Tony Soprano sat down in the booth of an ice cream shop in Montclair, NJ, his massive physique and formidable stare filling the frame. Then there was darkness.
Even though I became a follower of “The Sopranos” after its 2007 conclusion, I imagine fans must have been left in shock, paralyzed by the show’s uncertain end. In addition, a more deep-seated fear must have emerged soon after the final credits rolled: What’s next?
It’s no secret that “The Sopranos” revolutionized television and set a new standard for quality drama on TV. A wave of networks such as AMC and Showtime joined HBO to compete in the quest for prime-time dominance, ushering in a Golden Age of Television. Despite the success of these networks in capitalizing on the trend started by “The Sopranos,” many critics and viewers alike felt empty as they waited for the next “big thing.” “Breaking Bad” certainly attracted praise during its run and the anticipation of its finale mirrored what unfolded during the culmination of “The Sopranos.” Other shows, such as “Mad Men,” continued to push creative boundaries. However, the chasm left by “The Sopranos” never seemed to be fully sealed. Eventually, HBO attempted to recreate the magic of its finest creation by enlisting those who knew it best. They handed “Sopranos” writer Terence Winter a copy of the book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City,” and told him to get to work.
Winter emerged with “Boardwalk Empire.” The expensive period piece stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic City and mastermind of its criminal underworld during the Prohibition Era. With Prohibition, Nucky sees a distinct opportunity to create an illicit liquor trade by opening Atlantic City’s ports to an unadulterated flow of alcohol. Nucky enlists his brother Eli (an underrated Shea Whigham) and together, they pump liquor into a growing city that has never been thirstier. As one might expect, conflict ensues over who will control the city, and by extension, the lucrative liquor trade.
Over the past four seasons, “Boardwalk” has expanded its scope beyond Atlantic City to other gangster havens of the 1920s such as Chicago and New York. There is Al Capone, played by a ferocious Stephen Graham, who has yet to create his own criminal empire and instead associates with Chicago mob boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci). Meyer Lansky and Mickey Doyle (Anatol Yusef and Paul Sparks), members of the Jewish Mafia, are recurring figures, as is New York boss Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a young Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza).
Indeed, the show’s commitment to a generally accurate portrayal of the history of East Coast organized crime is one of its most thrilling aspects, as well as its greatest crutch. Any 20th century American history or mob buff will love watching the rise of famed mobsters like Luciano and Capone, as well as the way the police, government, and institutions such as the newly formed FBI respond, or fail to respond, to the threat against Prohibition posed by organized crime in America. However, critics of the show complain about the multitude of story lines that develop at a glacial pace. Even fans of “Game of Thrones” or “Mad Men” will have trouble keeping track of a cast that is as extensive as the show’s budget. In addition, because the show must adhere to history, it is somewhat limited in what it can do with characters such as Capone, Luciano, and Lansky, who we know will arise in a new age of gangsters.
When HBO announced that Season 5 of “Boardwalk Empire,” which premiered Sept. 7, would be the show’s last, it was clear the stakes had to be heightened for a show that had been received warmly by critics but had failed to capture the level of mass adoration of other HBO hits. Winter responded by accelerating the show’s timeline to the year 1931. This seven-year jump will allow the show to conclude as Prohibition is dying out, a smart way to wrap a bow around a story only made possible by the 18th Amendment. Like all of the show’s previous season premieres, the first episode of Season 5 does little to explain how much the landscape has changed. Nucky has traveled to Havana, where he is meeting with the head of Bacardi and an influential U.S. Senator, evidently trying to get out ahead of rumors that Prohibition will be repealed. Nucky’s apparent wish to “go clean” once Prohibition is terminated is an unsurprising development for a man who has always put his business first. Unfortunately, like “The Godfather” has taught us, just when you think you’re out, they pull you right back in. These past four seasons have seen Nucky battle death threats and traitors in his ranks. It’s clear that he will not emerge from Prohibition unscathed, or without some more blood shed first.