Boardwalk Empire

nuckyI don’t watch a lot of TV these days, but I have always taken time to watch HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” which finished its five season run on Sunday. Having caught up season one in a marathon one spring, we looked forward eagerly each summer to seasons two through five.

For those who don’t know, “Boardwalk Empire” is the fictionalised account of the life of Nucky Thompson, crime boss of Atlantic City before and after the 1920s.  Through Nucky’s life, we watch the eastern seaboard gangs, Irish, Jews, Italians, blacks, fight each other for the riches that Prohibition supplied to the underworld; we watch the rise and rise of Al Capone in Chicago; and we get a taste of how the cops, many of whom were as currupt as the killers they chased, tried to deal with the crime wave.

The first few seasons were simply magnificent, concentrating on Nucky’s control of New Jersey as he turns from smalltown politician to big time crook, his partnerships and rivalries with various gang leaders elsewhere, his marriage, his extended family.  These early years culminated in the glorious third season, dominated by Bobby Carnavale’s incredible performance as the homicidal maniac Gyp Rosetti.

Season four was less successful, but for reasons that are hard to explain.  Perhaps the concentration on characters other than Thompson diffused the tension that was so palpable in season three. And then there was season five which was, I thought, odd.  For the first time in the series, we were treated to long flashbacks to Nucky’s youth, first as a troublesome kid, then as a deputy sheriff.  We are shown how he gains the sheriff’s badge through an act of humiliaton which does at least explain some of the setup in season one.

More problematic for season five were the unexplained ten year gap since the action in season four, and the the rote killing of major characters (Muller, Marazano, Torio, Chalky, Nucky’s girlfriend and, eventually, Nucky himself), apparently just to close their stories.

This Gangsters Inc review tells some necessary truths. But they don’t take enough acount of the fine acting, direction, and production values which was what kept us watching. In fact, the writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, set dressers and designers were almost flawless.

I also question thr Gangster Inc characterization of the Michael Shannon role. I thought his character created problems for the series, but for quite different reasons.  As a lowly FBI agent who gets into trouble, and then as a lowly soldier in the gangs, he helped us see the bottom of the criminal pile rather than just the leaders.  That was valuable.  However, my problem with the role was that it was used as an excuse to make Capone a major character which was quite unnecessary to the series arc and took focus away from Nucky’s story.

OK, so I was disappointed in season five, but it was always worth watching, and I am glad to have seen it.

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