There is no better evidence of television’s Golden Age than the fate of Boardwalk Empire. It’s not the greatest show on the small screen, but it’s pretty close, and yet ever since Martin Scorsese directed the first $18m episode in 2010, viewing figures been in steady decline.
There’s only so much great drama that can fit in the average person’s viewing schedule and these days we’re spoiled for choice.
Show-runner Terence Winter has announced that the fifth series, which began on Saturday on Sky Atlantic, will be the last. Whatever the real reason for closing the curtain on Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and associates, it can’t be for lack of material.
This series opens in 1931, which necessitated skipping over seven years of eventful history for America’s bootleggers and bookmakers. The real Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg in the series) was murdered in 1928 and was here memorialised only by a throwaway reference to “AR’s funeral”.
The following year saw both the Wall Street Crash and the Atlantic City Conference, where, according to some crime historians, a national crime syndicate was born. Imagine what fun could have been had with Nucky, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano all in town at the same time.
Instead, there was a chance to reacquaint ourselves with Nucky, the protagonist who stepped into the background for much of the fourth series. On the New Jersey shore of 1884, we met a smart kid who learned to make connections first and money second, and in a Havana bar in 1931, the adult Nucky was still relying on these qualities. Repositioning himself for the coming repeal of Prohibition might mean going straight, but that shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? As he explained to his latest senator friend: “Wendell, if America’s not about starting over, where’s the hope for any of us?”
Nucky wouldn’t be the first HBO gangster to offset his criminal activities with a moral conscience, but unlike The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire’s greatness is not in one man’s struggle against the world. It’s in how several characters’ stories combine to depict that world in its entirely. Nucky might have been feeling reflective, for instance, but his old associate Chalky (Michael K Williams) was much less so. When asked be another convict how he’d ended up in a chain gang, he had only two words: “Got caught.”
Dialogue can seem unnecessary, anyway, in a show so beautifully realised. Patricia Arquette’s hat collection alone could justify a sixth series. Alas, all good things must come to an end. Especially things as evidently costly as Boardwalk Empire.