Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The last few bullets of Boardwalk Empire

(Spoilers.) I've always thought that Boardwalk Empire was too much of a big, sprawling history lesson. It always seemed half great, and half a meeting of violent men in hats that I hardly recognised. But in the closing minute one bullet snapped the whole thing into focus. Five seasons of conspiracies and killings given symmetry with a final closing punch. Nucky is shot by Tommy Darmody, the son of the man he killed all those years ago. Now it seems obvious that the show was always operating from the aftermath of that event. Characters were left behind, straggling and aimless without Jimmy to anchor them. Sad Richard didn't know what to do with himself for a long while, except going on an occasional rampage. And I wondered, why is Gillian even still in this show? Now it all has consequence. Even the Young Nucky flashbacks that we've been dragged through this season proved their worth. By putting Nucky's final moments against his decision, many years ago, to give Gillian to the Commodore, we can see that his whole life hinged on one terrible act. On the one hand his job as the Sheriff set him on the path to take over Atlantic City, but it also set the wheels in motion for his death. In an earlier episode, Young Nucky walked into the Commodore's foreboding new palace after the old Sheriff refused to enter. He raised his eyebrows at the rows of hellish artwork and kept going. The writers wanted us to see that, in his ambition, Nucky made a deal with the devil and it eventually cost him. Knowing that Boardwalk Empire rests on this one point gives it a focus that I never thought it had. It was this lack of clarity that I believed was holding it back from greatness. If I rewatched it (which I'm not going to do), the earlier seasons in particular would be far more enjoyable.

Maybe it's an illusion. Maybe it really is a long, confusing history lesson full of loose ends. After all, my favourite character didn't have much to do with Nucky at all. Nelson Van Alden, also known as "George Mueller", also known (by me) as "Old Mad Eyes", was a show all by himself. After one season as an FBI agent the writers sent him off on his own dark comedy, seemingly designed to put Michael Shannon in situations where'd he'd be the most fun to watch. He was a disgruntled salesman, going to door with the maddest face in America, until his colleagues poked and prodded him and he fried a man's head with an iron. Then they sent him to work for Al Capone, just to watch him squirm. He turned simple statements into twisted, bleak jokes. In his final moments, before trying to steal from Capone, he goes through the hopeless plan, realises he is probably going to be killed, and simply says 'This has not been thought through.' Boardwalk Empire would have been emptier without him.

I wonder how it's going to be remembered. In a time when so much great television is being produced, Boardwalk Empire almost seemed like an underdog, something that was always just there being quietly brilliant. It was the odd sort of show that was never compulsive but always captivating; I never hurried to watch the next episode but I was always impressed when I did. It was slow and meandering and whether or not it lives up to the sum of its parts can only really be discovered with a rewatch. We shouldn't take it for granted though, because it's an example of how far modern television has come. This is a real crime epic, surpassing the old film classics in size and scope. It's a different language to film, and has to be judged differently, except to say that it matches them in terms of production quality and performances. This didn't used to be done, and these days we're getting used to it.