When HBO’s Boardwalk Empire began its final season, a young Nucky Thompson didn’t come away with any gold as he joined others diving in the ocean to claim coins thrown in by amused adults. He had the chance to get ahead — to claim a prize he only had to fight for to earn — but he was too slow. Money and opportunity, however, didn’t elude him for long, as he took one step after another in pursuit of making a name for himself. Each step was a decision; he wanted to become someone important, and he did. But as we saw throughout this closing run of one of the more memorable dramas in recent TV history, his success came at the detriment of others. Because of that, there’s no redemption to be found here. Some have argued AMC’s Breaking Bad was too soft in its finale on anti-hero Walter White, letting him be a hero of sorts even at the end. That’s debatable, but contrast Breaking Bad’s final scenes, which I won’t spoil here, to those of Boardwalk Empire and Nucky. Similarly, contrast this ending with the final moments of HBO’s The Sopranos. There’s no ambiguity to be found here, either. “Eldorado” is a fitting title for the series finale, alluding not so much to the luxury New York City co-op at which Nucky and Margaret danced but the legend itself: El Dorado. The mythical city of gold, of unlimited wealth. What wouldn’t some do for a chance at that?
Visiting Gillian in the sanitarium, Nucky tells her “the past is past, nothing can change it.” True, but the past does have a way of coming back around. One by one, we’ve watched the main characters of Boardwalk die for their crimes, notably Richard Harrow at the end of Season Four and Chalky White, Nelson Van Alden, and Mickey Doyle late this season. Each knew the end was coming. Each was resigned to it. They all lived dangerously, took what they could while they could, and paid the price in the end. “Remember, all I did was for you, to leave you with something better,” Capone tells his son. “And that can’t be for nothin.’ ” He may believe this, but we know it’s only partly true. Capone did what he did because he enjoyed it. Margaret knows she’s only got herself to blame for her actions. (Well, aside from Nucky having her husband killed). “All you did was offer,” she tells Nucky. “I was the one who took.” She’ll be OK, using her business acumen to survive. Eli, though, might be too broken to move on, no matter how much money Nucky left him.
As romantic as gangster stories can be, feeding our bloodlust for excitement and debauchery, Boardwalk Empire has always been about consequences as it mixed fictional characters with the nonfictional. Arnold Rothstein’s already dead; Al Capone is done for; Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, even Sally Wheet — gone. Lucky Luciano, of course, becomes the father of organized crime and Meyer Lansky, as his associate, outlives everyone by miles. But that’s life, noted by the Scripture Valentin Narcisse quoted before he was gunned down outside his church. Ecclesiastes 1:4: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the Earth abideth forever.”
Harrow, Van Alden, and White’s deaths were particularly sad for fans as we’d grown to care for these flawed characters, and certainly Harrow and White’s deaths were presented with emotion and beauty. They knew they were at their end, and in those final moments, they retreated to their dreams of a happier life. One of Boardwalk’s main problems was having such a large pool of fascinating characters and talent and not enough screen time to fully satisfy viewers. If any show is ripe for spin-offs, it is this one. Jumping from 1924 to 1931 from Season Four to Five limited the stories. Hell, Rothstein had to die off screen, and we saw Capone at his height of power, not his rise to it. His downfall could only be implied, not shown, yet considering he’s a well-known figure, this proved powerful, with actor Stephen Graham delivering a poignant performance.
Nucky may be the main character, but he often could be the least favorite, or maybe the least interesting, in a sea of charismatic murderers. Steve Buscemi played him with necessary restraint, and it was easy to want to look past him at the more flamboyantly flawed. The inclusion of so many flashbacks to Nucky’s youth surely was to help make him more relatable, but ultimately it served as the perfect framework for closing out the story of a man who kept finding ways to outmaneuver his opponents and outlive assassination attempts, only to be brought down by the albatross around his neck. (Nucky used to live in the Albatross hotel, after all.) “In the end, we do what we have the nerve for, or we disappear,” the Commodore told young Nucky, and Nucky later decided he had the nerve to watch a young girl be robbed of her chance at a better life so that he could have his chance at his.
In the Season Three finale, when Nucky comes upon Gillian Darmody in the Commodore’s mansion, she’s fighting a heroin near-overdose, struggling to survive just as she always had. In her haze, she speaks to Nucky as if she’s a 13-year-old girl again. That day in May 1897, she “went upstairs like you said to, and the man, he did something very bad to me.” Everything about Gillian comes down to that moment, the moment she was forsaken by an adult she trusted and handed over to be raped by the Commodore and later give birth to son Jimmy. Nucky did the handing over. That defined her, and as this final season has made clear, it defined him, too. “Eldorado” finished the story, showing Nucky receiving his sheriff’s badge in exchange for giving Gillian over to a predator. The casting of Marc Pickering and Madeleine Rose Yen as the young Nucky and Gillian is perfect, and so is the push by creator Terence Winter and his writers to focus on the consequences of this interaction. He determined his own fate that day. Gillian’s life is tragic, and it didn’t have to be.
Even in the end, Nucky is only so moved by Gillian’s plight. He arranges for her to have her own room, and if she ever manages to escape the sanitarium and Dr. Henry Cotton’s methods for removing teeth and organs to cure his patients of insanity, she’ll have a trust fund waiting for her. He admires her ability to keep saving her own neck, but even as he chokes up with his guilt, he asks her, “What do you expect of me?” Asking for forgiveness would have been a start, but Tommy Darmody wouldn’t have gotten the message. Many guessed that the young man hanging around Nucky’s club and looking “to get ahead” was Jimmy Darmody’s son and Gillian’s grandson, but even knowing this didn’t soften the blow of what was to come. Several times, Nucky tried to send Tommy away, giving him money and telling him to get lost for his own good. He didn’t want to be a part of this world, Nucky said, because at the end, Nucky had grown tired of the game and indeed was haunted by his past. But Nucky’s actions — giving Gillian to the Commodore; killing Jimmy; largely forsaking the adult Gillian — already had brought Tommy into his world. It was too late. So Tommy shot him.
The omens were there — from the billboard featuring King Neptune, god of the sea, to the drunken schoolboys reciting Robert W. Service’s “The Spell of the Yukon.” “I promise I’ll always look after you,” Nucky had told Gillian, dressed as one of Neptune’s consorts for the local parade, that 1897 day. He reached out his hand to her then; dying, not far from a billboard featuring King Neptune, he reaches out his hand to Tommy. And then his bloodied body was still, and he was young again, reaching out his hand to grab one of those gold coins. He got it after all — he got the treasure. It wasn’t worth it.
“I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.”
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.