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Boardwalk Empire, Season Five ~ A Capsule Review

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Boardwalk Empire, Season Five ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp 

Boardwalk Empire is in its fifth and final season on HBO. Whereas the other seasons were set in the 1920s, season five skips ahead to the 1930s. 1931 finds Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, “one of the most powerful bootleggers in the country,” in Cuba with his business associate and sometime girlfriend Sally Wheet. Anticipating the end of Prohibition (the Volstead Act), Nucky is negotiating to become the distributor for Bacardi rum in the United States. He is looking to transform himself from an illegal businessman to a legal one. He has to be careful, though; other gangsters, principally Charles “Lucky” Luciano, want to rub him out. It’s a cutthroat business and the major players think nothing of bumping each other off in any number of ugly ways.

In the meantime, in Chicago, Al Capone is riding high. We’ve seen Al throughout all four seasons, but now that he is “on top,” he is especially vulgar, loud-mouthed and psychotic. He beats an associate to death with an Empire State Building figure that somebody gave him as a gift for laughing too long at a joke and for calling somebody a jerk. The “feds” are after Al for income tax evasion, but he believes they won’t be able to make it stick, any more than any of the other charges that have been brought against him.

If you are a fan and a follower of the show, you know that Gillian Darmody, mother of the now-dead Jimmy Darmody, was busted at the end of season four for a murder-of-convenience she committed in an earlier season. We find her at the beginning of season five in a mental institution with yowling inmates rather than prison. It seems the jury found her “temporarily insane” when she did her dirty deed. There’s a chance she will someday walk free if she can use her feminine wiles to convince the people in charge that she is cured of her insanity. Don’t count her out just yet.

Nucky’s estranged wife, Margaret, has been working in a brokerage firm in the intervening years. She had a “business relationship” with gangster Arnold Rothstein whereby she gave him stock tips and he gave her a decent apartment to live in with her two children in a building he owned. When Arnold Rothstein dies, his widow tries to extort money from Margaret, believing, wrongly, that she was his mistress. Margaret, not having seen Nucky for years, goes to him for help since her being “Mrs. Nucky Thompson” is the reason Mrs. Rothstein targeted her.

Albert “Chalky” White, Nucky’s former partner in the nightclub business, was in prison but escaped while on a chain gang. He took along another prisoner in the escape but soon had to kill him when they were terrorizing two women, a mother and daughter, and things got out of hand. (His killing the other prisoner actually saved the women’s lives.) Chalky has to stay hidden, of course, since he is a prison escapee, but he makes it back to Nucky, who agrees to help him to hide. He eventually comes face to face again with his former mistress, Daughter Maitland.

Pug-faced, former Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden has been hiding out all these years (he killed two people, including his partner) under an assumed identity in Cicero, Illinois, with a strange Swedish woman who started out as his nanny. (You will remember he fathered a child with one of Nucky’s castoff girlfriends and had another child with the Swedish woman.) While working for the Capone gang, one of the mobsters identifies him as a former “prohee.” An undercover police office, pretending to be part of Capone’s gang, identifies him later from mug shots.

In addition to these recent developments in the lives of the characters we have come to know over four seasons, season five also gives us a glimpse into Nucky Thompson’s past, giving his character more depth. Through flashbacks, we see him first as an adolescent and then as a young man. (The two actors who play Nucky at different times in his life meld perfectly in appearance with the older, middle-aged Nucky.)

Nucky has an unhappy, disadvantaged childhood. His father is brutish and uneducated; his mother seems helpless. He sees his younger sister die because the family is too poor to get adequate medical care for her. He envisions a brighter, better future for himself in which he has plenty of money.

As an adolescent, he begins working for “the commodore,” a shadowy political figure/gangster in Atlantic City. He sweeps sand off the porch of the hotel the commodore owns and eventually is taken into the “business.” As a young adult, he enters the world of local politics and begins to see how he might become wealthy. Prohibition gives him his chance, making him wealthy and powerful.

Boardwalk Empire is bloody and violent and there is sure to be at least one gratuitous sex scene per episode. If you are like me and the sex stuff makes you cringe but the violence doesn’t bother you, well, you should know that there’s lots of other stuff here that makes the show worth watching, including intelligent writing, credible characters, and tons of period details in cars, clothes, interiors and music. Of course it’s not the same without my favorite character, the tragically disfigured Richard Harrow, who died at the end of season 4, but it’s still the best show on television. I may be a little prejudiced, though, since it’s the only show I watch. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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