He tells Nucky that this is a task for the Sherriff, dangling the proverbial carrot in front of Nucky’s eyes when he’s at his most broken. Nucky looks up at the Commodore, and back at Gillian, looking angelic and virginal with her back to the ocean. In the present, Nucky stands under King Neptune sign on the boardwalk. Nucky approaches Young Gillian, and she asks him if they can go down to the beach. A crowd of Princeton boys in 1931 (a nod to Jimmy’s college days) is reciting a poem just as “Joe” walks up to Nucky. “When Mee-Ma talked about you,” he says, “I couldn’t tell if it was love or hate.” Good job, internet. You guessed it. “Who are you?” Nucky asks. “Tommy Darmody.”
Tommy pulls out a gun and shoots Nucky, who falls under the Neptune sign and reaches out to steady himself. Match cut to young Gillian reaching out her hand to Nucky. As Nucky fades, Tommy shoots him again in the cheek, the same place that Nucky shot Jimmy. The last thing Nucky sees is Tommy being dragged away by the two men that were following him earlier, who happen to be Feds attempting to take him down the same way they got Capone. Just as Jimmy Darmody, Richard Harrow and Chalky White did, Nucky imagines his ideal place as the dies. It mirrors the opening shot of the season, with all the boys scrambling to catch the coins thrown into the water. This time, however, Nucky catches one.
I’ve personally wrestled with whether or not it was an issue that many figured out Tommy’s real identity long before the show chose to reveal it. Ultimately I feel that, because the entire season did not hinge on keeping this a secret, the moment still works even though it was not a surprise. There are other elements of the finale that I predicted slighty incorrectly as well, but that ultimately did not derail the emotional weight of the episode. For example, due in part to an inaccurate date shown on Mabel’s tombstone earlier in the series, I assumed the Mabel committed suicide after her first miscarriage. Therefore, I expected her death to catapult Nucky into his decision to turn over Gillian to the Commodore. Since that turned out not to be the case (according to this interview with Terry Winter: http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/boardwalk-empire-creator-terence-winter-on-nuckys-fate-and-the-series-finale), I initially felt the show didn’t push Nucky quite hard enough. However, the longer I sit with the events of the finale, the less I feel that my pre-judgement in both cases negatively impacted the text of the show itself. I can’t say whether or not I would have figured it out on my own, but once the idea was planted in my head, I couldn’t un-see the resemblance that Travis Tope has to Michael Pitt in looks, voice, and mannerisms. Again, because the thrust of the season wasn’t so much about the surprise, but rather the thematic implication of his identity, it worked in the end. It could have theoretically been another character, as long as they occupied the same emotional space for Nucky, as evidenced by the fact that many also theorized that Gillian was going to escape from the institution to kill Nucky herself. Ultimately, Nucky was killed as retribution for that one specific event.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE has had two very distinct movements as a show. It started out as an Oedipal drama set in the world of Prohibition-era gangsters, and eventually evolved into the story of the formation of modern organized crime. This finale managed to synthesize both halves into a cohesive whole. In the end, I was moved both by fictional characters and historical figures. The show went out leaning on perhaps its greatest achievement – garnering sympathy for those that history forgot, and those that never made a blip at all. A rags-to-riches tale served as the backbone for the series, but it never turned away from the ugly implications of that journey. Without forcing a meta-narrative about the nature of audience sympathy itself (as many modern prestige dramas have), BOARDWALK was able to humanize criminal masterminds, make us genuinely fear for the lives of real men who went on to live for decades after the show ended, and even feel sorry for a woman who had sex with her own son.
Of course, the show wasn’t without its missteps. In my opinion, the show’s weakest season was also it’s most conventional. As likable as Bobby Cannavale often is, his portrayal of Gyp Rosetti as a classic cable drama “Big Bad” left a lot to be desired. Gyp was an uber-Pesci, constantly repeating the same “insult-overreaction-murder” beats episode after episode. Billie Kent was also one of the weaker romantic partners for Nucky (the unfortunate Lucy Danziger aside), especially coming on the heels of Margaret and Nucky’s marriage. Her jovial and uncomplicated presence made sense in terms of Nucky’s attraction to her, but the show had just come off of a stellar run that proved the show could feature more complex roles for female characters.
These missteps aside, I always felt that, more often than not, BOARDWALK lived up to its considerable auspices and earned its place HBO history. While many expected the show to be the heir apparent to THE SOPRANOS, after season 1 the show successfully grew out from under these expectations. As MAD MEN grew more into a more heady exploration of a damaged man’s psyche, BOARDWALK got more comfortable being about history and legacy. Thought the series ended on the strength of Nucky’s arc, the show also gave us myriad supporting characters for the ages, who often supplied us with the series’ best moments. From Richard Harrow’s whorehouse massacre to Jimmy’s flashback episode, from Eddie’s suicide to Van Alden’s iron salesman freakout, BOARDWALK EMPIRE rarely disappointed.