[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's series finale of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Read at your own risk.]
After five beautifully crafted seasons, the lights finally went out on HBO's Boardwalk Empire Sunday night. And as promised by creator and executive producer Terence Winter, who worked with the team that crafted the maddening and still-debated ending of The Sopranos, there was nothing ambiguous about it.
The show arguably reached its emotional climax in the penultimate episode, when Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) agreed to give up his Atlantic City empire to New York rival Charlie Luciano (Vincent Piazza) in order to save his nephew Willie. As such, the finale became a flashback-heavy exploration of Nucky's soul as he tied up loose ends with his brother Eli (Shea Whigam) and made plans to move to New York and live quietly, thanks to the cool $2 million he made manipulating the stock market with his former wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald).
Terence Winter: I loved the ending of The Sopranos and I thought it was brilliant. I knew it was one less thing I could do. I couldn't do thatagain. [Laughs] It was apples and oranges. I didn't consider it from an ambiguous-versus-non-ambiguous standpoint. We really just thought, "What is the story we want to tell and what is the best version of that story?" I wasn't setting out to wrap things up in a neat bow for people; it's just really how it laid out. There are aspects that are not completely crystal-clear. Obviously, Nucky's story comes to a very definite conclusion, [but] Eli may or may not have gone back to his family. We don't really know what's going to happen with Margaret. So we didn't really consider it in that way. It was really just what was the most effective story.Did you toy with other possible endings that didn't involve Nucky dying?
Winter: Yeah, we did. We ran the various versions of how it could play out. But I think probably somewhere in the middle of Season 4,Howard Korder, Tim Van Patten and I came to the conclusion that Nucky was probably going to die at the hand of Jimmy's son. We did talk about the idea of having him go off to lead a life of obscurity as the real Nucky did. Our Nucky is very loosely based on the real person. Nucky Johnson between the years of 1915 and 1945 was the most powerful man in that city. And when I went down there to research, no one had heard of him. Once the show hit the air, everybody claimed to know him, but not a single person I talked to had any idea who he was. It's pretty interesting how quickly a guy can fall of the radar. ... In some ways that could be a bigger punishment than dying.
Look back at photos of Boardwalk Empire through the years
Given the way Nucky's death was intercut with flashbacks to Nucky's original sin — handing Gillian over to the Commodore — were you making any moral judgment about Nucky?
Winter: I wasn't trying to send a message that crime doesn't pay necessarily because for some people it does pay very well. I think Nucky's a guy who lived by the sword and unfortunately died by the sword. It came full circle: The act of betrayal, giving up Gillian to the Commodore, destroyed his life, destroyed her life and three generations of her family. It was just the fitting end to that story for us. It wasn't meant to render any kind of judgment on him at all.
There's the great scene of Nucky telling Margaret that when he earned his first nickel, he wanted a dime and so on. Was his inability to be satisfied his fatal flaw?
Winter: That's the downfall of so many people. They go in for one last score — but it's never enough. You see people in this life who have millions of dollars and you just think, "Walk away!" But if you were the type of person who could walk away, you wouldn't be doing that in the first place. Nucky's entire quest was to make something of himself and to be rich and respected. If he were thinking straight, he would have retired the day Prohibition was enacted. But it was too much to resist, [and he was] striving for that gold. Of course, the last shot of the series is that little kid finally catching that gold coin. That's really what a large part of his life was about.
And yet, before Tommy shoots Nucky, he is planning to leave that lifestyle behind. Do you think he could have?
Winter: I think he certainly would have given it a shot. How successful he would have been being a retired man of wealth remains to be seen. People like that tend to really crave action and he might have gotten into trouble in New York City for all we know and things might not have worked out. It could have been Tommy Darmody that night or it might've been somebody else on another night. But I think he certainly intended t o give it a good-faith effort.
Winter: I think there was a certain fatalism about him. We sort of depicted that this was a man whose time had come and gone. That scene on the boardwalk where the woman shows him the future, the TV — we really wanted something to illustrate how much a man of the 19th century Nucky really was and that this was a future he would never really be a part of. Luciano, Lansky, the young guys — the future was theirs. We see them in this cutting-edge Art Deco room and Nucky is on the boardwalk, and even the boardwalk isn't the same anymore. It was very much meant to suggest that it's over for him.Nucky's final scene with Gillian was perhaps the most emotional we've seen Nucky.
Winter: Gillian is a relationship that has haunted Nucky for most of his adult life, as it should have. As much as he's extremely conflicted about her over the years, there was a certain amount of responsibility he felt and took for her. That came full circle, of course, with a tragic outcome. By the time he gets to Gillian in the hospital, it's really too late. But you can see how much that weighs on him and how powerful that encounter was in that final scene between them.On the other hand, in his last scene with Margaret, it seems she let him off the hook for the troubles of their relationship through the years.
Winter: It's a very honest assessment of their relationship. At first blush, I think a lot of people assume [Margaret] is this kindly, beleaguered and abused Irish housewife. She was, of course, but this is a woman who was shrewd enough to get herself in a chair across from the most powerful man in Atlantic City. She's a woman who is very strong and willing to do whatever it took to get ahead. So, her assessment of herself in that relationship was very true. It's not so much letting Nucky off the hook as admitting her own culpability in their relationship.Tying up other loose ends, how did you decide how you'd handle Al Capone's downfall, given how many other times that story has been told?
Winter: I was really more interested in exploring the inner life of Capone and seeing how it must have weighed on him in terms of saying goodbye to his family. We know the guy as the big, blustery kingpin of Chicago. But we also know that he had a son that he loved very much and as much as he feigned he didn't care about what was happening to him, he must have cared very deeply. Those were the moments we were really interested in depicting, and we were happy to tell the true version of how Capone went down as opposed to the fictionalized Eliot Ness version. Ness was basically a thorn in Capone's side and the mythology around that was something we were very happy to dispel.
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As someone still mourning Chalky White, I was glad to see Dr. Narcisse get his comeuppance. Was that part of your decision to kill him off?
Winter: It was really just in with the new, out with the old. Luciano and the guys who at the beginning of the series were the young punks at the sides of the Johnny Torrios and the Big Jim Collisimos of the world have now taken over. Torrio has been marginalized and put out to pasture, Nucky is killed, Narcisse is killed, Capone's in jail. It's a new day, as Luciano says, and he's in charge of it.
Looking back over the whole experience, do you wish the show had found a bigger audience?
Winter: I wish it could be exposed to a greater number of people, but not everything is for everybody. I think a lot of people are afraid of history. But we wrote the show precisely for the people who got it, and it doesn't really matter what the number is. I remember on The Sopranos, we'd have a line of dialogue and somebody would say, "Only five people in the audience are going to get that reference or joke." And David Chase would say, "Well, that's the five people I'm writing for." That's a great way to put it.
What can you tell us about your new pilot, which wrapped production a while back?
Winter: It's as yet untitled, set in the world of rock and roll in 1973. Martin Scorsese directed it, I wrote it, and it's executive-produced by Mick Jagger, which is really exciting. Bobby Cannavale is the star. He plays a character named Richie Finestra, who is a record executive in New York City circa 1972, which is the year that punk, disco, and hip-hop were all invented within about a six-month period of each other. it's a really exciting, interesting time in music in New York City, and I could not be more excited to get going on that.
Does Bobby's character have any similarities to his Boardwalk character? Perhaps a love of spaghetti and coffee?
Winter: [Laughs] Yeah, he's the Gyp Rosetti of the music world. A lot less violent, but still equally passionate.
What did you think of Boardwalk Empire's series finale?