So it has ended: bloody, cold and brutal Boardwalk Empire (HBO/Sky Atlantic). And when Mad Men concludes next year, so ends the great age of the grand dramas. Tom Wolfe is entirely wrong to say that the modern novel needs to engage with and depict society as a whole, returning to the tradition of Dickens et al, because the writers of television programmes such as these (along with The Wire, Breaking Bad, and, top of the heap, The Sopranos) are telling modern sagas. Equipped with far more scope and creative talent than most films, television is the place for story and character over plot and gimmickry.
But this is not news and, hyperbole aside, I’m quite sure this isn’t the end of drama. Just the ones I happen to have spent much of my life watching.
What, then, of the Boardwalk Empire finale? Nucky Thompson’s circle of betrayal was completed via an unexpected assailant: Jimmy’s son, Tommy. We didn’t need to know the young man’s identity to realise he would be rather pointedly concluding both the series and Nucky’s life, but it did make me think back: Tommy? Jimmy? How long it seems since he was a presence in the show. Indeed, Boardwalk seems to have been with us far longer than its five seasons and 56 episodes. Years, within the plot, have gone by and how many deaths? how many betrayals? how many pale breasts? The latter I mention not for vulgarity’s sake but to reinforce that few shows have really embraced sex and violence so naturalistically and, simultaneously, so gratuitously. One has to ask, was it all a bit too much?
No, because, as a drama that always works from the script outwards, the shock value is not doing the hard work of keeping the viewer engaged.
Everyone involved in the enterprise deserves three cheers – imagine what a wrap party that must’ve been – but an extra cheer and a ham to Steve Buscemi for one of the all-time longest-sustained performances of magnificence on screen, big or small. Whilst others are perhaps more superficially threatening and certainly others still more handsome, that a man with such a face can exude menace and the resigned exasperation of power with his slightest sigh or bug-eyed glance is a feat should be studied by aspiring actors for generations.
When we invest so much of ourselves in these television programmes we are wont to ask if we were satisfied by their conclusions. Boardwalk Empire just about got it right, Nucky couldn’t be redeemed or escape whatever sort of justice we’re dealing with in a dramatis personæ comprised wholly of thieves, murderers and psychopaths. Nevertheless, the death of this most lucripetous villain left me melancholy and sated, disappointedly only that it was over.
The only ambiguous flaw is that Gillian (Gretchen Mol) ultimately won. A victim herself, we have some sympathy with her – but not all victims conduct themselves for years after the fact like jackals; so is the nuthouse really punishment enough for her? Is greed therefore the most punishable sin?
Well, the other victors Lucky, Meyer – and the rest of what became ‘the Commission’ – would seem to disprove that, but historical accuracy prevented them from getting theirs.
Much of the suspense of Boardwalk derived from watching how Nucky would wrangle his way once more to the top or out of a scrape, so it remains to be seen whether it will bear much re-watching, but I certainly hope it will because there are so many dead faces to reacquaint oneself with, and it will seem like personal nostalgia to go back to those heady, opulent early Roaring Twenties.
Enoch Thompson, RIP: He was what he needed to be.