We begin with a lurch seven years into the future from the heartbreaking final moments of The Complete Fourth Season. Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) sees repeal on the horizon, and even though he’s made a fortune through bootlegging, he’s interested in going legit. So he heads down to Cuba with his gal Friday Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) to shore up some foreign support for his business. But as he’s down south courting Bacardi, he sees a familiar face, the "Mob’s Accountant" Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). And shortly after, an assassination attempt is made on Nucky himself. The fallout behind this attack drives much of the plot moving forward.
One thing is certain in Boardwalk Empire (as it most certainly was in history): if Lansky is involved, so is Charles "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza). Being the father of modern organized crime, history dictates exactly where the chips fall for him: he’s destined to win it all. And we see every second of his rise to power, from his fantastic betrayal of Joe "The Boss" Masseria (Ivo Nandi) to his purging of many of the old ways to start his legendary evil empire. And I do mean "purging:" his tabula rasa approach to the past places several key players in grave danger, and more than a few of them in their actual graves, as well…
The final season of Boardwalk Empire sees Nelson Van Alden -- or should I say George Mueller (Michael Shannon) teamed up with the exiled Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) as a pair of bungling bagmen for Chicago Outfit gangster Al Capone (Stephen Graham), who has risen to superstardom. Capone’s coke-fueled homicidal mania is entertaining to watch, but kind of unnecessary. Naturally, the time period in which The Complete Fifth Season is set means that Capone is about to fall at the hands of Mr. Untouchable himself, Eliot Ness (The Wire’s Jim True-Frost, in a cameo so short you could blink and miss it completely). The show primarily focuses on Capone’s psychosis and his tendency to put on humorous airs as the walls close in on him. It’s inconsistent and not always worthwhile, but the payoff is in a very touching farewell scene between Capone and his deaf son. And Van Alden, well… I get the feeling he’s a character we were never really meant to understand.
I have to admit that the conclusion of Chalky White’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) story is a bit too nihilistic for my taste, despite being practical and believable. When we catch up with him, he’s hit rock bottom; easy to understand, since the last time we saw him he was being dragged screaming from the table where his daughter Maybelle (Christina Jackson) lay slumped over with a bullet in her head. Of course times haven’t been good to the man. And now he’s on the chain gang. But much is on his mind, including his ex-lover Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) and his hated nemesis, the brilliant and deadly Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright).
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season is all about tying up loose ends, and characters that in the past seemed to be shoved to the periphery get their last licks in. So we get to spend a little bit of time with the likes of Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret Rohan (Kelly Macdonald), who has worked for an investment office since last season. And the result of her transacting with the infamous – and now deceased -- Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) places her in the sights of his widow Carolyn (Shae D’Lyn). Time seems to have healed a great many wounds for Margaret, enough to the point where she’s willing to ask for Nucky’s help. This subplot is intertwined with a visit from an up and coming Irish businessman/politician by the name of Joseph Kennedy (Matt Letscher), and ends with a heist of sorts that is both unexpected and kind of delightful.
Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) has led a life that has been, for lack of better words, unenviable. Let’s list the ways. She became the concubine of the pedophilic Commodore at the age of 12, was made pregnant with his child, committed drunken incest with said child, watched as said child murdered his father, lost said child, murdered a lookalike of said child to escape a legal dilemma, unwillingly became a heroin addict, and was nursed back to health by a good man who just so happened to be a Pinkerton investigating the murder she committed. And now she’s living the rest of her days in a sanitarium. Gillian’s story is a profoundly sad, profoundly ugly one, and this final season sees it through to its bitter end. Even though we don’t see too much of her, she has always been one of the most important characters in the series – if not THE most important character in the series -- and the show never lets you forget that.
Perhaps the most fulfilling part of The Complete Fifth Season comes to us via a trope that is often reviled in other stories: the flashback. Running in parallel with the events of the present is the story of young Enoch Thompson, from his poor beginnings to the moment that transformed him from a wide-eyed idealist into the ruthless opportunist we’ve watched over the past five years. We get 1884 Nucky (Nolan Lyons) and 1897 Nucky (Marc Pickering). The story doesn’t gloss over these chapters at all, and it gives you some much-needed context. As 1884 Nucky jockeys with the younger boys to gain the favor and attention of the wealthy, 1897 Nucky is the Deputy underneath the conflicted Sheriff Lindsay (Boris McGiver, yet another Wire veteran!), whose ties to the powerful Commodore Louis Kaestner (John Ellison Conlee) force him into some business that is beyond dirty. The actors and actresses chosen for these younger versions of well-known characters are dead ringers for their older counterparts, and though the obvious and frankly enormous fake teeth threaten to destroy the plausibility of Pickering’s portrayal, it’s still an excellent performance.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season has arrived not even half a year after The Complete Fourth Season hit shelves. Whatever the hurry was, it may have impacted the breadth and variety of the special features, which, compared to most HBO releases, are almost mind-blowingly few. Maybe I’m just spoiled, but if anything else, the timing of this incongruity is a stunning disappointment. One would think that a production like this would inspire a series of post-mortems; reflections on the ultimate fate of the characters and setting. Unfortunately, all we get is another installment of Scouting the Boardwalk and the audio commentaries from cast and crew that we've come to expect. The special features are quite good, but there's not enough of it to justify the full price. And when you combine that with the fact that The Complete Fifth Season is shorter than all the previous seasons by at least a third, that's a bit of a problem.
One final feature included in this release is the Blu-ray Live HBO Sampler: if you've got an internet-connected Blu-ray device, you can view the pilot episodes of four HBO shows free of charge. Currently available are Girls, Looking, Banshee and Togetherness, but these are supposed to update quarterly as new shows become available.
Though Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season lacks the substance to warrant its current asking price, it is still a excellent send-off to one of the most ambitious dramas of the last decade, and I'm glad I kept up with it the whole way through. It'll be remembered as a damn fine bit of television.