In advance of its fifth and final season, the creators of HBO drama Boardwalk Empire surprised loyal viewers by announcing that the blood-soaked gangster drama was getting a flash-forward in time. Instead of taking place in the early 1920s as we'd been accustomed to, Season Five finds Steve Buscemi's Enoch "Nucky" Thompson and his crime syndicate buddies immersed in the year 1931. While the Depression has been kind to some characters, our regulars mostly are stuggling to stay in power - wondering what the future holds with Prohibition's end and increased scrutiny from a beefed-up F.B.I.
More than anything, this Boardwalk Empire season broods with a world-weary, reflective mood - and it's not just from the frequent flashbacks to Nucky's youth in 19th century Atlantic City. Though you might think this shift would lead to a draggy, morbid finale, the time-shift actually made the show more multi-faceted and interesting than it ever was. Seven years after the conclusion of the previous season, we find Nucky exiled in Cuba and making a attempt at legitimacy. Together with Tampa speakeasy owner Sally Weet (Patricia Arquette), Nucky enters the season schmoozing politicians and rum makers to save his organization in the post-Prohibition era. Eventually he'll be back in Atlantic City, however, demoted to running a seedy burlesque joint with his sniveling associate Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks). A turn to misfortune fell on others in the cast, too: Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) is serving time in a prison chain gang and hoping to settle a score with Harlem crime boss Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). The insane asylum-committed Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and Nucky's now ex-wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) appear to be the only characters totally disconnected with the others, but they both eventually have reunions with Nucky. In Margaret's case, it's a fracas involving the widow of Manhattan kingpin Arnold Rothstein (the sole regular who died in this seven-year interim, surprisingly enough).
Delving further into how everybody's faring in 1931, it seems that even the characters who by all appearances have "made it" are paying for that success by giving up some of their soul. Al Capone (Stephen Graham) has positioned himself as the undisputed ruler of the Chicago underworld, assembling a large entourage and milking his image with the press as some kind of outlaw celebrity/folk hero. Former F.B.I. agent/whack job Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is still in Capone's group, and it's through Nelson that he involves Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), estranged from brother Nucky, in a double-cross deal involving Capone's financial records. This season also devotes some airtime to Eli's grown son, Willie (Ben Rosenfield), who is going into prosecution law despite his family's connections. Meanwhile, Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) is making inroads glumly conquering Manhattan's underworld with the help of Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), although Narcisse's stronghold on Harlem proves difficult. The Depression has made the organized crime class no less powerful yet desperate to hold onto whatever claim they've got.
With fewer tourists flocking to Atlantic City, Nucky's once-invincible profile has fallen dramatically since the first few seasons. The shifting of the action to Cuba, Chicago and New York takes some adjusting to, although the various outlying plots are threaded together via Nucky's flashbacks to his early days in Atlantic City. Granted, these segments had mucho possibility of being lame, but they're elegantly done, revealing facets of what made Nucky who he became and offering glimpses of his family and characters like Commodore Louis Kaestner (played by John Ellison Conlee) who would have a huge impact on his life. Plus, they did well with the two actors playing young Nucky - Nolan Lyons as a boy, then Marc Pickering as a tyro sheriff's deputy.
Boardwalk Empire was one of my favorite shows, and I'm sorry to see it go, but I think it was time. Many Boardwalk fans complained about this season's accelerated feel (with eight episodes instead of the usual twelve), the pared-down production values, or the predictable trajectory some felt the finale took, but I respectfully disagree. The creators couldn't have wrapped things up more beautifully than what they did here.
The Blu Ray:
HBO's three-disc Blu edition of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season comes as a handsome paperboard fold-out package with moody portraits of the cast members, each disc mounted on a clear plastic tray. No booklet is included, although a panel lists episode titles, brief plot descriptions and a listing of bonus features.
Coming from someone who has previously seen Boardwalk Empire solely on DVD, the 16x9 1080p high definition picture used on the Blu Ray edition looked nice if not quite mind-blowing. Because the digitally shot photography tends to be dark and deliberately set to a near-monochrome color palette, it's hard to adequately judge but the set's generous mastering (eight hour-long episodes on three discs) allows for decent amount of detail and muted, lifelike color. At times, the dark levels seemed somewhat milky, while the softened lighting used in many interior scenes came across as underwhelming when it should have been subtle and stunning.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is done in a clean, atmospheric mix that doesn't really wow but serves its function well with pristine dialogue kept in the central channel, while sound effects and audio are mixed in realistically to add ambiance. When it's used, the music cues are done seamlessly and at a pleasant level with the track's other elements. Each episode also comes with audio in French 5.1, Latin Spanish 2.0, and Castillan Spanish 5.1. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French, Latin and Castillan Spanish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian (Nelson's wife ought to enjoy that) and Swedish.
As with previous Boardwalk Empire home video editions, this fifth season comes with good cast and crew Audio Commentaries on four of the episodes. These tracks have Creator/Executive Producer/Writer Terence Winter, Executive Producer/Director Timothy Van Patten, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Piazza and others.
Perhaps it ended up having too much sprawl to come to a tidy conclusion, but Boardwalk Empire wrapped up five seasons in the most fantastic, expectation-defying way possible. Advancing Steve Buscemi's resigned mob boss Nucky Thompson and his cohorts-in-crime from the Roaring '20s to the gloomier landscape of 1931 made the series that much more compassionate for its unsavory gang of characters. The cast and crew brought the best to this brooding, twisty, surprising final year, while HBO's Blu Ray edition continues the high-quality presentation of earlier releases. Highly Recommended.