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Art of the Finale: Boardwalk Empire “Eldorado”

It’s always a shame when good things come to an end, but they all do. And to be honest, it was the right time for Boardwalk Empire. It didn’t outstay its welcome; it just knew its time was coming—a bit like the series’ main protagonist, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi).

“Eldorado” truly feels like an ending. Every single scene is filled with the tension of unknowing expectation. Each actor plays their scenes like it is the final curtain call, which of course it is for all of them, whatever the future holds for their character.

Each of the eight episodes of Season 5 began with flashbacks to Nucky’s youth—a way of showing the audience how he became the man he did. I was always kind of expecting that it was something terrible that made him the immoral and selfish man he became, and there is no doubt at all that Nucky had a bad time growing up with a violently abusive father. But in the end it turned out that there was only one thing that drove Nucky Thompson: greed.

In the penultimate episode, Nucky had to finally concede that the battle—no, the war—for Atlantic City was over. Having lost everything to Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) he spends the finale rather nervously, saying his goodbyes. Firstly to his now chronically alcoholic brother Eli (Shea Whigham), who has also lost everything—he can’t even remember if he cheated on his wife as he passes out drunk so often. She won’t even answer the door to him now; he lives alone above a store on the boardwalk.

Then there’s Margaret (Kelly MacDonald). Margaret has been the true champion throughout the series, and her story at the end of Boardwalk Empire is perhaps the only one with any sort of hope for a future. While not totally above-board, she’s proven to have a better business brain than perhaps any of the men. After leaving Nucky back in Season 3—shortly after the murder of Owen (Charlie Cox), the man with whom she was having an affair (and a baby)—she traveled with her young children to New York and had an abortion. They lived in destitution, but she would rather this than a moment more with Nucky. During Season 4 she found her feet and her calling as an investment banker. Margaret may have learned a lot of her cunning money-making skills from her ex-husband and the company they kept.

Margaret and Joe Kennedy in the finale of Boardwalk Empire

Margaret dabbled in some very dubious insider trading but found a loophole that made it legal, even reconciling with Nucky—at least on business terms—so that they could short the Mayflower Grain Corporation, a plan which worked very well indeed. While Margaret didn’t make anywhere near the amount of money that Nucky did from the deal (I know, a wage gap between men and women, who would have thought it?) nevertheless she managed to leave the series with a heightened confidence in her own abilities and with the promise of a lucrative relationship with Joe Kennedy (Matt Letscher). This turned out to be a far greater prize. And with killer lines like, “Here’s an experiment for you: think about the things you want in life, then picture yourself in a dress,” you just know that this woman is going to go far.

It’s thanks to Margaret that Nucky does get to share a goodbye with his brother, albeit an awkward one. Despite having lost his business to Luciano, Nucky is $2 million up. Now is definitely time to take the money and run. So he visits his brother, they share a less than tender embrace, and he leaves Eli a paper bag. Once he’s gone, Eli looks inside and finds several wads of cash, and a shaving brush and razor. In Nucky’s mind, this will be all his brother needs to fix his dire situation. This is the world of Nucky Thompson, where money and looking the part are the most important things in the world. We won’t ever know if Eli’s wife took him back in; the chances are slim after that kind of betrayal. Money cannot buy trust.

Margaret visits Nucky one last time at an apartment he’s considering buying in New York. its name is Eldorado and it is lavish, expensive, and completely empty. Metaphorically this is what Nucky’s life has become. He has absolutely nothing to show for his years of doing whatever it took to be at the top. No one to love and no one who loves him. No family, no friends, no children to pass his wealth on to, just a vast empty space. Margaret is the woman who understood him the best, and in a way, she respects him and certainly reminisces with him sweetly at this juncture. They dance in the apartment, a truly tender moment which is interrupted by the realtor showing another couple around. That pretty much sums it up: there will always be others ready to take what you want, and in the long scheme of things, money doesn’t matter one little bit.

