“Boardwalk Empire,” a bright star in TV’s antihero movement, the fedora-and-wingtip-wearing cousin to “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” and “Breaking Bad,” the show that gave us one of TV’s most destructive introverts, he of the buggy eyes and the vampire teeth, will end on Sunday night. And many of us, loyal admirers of the show’s dark and turbulent explorations of trust, mentorship, greed, and savagery, are bereft.
But wait: I can’t praise the HBO show, created by Terence Winter of “The Sopranos,” without first acknowledging that it was consistently uneven, at least until the advent of this extraordinarily powerful final season. Too often, the gangster stories on “Boardwalk Empire” blurred together and failed to build tension. And the character arcs also suffered from go-nowhere plotting. Some characters, notably Nelson Van Alden, lingered after their narrative purpose was spent. Other characters, notably Jimmy Darmody, left too soon. Thematically, Nucky needed to kill his protégé at some point, but not in the second season.
Those flaws, along with the relentlessly grim tone, may have limited the buzz and the audience for the show, as the numbers fell somewhat across the years. “Boardwalk Empire” wasn’t just a bright star; it was a cold bright star, with none of the moments of warmth and dry humor that have made other antihero dramas more endearing to viewers. Also curbing the show’s appeal: a largely male cast and stories steeped in notions of male aggression.
But still, “Boardwalk Empire” accomplished an enormous amount during its five seasons, as a rich, messy portrait of a man, of groups of men, and of American culture at a pivotal moment. More than any other recent antihero drama, it delivered the complex visuals of a deluxe costume drama and then punctured that picture with the violence and moral ugliness of the characters.
Generally speaking, the show put the lie to Roaring Twenties romanticism, that often-seen image of partying flappers, jazz, and patriotism. Instead, it gave us a schizoid country, boisterous on the surface but fretful and rudderless underneath. Everything about the Atlantic City of the show was tinged with anxiety and hollow glory, haunted by the emotional fallout of World War I and the illegalization of booze. War veterans Jimmy and Richard Harrow were intensely damaged presences; “I died in the trench years back,” Jimmy told Nucky before getting shot.
The show also offered a broad glimpse at what happens when human behavior and morality are at odds with our systems of law — something “The Wire” did better than any show before or since. When alcohol became illegal, bootlegging took over, ushering in a wave of criminal behavior and the violence that went along with it. In the course of Prohibition, Nucky Thompson changed from crooked politician to a murderous gangster doing battle with the big boys, including Al Capone. For some viewers of “Boardwalk,” that process of creating criminality by banning alcohol has mirrored the contemporary journey of marijuana.
More specifically, the acting on “Boardwalk” has been remarkable, with a bunch of individual performances that were as raw and risk-
taking as the costumes were picture-perfect. Where to begin? Jack Huston was endlessly intriguing as Harrow, with his unnerving gentility and his half mask. Michael Pitt turned Jimmy into a bottled-up muddle of PTSD, a man whose soul has been siphoned away by the cruelties of circumstance. Michael Shannon made Van Alden, later known as George Mueller, into a perversion of religion and the law whose dead eyes were those of a Frankenstein monster. Jeffrey Wright as the seething Narcisse, Kelly Macdonald as the sparky Margaret Thompson, Stephen Graham as the explosive Al Capone, Michael K. Williams as the ambitious Chalky White — they were all indelible and faceted, even when their storylines drifted aimlessly.
And of course Steve Buscemi was extraordinary as Nucky. When the show premiered in 2010, some felt that Buscemi was too mild and lacking in charisma to play such an enterprising criminal. He was not the antihero we were accustomed to, with none of the bluster of Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey from “The Shield.” But ultimately he has been just right, an irritable bureaucrat pulled against his will into deep waters. The fact that he isn’t a big personality, that he isn’t epic, has been one of the important tonal elements of “Boardwalk Empire,” an essential part of its brooding atmosphere. And Winter has surrounded Buscemi with louder, showier figures, particularly Capone and Bobby Cannavale’s Gyp Rosetti, to make him the calm center of the storm.
Buscemi elegantly illuminated one of the show’s best themes: The power of influence. As we’ve seen in this season’s flashbacks, young Nucky was pulled into crime by the Commodore because his home life was so shaky. And, it seems, he pulled Gillian Darmody into the Commodore’s world. And the adult Nucky has pulled young men into his own orbit, where they’ve met their unhappy endings — remember Owen, Margaret’s lover, who wound up in a box? At the end of last week’s episode, Nucky gave a young assistant $1,000 and told him to go away, to find life away from the world of crime. At his low point, having given up all of his territory, Nucky finally tried to reverse his negative effect on others.
As we head into the finale, that young man just may turn out to be more than a random hanger-on. Perhaps he’s Jimmy Darmody’s son? Other mysteries need to be addressed, too. Will Nucky die? Will he continue to try to change his karma by helping Gillian, whose life, it seems, he destroyed by letting the Commodore sexually abuse her. Will Nucky and Margaret try to make another go of it? Is it possible that, despite all of the murders and mayhem, despite the fact that he lost the big game in a big way, Nucky Thompson will have a happy ending?