End of an “Empire”

Nucky Gillian

(Spoiler alert – if you are not caught up on “Boardwalk Empire”, avert your eyes)

I’m a tremendous fan of gangster films and the Jersey shore, so naturally, when HBO announced several years ago that they were premiering a new series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, I was over the moon. And although there were moments in its five-year run that disappointed me, more often than not, I enjoyed the highly-stylized and nostalgic look at a bygone era, and was sorry to see it go.  As with my “Walking Dead” post, i’ll forego a full recap and just get down to what I loved about Sunday night’s series finale…

** Stephen Graham never failed to blow my mind as Al Capone.  Throughout the series, the (astonishingly) British-born actor lit up all of his scenes like a firecracker with a gasoline fuse, his explosive swagger and machine-gun cackle making his silences all the more frightening.  Thankfully, Graham and the writers were not content to leave Capone as merely a one-dimensional gangster cliché.  Instead, they allowed him surprisingly tender moments, such as the one from a prior season that found him gently crooning “My Buddy” against the face of his deaf toddler son, violently yanking the heartstrings of the Boardwalk faithful.  And so it was only fitting that in the finale, Capone paid one final, touching visit to his teenage son before turning himself in to the Feds.  It was a moment that had me reaching for the tissues, and it wouldn’t be the only one ….

**Gillian, Gillian, Gillian.  You broke my heart.  You were conniving, manipulative, deceitful, incestuous and murderous.  You were pretty much THE WORST, and when your own son tried to choke you out in a prior season, I was only sorry he didn’t finish the job.  But tragically, it wasn’t all your fault.  As a 13-year old runaway, you were sold out by Nucky, an authority figure you trusted, to his pedophile boss in exchange for a promotion (and, presumably, his soul).  Later in life, institutionalized after having committed a murder, you called on Nucky in a last-ditch attempt to be rescued from a place where a “cure” for female patients involved a forced hysterectomy or, worse, a lobotomy.  Yet when he finally visited you, you sat in silence, playing with a ladybug while he rattled off a litany of defensive excuses as to why he couldn’t do you a solid beyond giving you a place to live and money upon your release, whenever THAT happened.  Resigned to your fate, you asked him for one last act of kindness in helping you stand to your feet.  When he held out his hand, you called upon the ladylike poise that had always served you so well, then leveled us by quietly observing that “there’s still graciousness in the world.”  You killed me, Gillian.  Damn it.  Farewell.

** Nucky Thompson’s death, while seemingly poetic, was seriously flawed.  Delivered at the hands of Tommy Darmody (aka Joe Harper), it was shockingly brutal and abrupt, yet masterfully poignant (you could actually see the light go out of Buscemi’s eyes at the moment of Nucky’s death).  But it was all kinds of wrong unless you wanted to cast off 5 years’ worth of backstory, or lack thereof.  Granted, Tommy Darmody was none other than the son of Nucky’s former protégé, Jimmy Darmody – whom Nucky (rightfully) murdered – and Gillian’s grandson.  But Tommy was a very young child when he was handed over to the loving foster mother who had fought so hard for custody of the boy.  I really have no idea when this child would have learned about Nucky’s involvement in both his father’s death and grandmother’s pre-teen rape unless Gillian inappropriately conveyed all of that to a five-year old (which wouldn’t be much of a stretch given that Gillian was the Empress of Inappropriate Behavior).  I certainly can’t imagine his foster mother would have told him these stories since the singular goal was to rescue him from growing up in a daycare staffed by whores, violent gangsters and a heroin-addict grandmother.  There’s also the tiny matter of Tommy having become scared of Gillian to the extent that he would refuse to eat anything she offered him, and would also hide from her (and not as part of a game).   I get the poetic irony of having Tommy murder Nucky, but it seemed a little forced and not as well-conceived as the writers would have had us believe.  It was a sacrifice of continuity in favor of presenting the audience with a neatly wrapped conclusion.

All of that said (and i know it was A LOT), overall, despite the flaws, the series finale was an elegant oeuvre to an otherwise fantastic run.  Like the final closing credits song so sweetly expressed, “if you want the rainbow, you must have the rain.”

And it was one helluva rainbow.


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