Nucky and Margaret have a final dance, in Eldorado, the finale episode of Boardwalk Empire

This is a lesson he learns quickly when he eventually visits Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) at the Sanitarium for Women that she’s been held in since Season 4. Gillian had been sent there after pleading insanity when arrested for the murder of Roger McAllister, a drifter who looked remarkably like her missing son Jimmy (Michael Pitt). She drowned him in a bathtub to pass off his body as Jimmy’s so she could claim his inherited fortune from the Commodore and custody of Jimmy’s son, Tommy. However, when the real body of Jimmy was found, she had no way out. She was arrested for murder and had to deal with the death of her only child simultaneously. Gillian really did have a tough life, and while her crimes were many, in comparison to the men of the series she was tame. Yet her punishment was brutal, lasting a lifetime.

At the Sanitarium she accepts her fate, and spends seven years there, behaving like a “good girl” and not like the bombastic Gillian we had all grown to love over the years (despite her incestuous nature towards Jimmy, obsession with Tommy, and conniving with just about everybody). Buscemi and Mol were both mesmerizing in their scene together, as Nucky, almost on the verge of tears, could barely look at Gillian, who wasn’t looking at him at all. Just as he was trying to convince her there’s nothing else he can do for her, he was trying to convince himself he’s not responsible for how she’s turned out (even though he completely is). He promises her that she’ll have her own room now and money in a trust for her when she escapes that place. She’s listening and biting her tongue. This visit will play way more of a part in Nucky’s demise than we could have known. Gillian plays the insanity card well, much to Nucky’s shock, though it’s hard to tell if he’s really feeling guilty about the torture he made her life or if he feels he’s got away with it now she’s lost her mind.

Gillian played the (very) long game to finally get what she wanted. Unfortunately, she had to give up her womanhood for it. Under the care of the infamous psychotic psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Cotton, she (presumably) underwent a hysterectomy in what he believed to be the only way to cure her madness. She was suffering the after-effects of surgery at Nucky’s visit, needing his help to stand up. That will be their last goodbye, after many turbulent years.

Gillian Darmody and Nucky Thompson meet for the final time in Boardwalk Empire

Lucky Luciano has risen to the very top of his game, and after ordering a hit on Narcisse, having him shot to death on the steps of his church, he is now the dominant crime boss of the United States. But although there would have been few objections had Luciano declared himself capo di tutti capi, he abolished the title, believing the position created trouble between the families and made himself a target for another ambitious challenger. Instead, Luciano chose to quietly maintain control through the Commission by forging unofficial alliances with other bosses. Luciano elevated his most trusted Italian associates to high-level positions in what was now the Luciano crime family. Because Lansky and Siegel were non-Italians, neither man could hold official positions within any Mafia family. However, Lansky was a top advisor to Luciano and Siegel a trusted associate. And so the Mafia as we know it was born. It’s funny that this moment of the finale felt to be one of the most exhilarating. It kind of felt like this was a prequel to The Sopranos, and with showrunner Terence Winter behind both shows that is totally understandable.

The Mafia as we know it is born. The heads of the 5 families gather under Lucky Luciano's reign

It wasn’t the only Sopranos nod I noticed. I guess I’d always linked Tony’s dream sequences on the boardwalk to that of the life in Atlantic City—like somehow Tony was linked to that place, born into it I guess. In similarly surreal sequences, Nucky spends his last day there on the boardwalk by the sea, drifting in and out of flashbacks to his youth. In a sense he is watching his own life not so much flash, but peter out before his eyes. A glamorous woman “from the future” invites him into a tent on the boardwalk to see his own future. Inside the dark blue velvet curtains, there is nothing. The woman is nowhere to be seen until he notices a camera set up. On the screen, the woman—blurred by interference—sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It is a very Lynchian moment; she reminded me very much of “The Lady in the Radiator”from Eraserhead. What did this all mean? In my opinion, it felt like she was just coming to tell him there was nothing but the stars in his future, that his time was almost up and that he had come full circle back to the beginning. In the end, even the brightest stars burn out and there are a trillion more just like it.

