Monday, October 27, 2014

Wordy Old Men on Boardwalk Empire: Season Five, Episode Eight "Eldorado"

"Eldorado," the series finale of the wonderful Boardwalk Empire was penned by creator Terence Winter and executive producer and Winter's right hand Howard Korder. The fantastic Tim Van Patten fittingly directed the last episode.

Old Man Duggan: With no benefit of the opening credits to which we have all become accustomed, we open on Nucky--stripped down, both figuratively and literally--wading into the ocean and swimming against the tide. The tide, of course, brought him his fortune. The oceanfront brought people and their money to Atlantic City, and to its shores came the booze to keep America drunk through the Prohibition. Obviously, the tide also represents the force of Nucky's past--his actions, their consequences--and as he later relates to Eli, he is unable to tell how far is far enough to never come back. The weight of a lifetime's worth of actions in pursuit of wealth and power cannot be counterbalanced. A quiet shot starting with the symbol of his material empire--clothing, shoes, cigarette case, lighter, and iconic hat from the credits, all clearly a nod to what we didn't get to start the episode--in the sand, stripped from his body just as his empire had just been wrested from his grip, and the man adrift attempts to head against the grand force of the ocean. Loaded, powerful opening shot, complete with underlying music that strangely made me think of the introductory measures of the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme, until it took its minor turn.

Wordy Ginters: Buscemi swimming naked against the tide. A nimble remix of the traditional opening credits, and a pretty apt coda for the series in general. Plus, Buscemi shirtless. Love it when Winter throws a bone to the ladies.

OMD: After Nucky's insistence that he could be of use to Commodore Kaestner, his palpable disgust at the Commodore's delight in having young girls recite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Secrets of the Sea" to him. "Ah! what pleasant visions haunt me / As I gaze upon the sea! / All the old romantic legends, / All my dream, come back to me." After some cursory re-education on the subject of Longfellow, his first wife died after a miscarriage when he was just 28 years old, and it came while they were travelling abroad in a year-long voyage through Europe all for the purpose of furthering his career, so there are cursory similarities between the two men. While I cannot speak with certainty, I do not know that Longfellow procured underage tail for Josiah Quincy III, the man who brought Longfellow to Harvard.

WG: Don't fret, historians and English scholars alike have wrestled with the dark rumors of Longfellow's role in 19th century sex trafficking for decades. The theory that dactylic hexameter is the metre of the sexually deviant becomes more accepted each day. Even here in stodgy old Nebraska.

OMD: Definitely perv meter.

Margaret turning stock-manipulating mastermind, outwitting and playing Kennedy in the process, was beautiful. She even managed to rebuff his advances while securing him as a client. Cagey.

WG: Winter didn't spend much time constructing the female characters on the show, but he rebounded nicely with the way he wrapped up Margaret's thread. I especially loved the line she stuck on Kennedy, "Imagine all that you want in life and then picture yourself in a dress." Rumor has it that Winter and Scorcese are developing a prequel to The Wolf of Wall Street based on Margaret's ability to get filthy rich on morally questionable German stock positions during WWII. Jonah Hill co-stars as a Young Sergeant Schultz.

OMD: While I'd absolutely pay hard-earned cash to see that, my real desire is still to see Nelson and Eli hold down the fort in Cicero during the seven years we missed. I'd also like to state that I really wish I had the time to make that Wolf o' Wall Street artwork happen, but that would take me forever.

The last time we see Mabel, she is unable to tell Nucky that he doesn't disappoint her immediately after having a miscarriage.

WG: Kind of a bad day for Nucky, wasn't it? Punched Father? Check. Father points shotgun at his head? Check. Wife has miscarriage? Check. Fired from job? Check. Asked to aid and abet pedophile in return for career advancement? Check. Flat tire? Check. Forgot to pay cable bill and service disconnected? Check. With the broad strokes on Nucky's backstory finally all filled in, is it enough to make Nucky a sympathetic character? I don't know.

OMD: Good question. I think he clearly wants to repent but doesn't have the mechanism by which to make that happen. As he eventually finds out in a very hard and final way, money is not the answer to every question, though it's the best answer he knows.

Capone's scene with his son does a nice job of re-humanizing him. It's been a long time, and Stephen Graham has been relegated to playing the brazen, larger-than-life caricature of Capone for the past couple seasons, but there has always been a striking dichotomous nature to Capone on the series, and with his contemplative last shot in the back of the car before he puts on his game face, it's nice to see Winter, Korder, and Van Patten bringing this part of Capone back to the fore.

WG: Loved it. These types of pro moves are why I loved the show so much. How tricky would it be to write a show based on these larger than life historical figures? The mobster genre has been done to death. Boardwalk Empire was able to bring a fresh angle to the genre by having the balls to meander a little, and show these criminal icons as human from time to time. Sure, they were badasses, and brash, and cartoonish many times too, but taken all together it made for a sweet little nut roll. Jesus, Capone on the courthouse steps aping John Barrymore? Beautiful.

OMD: Weird note that only I would care about: as Margaret is walking into the open apartment in the Eldorado (its name having obvious significance, of course), the radio broadcast is talking about the market roller coaster ride and then breaks into talking about Jim Weaver and the Yankees having beaten the Philadelphia A's 3 - 2. Weaver faced the A's once in a Yankees uniform and the Yankees lost 16 - 4.

WG: Christ, what a couple of degenerates. I immediately paused the show and spent 15 minutes on baseball-reference searching for said game. I was kind of bummed I didn't find one that matched that score from 1931. I wonder what the significance was? You think someone on the production team was related to Jim Weaver or something? You notice that Yankee line-up in 1931? Ruth (+218 OPS with a .495 OBP). Gehrig. Chapman. And they finished 13.5 games back in 2nd place. To think our beloved Kansas City Royals will soon be taking their rightful place alongside past World Series champions, a notch above has been teams like the '31 Yankees, seems just.

OMD: I sure fucking hope that happens. I'm concerned now. Zero wiggle room for the Royals (who were responsible for the delay in this post, of course).

The framing in the opening of that scene was nice. Nucky started on the opposite side of the divided floor, a gray area if you will. He steps across the line on the floor and to the checkered floor, presumably a world that's more black-and-white. Coming over to Margaret's world, meaning to leave his old life behind, they dance, but they're ripped from the momentary fantasy by a happy couple looking at the suite. Their past is obviously too complex to leave behind. He's left to look at the ground, the other world into which he is trying to make the transition, and cannot help but feel out of place. Their silence speaks volumes.

WG: Nice catch. I'm convinced repeated viewings will be rewarded, especially for things like this. Fundamentals guaranteed to make film buffs weak in the groin.

OMD: I liked that there was just enough vagueness surrounding who they were killing to lead one to believe that maybe Nucky was going to get offed. A sly misdirect from Van Patten with the shot over the shoulder of two men wearing hats, seemingly walking together. Then he meets The Future. Into the darkness he heads, and inside he finds the television, the device that would change the world forever, highlighting an amusing reflexivity in that his story is being told on a device that shows him that he's a misplaced relic an antique ready to be left in the past.

WG: Probably my favorite scene of the season.

OMD: Nucky's father puts the shotgun to Nucky's head in their kerfuffle. The past that he's trying to leave behind, of course, will not let that happen.

It's interesting that Nucky, in his quest to break good, goes farther than he ever had as a kid in swimming against the tide. The power of the life he yearned for was always greater than his will to do good. The goodbye between Nucky and Eli is bittersweet. Of course, Nucky doesn't know why this is actually their farewell. Both men are torn down, but at least Eli, whose actions, at least of late, were borne out of necessity, may have a shot at a future and a fresh shave. Brother speeders / Let's Rehearse / All together / "Good morning Nurse!" / Burma Shave.

WG: Ahem. I think I called my shot by predicting Eli would shave in our last recap.

OMD: Indeed you did.

Narcisse? Done.

WG: And a pretty spectacular death scene by Jeffrey Wright. That was gratifying. The extended ongoing sermon/rhetoric he was spinning prior to his demise fit just as nicely as the kids reciting Longfellow for the Commodore.

OMD: Nucky's visit to Gillian in the nut house is loaded with double-meanings and subtext. His insistence that "the past is past" shows that he still doesn't know that he can't outrun his. When she gets up after he tries in his own way to get her to absolve him for misdeeds for which absolution are not possible, the true horror of what she's undergone is obvious. Thankfully we don't get to see the butchery up close. Jesus, Dr. Cotton was a fucking lunatic. He should've been in the loony bin himself.

WG: That was a powerful scene for me. Jesus. So rare for Nucky to show emotion. And he should have. If he wouldn't have steered Gillian to the Commodore, maybe she wouldn't have been so looney tunes. Gillian was just as dangerous as the gangsters, maybe even more so. Does she ever get out? Doubtful.

OMD: She's surely missing the bulk of her innards if she does make it out. I think it would take a fire to spring her. It wouldn't be a release on account of her being a good girl.

