Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: What Might Have Been



It has to end with Repeal.

“Boardwalk Empire” is now in its fifth and final season. The mood is elegiac—the time is 1931, we’re deep in the Depression, and Nucky Thompson, political as always, seeks to co-opt a malleable U.S. Senator to push for the end of Prohibition (Fashion note: Steve Buscemi looks great in his sharply tailored, early 30’s suits). Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky are in open warfare with Doctor Narcisse, who refuses to pay them protection. Margaret, having siphoned money from Abe Redstone’s Arnold Rothstein’s stock account since his demise, has been handed an ultimatum from the Widow Rothstein re: the missing funds. Gillian is in the booby hatch, Chalky White is on the run, and Joseph P. Kennedy doesn’t drink.

Is this where we wanted to be?

Although I’ve enjoyed “Boardwalk Empire” for what it’s been, I have a strong sense of missed opportunity. I would love to know what the show runners originally had in mind after that first intriguing season. In addition to Prohibition, they started us off with a fair sampling of what made the nascent 1920’s tick—the winning of votes for women, Margaret Sanger, Eddie Cantor and an endless supply of great music. But their having to deal with two reportedly obstreperous/difficult/whatever actors who were dropped/fired/left of their own accord, depending upon your source of information, forced some changes. The subtraction of one, Paz de la Huerta (Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s discarded mistress and Van Alden’s baby mama), caused only a minor ripple. However, the loss of the other, namely Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, has been felt ever since his character’s murder at the end of Season Two. That father/surrogate son dynamic he had with Nucky was the heartbeat of the show. Its replacement, an ever-diffuse gangster epic, has not proven to be as intriguing as the show runners had hoped. We’ve seen it before and quite honestly, it’s been done better.

The Real Atlantic City, 1920's
The Real Atlantic City, 1920’s

As a native New Jerseyan, I would have liked more of Atlantic City in the show. Historically it was one of the premiere resorts of the East Coast during the era in which “Boardwalk Empire” is set, yet we’ve really had little of this since Season One. We’ve rarely seen the fabled hotels, the ballroom on Steel Pier, a salt water taffy machine, the Diving Horse, or had a real grasp of the extent of the tourist trade. After all, Atlantic City was known as “the lungs of Philadelphia,” and was a regular stop on the try-out circuit for shows headed to Broadway. We’ve been “Boardwalk-less Empire” for quite some time, what with Atlantic City having to take a back seat to goings-on in Chicago, New York, Florida and now Cuba.

Another problem has been the depressing disposability of the female characters of this show. Given the fate of these ladies, I had the clear impression, week after week, that the show runners were charter members of the Old Boys Club. Daughter Maitland, Maybelle White, Billie Kent, Lucy Danziger, Babette and of course, Angela Darmody, met untimely ends, disappeared or otherwise suffered. Angela’s murder, in itself one of the more horrible acts on “Boardwalk Empire,” also deprived us of a potential window to the Greenwhich Village scene, something which was foreshadowed in Season One. Considering the explosion of the arts in America in the 1920’s, not following through with this storyline was a considerable loss—it would have been an intriguing counterpoint to the world of bloodshed and booze.

Nevertheless, there’s always been something to relish in “Boardwalk Empire.” Various characters stay with you: Michael Stulhbarg’s Arnold Rothstein (the one reason why I wish they hadn’t hopscotched to 1931, past his final days). Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White. Eddie Cantor (Stephen DeRosa), Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicolson). Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks)—and his giggle. Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), truly this season’s Odd Couple. But Valentin Narcisse, played by the elegant Jeffrey Wright, is a special delight. He’s a master of the quiet bon mot. Witness his recent sit-down with Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Narcisse politely inquires how they wish to be addressed. “Charlie” “My ma called me pitseleh” (Yiddish for “little one”). Narcisse’s response? A small smile. “What friendly little names.” And the other two actors are blown right off the screen.

I’m particularly intrigued by how Margaret intends to play Nucky in order to set herself right with the Widow Rothstein and the feds, though I’m sure Eli’s kid is about to help. And the flashbacks to Nucky’s boyhood are a treat—I’m enjoying how they play at a slower tempo, befitting simpler times. And whoever cast John Ellison Conlee as the young Commodore deserves a special Emmy. Vocally he’s a perfect match for Dabney Coleman and while he’s heftier than the older version of the character, his facial expressions more than suggest the man we first met several years ago.

There are only five episodes remaining in this final season. Despite its flaws, I’ll be sad to see it go.

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