"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever." And those words, from Ecclesiastes 1:4, uttered by a gangster (status: deceased) midway through the closing episode of "Boardwalk Empire," sum up a series and an idea: That the totality of all actions, and all deeds, amounts to nothing more than a pile of sand beyond a boardwalk on a beach, to be washed away by the all-embracing ocean...
Anyway, you get the idea: Nucky Thompson dies at the end of the show.
That's a shocker only if you care to examine the historical record, which in fact has one Enoch "Nucky" Johnson living to a ripe old age, after a lifetime of embezzlement and racketeering, which allowed him to become the king of Atlantic City, and the subject of a book -- "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City," by Nelson Johnson, which served as the basis for this fine HBO series.
"Boardwalk Empire" has always used history as a starting point, and only rarely as an endpoint. (And if you want to get really technical about this, maybe Nucky doesn't die, but recovers...but that seems a stretch.)
The value of history in the context of "Boardwalk Empire" has been mostly to establish a setting -- magnificently rendered over five seasons, particularly so last night -- and to remind us of the moral consequence of actions; the what-comes-around-goes-around structure of the modern television drama narrative, which demands that no good deed must go unpunished, but no bad deed either.
Complex, morally depraved anti-heroes with beating hearts who seek justice (albeit primarily for themselves) and who always forget that there is a greater force at work beyond their immediate actions -- like Nucky Thompson, or Walter White, for that matter -- usually come to the same end. It's not a good one.
The generational theme last night, however, neatly summed up this series' overall moral in a clever and unexpected way. "Joe Harper" as Tommy Darmody, the lost son of Jimmy (seen only as a baby or toddler through the early seasons)? Who saw that coming? You did, of course. But I didn't. Congratulations on your prescience.
Tommy -- of course -- had to make a reappearance in some way, had to resolve something, had to resolve this whole series, and credit to Terence Winter and Howard Korder for figuring that out. Gillian had to be avenged -- you knew that too. For whatever Nucky could do, or think he could do,he could not escape what he had done, as the Commodore's pimp, and later as Jimmy's executioner.
Since "Boardwalk Empire" got all biblical on us last night, allow me to go a step further here to add another element, this from Exodus: "...I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me..." (Exodus 20:5.).
"Those who Hate Me..." Were any words more perfectly ascribed to Nucky Thompson, who sought power, abused power, was corrupted by power... He hands that wad of cash to "Joe" in the closing minutes,who then tears it into pieces. Money -- it's always the answer for you, says Joe, or words to that effect.
"It's the only answer I've got," Nucky responds. It's the only one he ever had.
What one generation handed down to the next was to become Nucky's obsession over this final season. The entrance of Joe Kennedy was to stoke that obsession -- here, in the presence of Nucky, was this then-obscure man giving Nucky a larger meaning to life, which was that maybe the future was more important that the present.
[As a sidenote here, I think viewers were also forced by Winter and Korder to consider the generational theme with regards to Joe Kennedy, who would use his fortune to get his son to the highest office in the land, along with the tragic end to that story. This is an instance of "Boardwalk Empire" using real history, alongside our collective knowledge of it, to energize the 5th season's overall theme and meaning.]
Nucky decided -- and to save Willie was forced to -- that once free of the present and past, he too could look into the future.
And what an amazing future! One he could never even have dreamt of -- a television, with a talking person! Imagine that? Or an ability to effortlessly short a stock and make millions? Ah, the wonder of the future...
But Nucky came late to wisdom, too late. The damage was already done, already done by his own father, and probably by his father before him. Nucky's fine little speech: First he got a nickel, and nothing could ever be better...and then a dime..and then a quarter, recalling that evocative scene at the opening of the season, with Nucky diving for nickels... Nucky saw in money the only way to proceed - first the nickel, then the dime. There was no reversing that, like the proverbial pig in the python, and if you could only collect enough dimes, you could solve all the world's problems, his own in particular, or Gillian's, or Eli's...You could reverse what had come before. You could remake the future by erasing the past...
What he forgot was the tragic consequence of the pursuit, which began right there on the boardwalk, when King Neptune passed by and the Commodore got a glimpse at some bait. Nucky supplied the bait -- because the pain and horror of going into reverse was too much to contemplate -- and the consequences of that act were visited upon him in the closing seconds last night.
What goes around comes around -- or, put another way, a jealous God visits the iniquities of the fathers on the children. That dear old dissolute monster, the Commodore, did impart one piece of advice to Nucky that he appears never to have forgotten, and they even became words to live by, and then die by: "It's what you leave behind. That's the only thing anyone will ever remember about you."
Jimmy Darmody-- the most tragic character over the entire five seasons, besides Nucky -- finally gets his vengeance, through the son, Tommy, he never really knew.
That's how it all wrapped and that's the only thing anyone will ever remember about Nucky.