Nucky gets into his old quarters at the club, sees the postcard young Mabel sent him, and gets another call requesting his presence at the Ritz. The past is going nowhere.

"Mrs. Thompson said you want to be good. But you don't know how." That's the key to this whole show, isn't it? As he leaves Gillian on the boardwalk to answer the Commodore's call, a call to relieve him of his duties, only really to tear him down and have him do his bidding and cater to his every depraved whim. To get the Sheriff gig, he has to deliver Gillian, and in delivering her, he promises to take care of her. A loathsome act. Vile. Wretched in his own eyes, yet in the pursuit of power and wealth, he swallows that bitter pill.

WG: Absolutely the foundation the show was built on. He was willing to debase himself and others for wealth and power. And he never stopped. Of course he had to die in the end.

OMD: Back in the present, Nucky sees Neptune on the billboard atop the boardwalk, and then Princeton college boys--serving both as symbols of the privilege he never had and the surrogate son that he murdered in cold blood--confront him and one begins reciting Robert Service's poem "The Spell of the Yukon." "I wanted the gold, and I sought it; / I scrabbled and mucked like a slave. / Was it famine or scurvy--I fought it. / 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." Setting aside the extreme improbability of this happening in the real world, the poem is clearly on the nose.

WG: And I lapped it up nonetheless.

OMD: Same here.

Back to the past, he weighs his options. Present, Tommy reveals himself. Past, he assures Gillian he'll look after her. Present, he pays for his misdeeds. IRS agents nab Tommy after the damage is done. Young Nucky grabs the coin in the water. His symbolic fate was sealed from jump street.

WG: Loved that final shot. Young Nucky floating innocently in the sea, snatching the coin. Some Cormac McCarthy type shit going on there. The simple act of playing footsie with greed sets in motion all kinds of horrible dominoes we can barely comprehend. Also nice homage to Nirvana's Nevermind album cover.

OMD: Thankfully no baby dick.

It feels like there's a lot still to talk about. I think it makes sense (to me at least) to flip the controls over to you here. What are your overall feelings about this all coming to an end?

WG: For me, Boardwalk Empire is in a trinity of all-time great serial dramas along with The Wire and Deadwood. It didn't have the breathless mayhem and corkscrew plot action of Breaking Bad. It's not as sexy as Mad Men. Not as balls out fun as The Sopranos.

OMD: I don't know where I'd put it. I'd say the artistry is on a level that I don't know another show has ever reached. I'd still defer to someone championing The Wire or Deadwood. I say without hesitation that I prefer it to any of the others mentioned, though I'd certainly have to add a handful of hour-longs to the mix, namely Justified, Terriers, Carnivale, Friday Night Lights and Veronica Mars, not to mention shows currently in production that have to be considered as potential contenders for such categorization like Broadchurch, HannibalMasters of Sex, and True Detective. Yes, I know I didn't list Game of Thrones, anyone lobbying for its inclusion in this list can start their own fucking blog.

WG: I don't think there has been a more cinematic show on television. Beautiful to look at. Lots of critics bag on Boardwalk for the multitude of threads and plots that moved too slow. To them I say: Bah. I hope there is always room for series that take their time. That allow productions to have a vision and follow it through, if nothing else for the entertainment derived from watching badass craftsmen do what they do.

OMD: I've seen every episode of the last three seasons at least twice, many of them more than that. The painstaking attention to detail, the incredible production design, the symbolism that runs rampant through each episode, hell, the fucking shot framing, all of it sets the show apart. I think nearly all of the criticism comes from people who either didn't find Nucky compelling enough or worse from people who were viewing each episode as its own thing, which a show like Boardwalk Empire was never going to be able to withstand as it is so serialized as to render such criticism pointless.

WG: I'll definitely be watching the series again. I think it's hard to grasp the towering scale and scope of what Winter created, especially fresh off a satisfying final episode that managed to finish some telegraphed final touches without being too hokey. Boardwalk Empire, it was good to know ye. I'll be seeing you again.

OMD: Indeed. We'll miss you, Nucky, Nelson, Margaret, Eli, Chalky, et al, but we'll probably rewatch you over and over.


Robert Shelton said...

I have two pop culture obsessions. American organized crime history and baseball history. I too went crazy trying to find Jim Weaver's victory. I found your blog after the series ended. How bittersweet. I wish now that I could have ridden the wave of genius that was BE with you. Fantastic job fellows. Any other work I can find from either, or both of you?

WordyG said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'll let Old Man Duggan speak for himself, but he's all over the web on baseball sites, particularly Royals Review. How about you? Any crime history websites you'd like to tout?

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