And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Was there ever a moment in Boardwalk Empire when Nucky was as successful or powerful as he was in the pilot? At that time he had wealth, political power, respect, admirers, and an entire city under his command. At his convenience he could summon leaders both legitimate and criminal, and he lived a life of luxury.
Boardwalk Empire is a story about decay – moral, physical, and economic. In the end, the only characters who are in a better position than they were in the pilot episode are Margaret and Luciano.
Margaret only prospers after she breaks away from Nucky. This is why his attempts at reconciliation during the final season rang hollow. What, after all, did she need him for? She made out well in the Mayflower deal, and gained the trust of the powerful, and more importantly legitimate, businessman Joseph Kennedy all on her own. The fact that Nucky probably left her the lion’s share of his fortune upon his death is just gravy – here is a character who has broken free of her dependance on anyone.
Luciano is a different animal. From their very first meeting in the pilot episode, Luciano despised Nucky. We never really got to know Charlie as intimately as we got to know some of his historical counterparts, Al Capone in particular. We did, however, learn that his defining characteristics were patience and a hatred of the old authorities. He was always one step ahead of his enemies, chose his friends wisely, and in the end became the force that undid everything those old authorities built. His empire won’t last forever, but we won’t get to see his later imprisonment, deportation, and death.
Nucky mostly stopped caring long before Luciano made his final move, and cares about nothing afterwards. His brother tried to kill him two or three times, but he goes to see him. Gillian is in a mental hospital, and has always been dangerous and unpredictable, but he goes to see her. He even needlessly gathers his effects from Atlantic City – how could he trust Luciano not to finish him off? He has his Mayflower money – but it might as well be worthless newspaper. It feels like a relief when Tommy takes care of him.
The saddest part about Nucky’s life is that one decision could have changed everything. What if had quit the Commodore forever, and he and Mabel had taken Gillian in? They might have left Atlantic City and found a peaceful, happy existence somewhere.
This other option, so clear to the audience, was shrouded to Nucky. He was forever reacting to moves made by more skillful players, and never really in control. He was incapable of taking, or even seeing, a different path.
At the end, Nucky Thompson was a soulless chimera. He began to die the moment he gave Gillian to the Commodore, and no amount of wealth or power could stop the inner decay.
This fate wasn’t unique to Nucky. Jimmy, Chalky, Capone, Gyp Rossetti, Rothstein, and Narcisse built empires themselves, which are ground into dust by end of the series. As powerful as Luciano’s empire seemed in 1931, it was ultimately doomed as well. Even Richard Harrow – who lost everything trying to save Tommy, ultimately failed in the end.
So what does one make of Boardwalk Empire? It was an uneven series at times. At its best, it played like high tragedy, at its worst, it played like a dull historical reenactment. But perhaps no show on television has so viscerally dealt with the consequences of empires built by crime, violence, and moral decay.
(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe