We bid farewell to Boardwalk Empire, a show that was impeccable in craftsmanship, but never really did set passions aflame. I enjoyed watching it throughout it's run, but I never really saw anything more to it than an expertly crafted drama; it was more admirable than engrossing. But I must say the final, shortened season did raise it even higher in my esteem. That's saying something. Most shows go out with a mad rush to closure, and while B.E. did take some turns to that end, nothing was really out of place and the closure fit very well into the storylines.
Boardwalk was imbued with quality from the outset. Terence Winter, and his Sopranos pedigree, headed up the show. Scorsese was involved early on. The key actors were not there for their big names alone. Even in the smaller, transient roles, the casting (the most underrated aspect of TV production) was impeccable. Casting director Meredith Tucker, another Sopranos alum, should be dripping with Emmys for this. (I think she won one, but I can't imagine her not getting one for this final season.) In the last season she had to cast younger versions of many of the characters for flashbacks, include two younger versions of Nucky Thompson. The results ranged from spot-on to absolutely uncanny.
The cinematography also stood out, and I know this because it was noticeably skillful, and there are very few shows you can say that you noticed the exceptional camera work and composition. The first thing that stood out were the scenes with Al Capone and his lackeys. Designed to be almost cartoon-like in their exaggeration. It looked like something out of a stage play ensemble were movements and short comments are all choreographed to point to the lead character. Once you notice that, you start to notice how every shot is composed and lit specifically to enhance the scene. And I mean every. I don't think there's a throwaway camera angle to be found.
The first four seasons played out in pretty standard Sopranos-esque form. Ensembles mixed and ingled, there were no innocents - the heroes could do evil, the villains could seem sympathetic. There was a central conflict and some key character got whacked towards the end. There was a great deal of activity, wonderful acting, and a vitality that came from the exceptional characterizations. Also, it never acquired the Sneer-at-the-Cavemen Syndrome so many period dramas succumb to, where everyone is portrayed as a morally-stunted, unenlightened, boorish, bigoted cliche (see: Masters of Sex, or The Knick) by contemporary standards. On this last point, special kudos need to go to season 4, which featured a storyline involving the struggle of two ruthless black men for control of the "colored" business in Atlantic City. The facts of existence for blacks in that time were never ignored, but the two principals were not helpless victims, nor righteous crusaders. They were individuals in morally base power struggle, and their ultimate story was personal, not socio-political, and therefore much more powerful than it would have been in the hands of a more shallow-minded show-runner. This is what I mean by excellent dramatic craftsmanship.
In fact, by almost any measure of TV quality it was a cut above. But, still, there was no sense of anything larger going on. I never really got emotionally invested in any of these characters. Their successes or failures or whackings simply weren't that moving because I saw no greater purpose. Then season 5 came and pulled it all together. As I said, closure was a big goal, but closure can be done well or done poorly (The Wire, for example). As expected Boardwalk's closure was done well; so well that it elevated the series as a whole. In fact, just to increase the difficulty factor, the closure leaned on lengthy flashbacks which, for most drama, is begging for trouble.
Leaving aside the supporting characters, for whom no closure was a throwaway, the big reconciliation was for Nucky Thompson. Thinking back to the pilot, I remember having serious reservations about Steve Buscemi. A perpetual second banana (often an essential one), I was concerned he could carry the lead role in such a series. I was wrong to worry, he was excellent through and through, and in fact, there were occasional points where things crawled a bit when he wasn't the focus.
Part of the success of Nucky's closure through flashbacks, in addition to the casting I mentioned above, was the absolutely astounding work done by the actors of the younger versions to affect the mannerisms and speech habits of their older counterparts that we were thoroughly familiar with. The flashbacks gave us the childhood seed of Nucky's obsessive greed (or simple ruthless ambition, I suppose), how that led the young adult original sin of his introducing Gillian to the execrable Commodore, and how that act destroyed lives and killed people, including himself two generations on. It turned the whole series into a nicely structured Greek tragedy. An inspired ending to say the least.
A sprawling Greek tragedy is a good way to view Boardwalk Empire, virtually everyone gets the comeuppance they merit, as determined by their personal flaws. I don't think Boardwalk measures up to the big 4 (Deadwood, Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men). But it is one of only two in the next tier down (along with Breaking Bad). Once Mad Men is gone next year, nothing current will come close to it.