The times, they have a-changed on Boardwalk Empire.
The HBO drama's fifth season, which premieres Sunday at 9/8c, jumps forward seven years from the events at the end of Season 4. But perhaps more importantly, the time-warped, eight-episode Season 5 will be the last hurrah for Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) & Co.
"Somewhere toward the end of Season 4, [executive producer] Howard Korder and I looked at each other in the writers' room one day and said, 'We're heading toward a conclusion here. Nucky's story feels like it's winding down,'" creator Terence Winter tells TVGuide.com. "Nucky was making plans to leave Atlantic City and he was really looking for an exit strategy. The more we talked about it we said, 'How much longer can he continue to survive in this gangster game without it starting to feel repetitive?' Once we decided that we would make Season 5 the last year, the question was, 'OK, how do we bookend the series?'"
That's where the time jump came in. Although Winter initially thought about building the story around the stock market crash of 1929 ("That was the thing that told everybody the party was over," he says), he ultimately landed on 1931. "The series begins on the night Prohibition is enacted, so it made sense to carry forward with that theme," Winter says. "Prohibition didn't end until 1933, but '31 was close enough for us. By that point people realized it was dead in the water and it was a vastly failed experiment. 1931 was also the year that Al Capone (Stephen Graham) went to jail, the year that Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) rose to power and formed the Commission, which was the Mafia's governing body. So, it had a lot of other attractive things around it."
So, what can we expect from the gangster drama's final season? Below, Winter weighs in on the five things we're hoping to see before the lights go out in Atlantic City.
1. Nucky has to decide once and for all if he's going to be a gangster. The series began with the now-deceased Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) telling Nucky, "You can't be half a gangster." While Nucky has fully accepted his criminal status at times, his plans early in the final season involve seemingly legitimate business. Sensing the end of Prohibition is near, he heads to Cuba to broker a deal with Bacardi to distribute its rum once the law is repealed. But will Nucky ever be able to turn away from the criminal element? "The hope and the desire is that if one makes enough money, you can walk away from all of that stuff. You don't need to be a criminal anymore," Winter says. "But it's a little bit of rationalization. Nucky tells himself, and certainly criminals throughout history have told themselves that."
Regardless, the final season also features a reflective Nucky remembering his time as a child and young man growing up and working for The Commodore (John Elllison Conlee doing a striking Dabney Coleman impression) in Atlantic City. "This story really begins and ends with Nucky," Winter says. "So, that was always going to be the focus of the last season. What the flashbacks did for us is really give us an opportunity to see those pivotal events in his life that set him on the ultimate path that he chose. For me it's so much more satisfying when you actually get to witness these events, and see the young kid crossing those lines in the sand."
2. Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) needs to bounce back. After going to war with Harlem's Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) last season, Chalky seems to have lost everything, up to and including his daughter Maybelle, who was killed by a sniper's bullet meant for Narcisse. Things have only gotten worse in the past seven years, during which Chalky was sent to prison. Can he somehow put that pain behind him and try to reclaim his former life? "I don't think a parent ever gets over the loss of a child," Winter says. "That will be the defining moment of the rest of Chalky's life, and that pain and that weight that he feels will just be with him forever. That said, I do believe he's probably hell-bent on revenge to try to make that as right as he possibly can."
3. Van Alden (Michael Shannon) needs to take down Al Capone. While Winter was mum on how exactly he plans to spice up the story of Capone's downfall, it can't be an accident that onetime federal agent Nelson Van Alden ended up in Cicero all those years ago. Then again, Van Alden, who's now working for Capone with Nucky's banished brother Eli (Shea Whigham), isn't exactly the lawman he used to be. "The irony is the guy started out as a federal agent and ended up being pretty good at being a gangster, or certainly a head-breaker," Winter says. "The more he lost faith, the more he became comfortable in that world. You'll see that track continue.
4. Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) and Nucky need to resolve their issues. While we're not suggesting that the two need a fairy-tale ending, it would be nice to see how the characters bounce off each other after all these years apart. Fortunately, Margaret's work on Wall Street for Arnold Rothstein (who, unfortunately won't appear in the final season because his real-life counterpart died in 1928) will provide at least one chance for Margaret and Nucky to cross paths. "Margaret was really the main relationship in Nucky's life, at least through the course of the series," Winter says. "Meeting her really set the series in motion... so bringing her back and further exploring her relationship with Nucky was very important for us."
5. We expect a pretty high body count. The final season's tagline says it all: "No one goes quietly." In the early going, Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Lucky Luciano are certainly out for blood — a fact Nucky (and his newly hired, brutal bodyguard) is certainly aware of. "Violence is an important part of any gangster tale and certainly a big part of our show," Winter says. "Conflicts are not resolved easily. These guys don't very often sit around a table and negotiate. Problems are solved with bullets and blood, and I think certainly some will be spilled."
So will Nucky make it out alive? While Winter wouldn't spill any details about his hero's fate, he laughed off the notion that Boardwalk's ending would be debated like The Sopranos, aka Winter's old stomping grounds. "I don't think it's ambiguous," he says. "That said, I think it will be the source of conversation for a lot of people. I don't think it'll be debate necessarily, but [there could be] some analysis of it, I would say."
Boardwalk Empire's final season premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO. What do you want to see happen?
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