Monday, 29 December 2014

Boardwalk Empire Series Finale : A climactic trip to Nucky Thompson's past creates no paradox

Last night I saw the last episode of Boardwalk Empire, Martin Scorsese's trip into cable TV via the history of Prohibition and Atlantic City - and rather frustratingly it ends so well you want to go right back to the start and watch all five series again.

Thompson gets a glimpse of the future but never escapes his past
I had thought from from fairly early on that compared to the other classic American cable TV Boardwalk Empire is a bit 2nd division, in that generally it coasts along in a fairly low gear compared to the classic material. It seems to have characters and subplots that are completely superfluous and go nowhere, unlike say it's closest contemporaries, The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad. None of those classic shows for example have room for a character like Boardwalk Empire's Van Alden who seems to wander aimlessly from one identity to another.

With it's final and fifth series Boardwalk Empire had leaps forward a decade into the 1930s to show all the characters dealing with the FBI crackdown and the effects of Wall Street Crash of 1929. At that same time we are shown flashbacks to the 1880s and 1890s showing Nucky Thompson's early life and career as an up and coming Sheriff in the seaside resort becoming Atlantic City. We seen young Nucky's desperation to escape his surroundings, and how that desperation sets up the monstrous personal conflicts in the first two series.

Where Deadwood and Martin Scorsese's own Gangs of New York depict the imposition of a corrupt governing apparatus over a lawless America, and the Sopranos and The Wire show how criminal networks operate smoothly alongside the government, Boardwalk Empire fits neatly in between, showing the creation of the criminal networks, supercharged by the madness of Prohibition. In effect Steve Buschemi's Nucky Thompson starts as a version of Ian McShane's bar owner from Deadwood, and finds himself by the end reluctantly forced to compete with the likes of Tony Soprano.

And "reluctantly" is one of the standouts from the others here, made all the more impressively obvious from the series finale. I won't give away any spoilers but the reason behind Nucky Thompson's series long disillusionment and disengagement from his business and family is, at the series climax, laid bare in a way that casts nearly all of the characters from the show in a new light. One of the delights of Deadwood is that it plays with your expectations of who is the 'hero' right from the start. Boardwalk Empire does the same, but it only becomes apparent at it's very end.

I wondered in a previous post if Breaking Bad would end well compared to other series finales. I thought the happy ending of Breaking Bad was a barely believable moral cop-out and easily the worst thing about the entire series. Not long after saw the end of Hugh Laurie's House M.D. and thought pretty much the same. Much as I love the end of Sopranos part of it's shock is the moral ambiguity.

So this.. "look ! surprise! bad guy doesn't get come-comeuppance!" series ending is getting pretty stale for me.
In direct contrast the end of Boardwalk Empire elevates it into one of the best.

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