It’s to HBO’s credit that the network has allowed shows like Treme and Boardwalk Empire the money and time to finish themselves, since—unfortunately for them—some of these series that seemed at first to be surefire successes, lost their ways long before coming to a conclusion. Nearly everything HBO produces looks pretty, and features master thespians putting in stunning performances, but for whatever reason they don’t always quite come together. In the case of Boardwalk Empire, the show had trouble ever finding any real reason for existing, any purpose. Initially it was the story of how Nucky Thompson helped form modern America through bootlegging during prohibition, but aside from that broad statement there’s never been much of a plot. People have risen or fallen, lived or died, but why any of that is important has yet to be discovered.
Quite a few of the show’s problems have come from its reliance on actual American history. At first, this actually seemed like one of Boadwalk Empire’s strengths. Dramatizing these larger-than-life events and figures seemed like a clever way of giving its action more depth, or at least gravitas. But the reliance on history served only to hamstring the show’s stories, shaping them in contorted and dull ways. There also seems to be this desire to have things both ways: at times it’s been difficult to follow its wheeling and dealing without doing some research into the time period, but Boardwalk Empire also always takes some creative license (thus irritating those who wish it would stick closer to the facts). Ultimately, the historical basis always meant the show was digressing to seemingly unimportant people and places, rather than keeping the focus on its main cast and their locales. The historical nature sprawled things about in a bad, cluttered and confusing way, as opposed to similar structures in shows like The Wire or (largely) Game of Thrones that try the same thing, but get it right.
And now, HBO’s decision to keep Boardwalk Empire on the air for just one more shortened season immediately caused problems with the show’s historical storytelling. In order to tell the end of Nucky’s story (as Boardwalk Empire sees it), we jump forward in time all the way to 1931. Yes, it’s seven years since we last saw these characters, and both a lot and very little has changed. Suddenly Chalky White is on a chain gang, and Arnold Rothstein is nowhere to be found (he died off camera during the interim). The country is in the midst of a depression, which we see through an anachronistically late suicide, but otherwise it’s mostly just business as usual. In no case, though, does it feel like we’re really building off of where (the somewhat disappointing) Season Four ended. Really, aside from Nucky’s relationship with Sally Wheel, as of this first episode, it feels like the show could’ve just jumped from Season Three to Season Five. And while I’m sure that more parts of Season Four will become relevant in future episodes, at this point that just isn’t the case.
Ignoring the heavy weight of continuity that’s already in the show, the episode’s content in and of itself is slightly stronger, but not by a wide margin. “Golden Days for Girls and Boys” is mostly about exposition, catching the audience up with the current status quo in as dramatic and almost parodic a manner possible. This is most over-the-top when it comes to an attempt at Nucky’s life—I hope the ear removal is never explained—but just as histrionic when it comes to showing us Chalky’s role in a chain gang revolt and the Lucky Luciano’s attack on Joe Masseria. It felt like there was a body count quota, the only problem being that the jump in time largely stripped these scenes of pathos. There was plenty of shock value, plenty of violence, but very little reason to care about any of it.
And then there were the flashbacks. Oh boy, the flashbacks. Now, I admit to having a bit of a personal problem with flashbacks in storytelling, period. Very rarely do they add much to a story, more often they distract from the action and excitement of the present day, only to tell us things we already know about characters. Unfortunately, Boardwalk Empire’s flashbacks lived up to everything I hate about this lazy device in general. Apparently Terrence Winter has been watching a bit too much of his colleague Matthew Weiner’s television show lately, as much of “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” was given to showing us Nucky’s childhood, and how he met the Commodore. This was, as far as I was concerned, pretty much exclusively dead air. We both know plenty already about Nucky’s past, and also know him well enough by now that any strange revelations aren’t going to change our perception of him. Especially considering how short this season is, spending so much time in the past (and it’s not just in this episode, either, so be prepared) seems like a crazy decision. Every time we jumped back to sepia-toned images, I just sighed and waited impatiently for us to return to 1931.
It was a disappointing start for Boardwalk Empire’s final season. We had the usual plotting and killings and arty cinematography that keep the show’s ratings decent, but it was all still very hollow. For its final season, the show seems to want to bring the focus back onto Nucky, but as usual there’s no particularly compelling reason to care about what happens to him. The flashbacks, which seem to be particularly aimed at that problem, have no such effect, and instead it seems like we have more criminal machinations for their own sakes. Nucky wants to become an honest businessman—as he has since practically the beginning of the show. Does it matter, though, whether or not he succeeds? Unfortunately, it’s hard to see why it would.