Q&A: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ creator talks about the show’s ‘fitting’ ending
“Boardwalk Empire,” HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster epic about crooked politician turned ruthless bootlegger Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, wrapped up its fifth and final season Sunday. Unlike on “The Sopranos,” the screen did not go black at the final moment.
Instead, the final episode brought a decisive conclusion to the story of Thompson (Steve Buscemi), tying up loose ends and incorporating moments of bittersweetness and heartbreak, particularly between Thompson and the key women in his life — wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) and former showgirl Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol).
Set in 1920s Atlantic City and featuring depictions of crime figures including Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, “Boardwalk Empire” ranked among prime time’s elite dramas, propelled by an executive producing team that included filmmaker Martin Scorsese and actor Mark Wahlberg. The series was created and run by Terence Winter, a key member of the creative team behind “The Sopranos,” who wrote many of that drama’s most notable episodes.
On the eve of its conclusion, Winter reflected on the legacy and highlights of “Boardwalk Empire.” [Spoiler alert: Readers who have not watched the final episode and do not want to know the twists should stop reading.]
The silly question first: Was there a part of you that was tempted to go dark at the final moment?
[Laughs] I think I remember reading that kind of ending had been done already, so I didn’t want to go down that road.
Did the finale turn out the way you had planned, or were there changes?
We had gone over different versions on how it might end. We were also considering keeping Nucky alive, which in some ways may have been a bigger punishment than killing him. He would have lived out his life in obscurity after giving up everything he had. But the way we chose to end was really the most powerful version of the story for us. We pretty much settled on that a year and a half ago.
There’s a final dance between Nucky and Margaret, where it’s clear there’s still a bit of a spark, despite all the bad stuff that has happened between them.
We were really glad to bring that story full circle. That was the pivotal romantic relationship of Nucky’s adult life, the closest he’ll ever come to having a real family of his own. It was very bittersweet, the two of them flirting with the idea of having a future together. The scene was so beautifully directed by Tim Van Patten. It was sad and emotional but in some ways satisfying and fitting that they both know in their hearts that too much water had gone under the bridge for them to have a future. But it was nice for them to have that last dance.
That was actually the last scene we shot in the series, which was also very fitting, very emotional. The whole crew was standing around watching. It started with Nucky and Margaret, and it ended there too. It was very satisfying.
Gillian also did some horrible things, but when we see what happens to her, it’s pretty wrenching.
What a tragedy. Nucky’s giving the young Gillian to the Commodore sends him into the downward spiral that destroys his life and hers and two more generations of her family. It wasn’t evident in Season 2 that Gillian was the focus of Nucky’s emotional life. It was so powerful to see that depicted in flashbacks instead of just being talked about.
There’s a scene where Nucky is walking along the boardwalk when he’s approached by a pretty woman wearing an odd costume. She tells him she’s from the future. She summons him into a booth, where he sees a small TV screen with an image of the woman singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
That shows how the world was changing around Nucky and moving on without him. He is very much a man of the 19th century. The boardwalk was changing around him, and he didn’t even recognize it anymore; 1931 was the year of Flash Gordon and Art Deco, and there was no more cutting-edge technology than television. That was a perfect device to mystify him and show him he is totally a man out of his own time.
Judging from all the historical detail and history surrounding “Boardwalk Empire,” it was clear you always wanted the series to be more than just the story about the rise and fall of a gangster.
We had an opportunity to explore politics, the war, women’s rights, race relations. There was a lot of holding up mirrors to modern society. Prohibition was really the drug business. We got to explore birth control. That was a huge story. It was a great opportunity to explore the world of today. I’m very proud of the show and everyone that worked on it. Having come off an incredible series — perhaps the most incredible series ever — and being able to replicate that experience was tremendously satisfying.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new show for HBO which is set in the world of rock ‘n’ roll music in 1973. The pilot is also shot. Hopefully, before long, we’ll get an official pickup and be on the air before too long.
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