The Future - a strange lady appears to Nucky Thompson in the finale of Boardwalk Empire

Another similarity to The Sopranos was the way it made you want the bad guys to win at times. Despite the truly horrific and unforgivable crimes they committed, there were few men so totally devoid of emotion that you couldn’t feel for them just a little. Al Capone is the perfect example here. I mean, he was a truly psychotic son of a bitch, and he absolutely deserves no sympathy for being sent down for tax evasion (which as we know from history does indeed happen—he is sent down for 11 years). It is a testament to Stephen Graham’s depth as an actor that we do feel sadness for Capone as he becomes fearful of his inevitable incarceration and says goodbye to his beloved deaf son. That moment was perhaps the sweetest of the finale, which was a surprise to me. It was simultaneously glorious to see him turn up at court like a rock star—white suit and hat, cigar hanging from his mouth, a grin like the Cheshire Cat—but it was also a little bit heartbreaking as it’s all a front and we see him as we’ve never seen him before: like a scared little boy.

Al Capone faces the music at court in the Boardwalk Empire finale

But above all else, this is the end of Enoch Thompson’s story. Do we have any pity for this devil in the end? Personally, no I did not. He was expecting a hit, every man on the boardwalk was a potential assassin to him, but Luciano had no plans to take Nucky out. Nope, he was given a much more satisfying send-off.

Many fans of the show had their suspicions that the young Joe Harper was actually Tommy Darmody all grown up—I mean he looked just like him, incredible casting!—and that turned out to be absolutely true. Nucky bails him out of trouble and tries to give him some money, which he rips up in Nucky’s face. As Nucky wanders off, “Joe” follows and shoots him down on the boardwalk in front of everyone. In his last moments, he learned who Joe really was, and after all the memories he’d been stirring up lately, I think he realised he got his just desserts.

Sure, the young Nucky briefly grappled with his conscience about turning over the young Gillian to the Commodore whom he knew full well was a paedophile, but he really didn’t take much convincing. Is there a more repulsive crime than knowingly handing over a child to be abused by a man with such power? A girl he knew was vulnerable, a girl who just wanted to play dress up and have fun. But, as Gillian reminded him back then, he has a family to support (or what’s left of it after his first wife Mabel miscarried). And since the Commodore was dangling the sheriff badge over his head, he took the immoral route, a choice made by greed that would eventually bite him in the ass decades down the line.

A young Gillian Darmody takes Nucky Thompson's hand believing he'll look after her. Boardwalk Empire finale

In the end, Nucky dies from a shot to the face, in exactly the same way he killed Tommy’s father Jimmy. Revenge is indeed sweet. Not only for Tommy but for Gillian who had sent both her son and grandson to take out the men that wronged her—firstly the Commodore and then Nucky—and she did so successfully. It felt like there was some divine retribution there but not enough to make anything better; Gillian continues to suffer, her son is dead, and her grandson arrested for murder in broad nightlight.

Even in his dying breaths, the IRS turn up to arrest Nucky—perhaps a fate worse than death for Nucky, the man who was always chasing the money. But what good is that $2 million to anyone now that he’s dead? It’s not worth a dime.

“The first time I got a nickel I thought, the world is a marvelous place, but then I thought – a dime, a dime would be better.” – Enoch Thompson

Nucky chasing the money since he was a child, in Boardwalk Empire finale

“Eldorado” was a somewhat satisfying end to the series then, but perhaps too predictable for it to seriously wow the audience. Because of its lack of surprise, it does lose a lot of its emotional power. But it has to be said, Boardwalk Empire was one of the most beautiful television shows ever created. Dark, rich, and deeply felt, there was not an episode in the five-season run that was not artfully done.


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Written by Laura Stewart

Laura is a Content & Experience Manager and a Writer for 25YL. She has been part of the team since May 2017 when she began writing about her favourite TV show of all time: Twin Peaks. She currently heads the Film Department.

She has recently enjoyed watching and writing about True Detective, Sharp Objects, Legion & The OA. Her favourite films are Fire Walk With Me, Wild at Heart and Secretary - Lula Fortune and Lee Holloway are her spirit animals. Her other hobbies include singing horribly and rarely sleeping.

Laura lives down by the sea in Gower, Wales, with her husband and very special little boy.

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