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The fifth and final season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire concluded last week. It ends having not quite the widespread appeal of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but the reviews were strong, due largely to how well the show balanced a fictionalized morality tale with an historical account of the emergence of the American gangster during the Prohibition era. BE centers around the rise of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) to prominence as the preeminent bootlegger in Atlanta City in the early 1920’s. The Nucky Thompson character is based on real life gangster Nucky Johnson who was an associate of Al Capone, Lucky Lucciano, and Arnold Rothstein (the man responsible for “fixing” the 1919 World Series). Mild spoilers ensue below, but mostly as they relate to the historical accounts that are widely own (e.g., Al Capone’s tax evasion conviction).

Jame’s Poniewozik’s Time Magazine review of the series finale details some the key motivations behind Nucky Thompson’s career of choice:

…There was [a] young man haunting this episode, haunting the entire series, shadowing Nucky’s present and his past, who may have done Nucky in as surely as [anyone] did. His name: Ragged Dick.

We never saw him in Boardwalk Empire, of course, because he only existed in books. He was the hero of a series of didactic stories by Horatio Alger, about a shoeshine boy who goes from literal rags to riches through hard work and clean living. He wasn’t just a character but a symbol of the culture Nucky grew up in, a time of mega-fortunes and few safety nets, when poor children were smugly told they could bootstrap themselves into middle-class fortune.

…And the spirit of Alger’s Ragged Dick runs through the series other references to the sanctimonious fables kids were raised on in Nucky’s day, like the children’s magazine, Golden Days for Boys and Girls, in the final season premiere:

Be honest and true, boys!
Whatever you do, boys,
Let this be your motto through life.
Both now and forever,
Be this your endeavor,
When wrong with the right is at strife.

In this final season, BE gave us numerous flashbacks to Nucky’s life as a child and young adult, a side of this (heretofore despicable) character that the viewer had not been privy to during the first four seasons. Unlike Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, and Don Draper, Nucky Thompson’s character is infused with unprecedented sympathy in his final season. We are made aware of his impoverished and tragic childhood in rural New Jersey, including an abusive alcoholic father, the loss of a sister to an illness as a child, etc. The unflappable young Nucky sets off to nearby Atlantic City looking to (in his words) “get ahead”, no matter what it takes.

Once there, Nucky joins in with a group of young boys who wait along a path leading into town for carriages full of wealthy New Yorkers coming for a vacation. The boys fight off one another trying to help women off the carriages in order to receive tips. One day along the path, Nucky finds a fifty dollar bill that was dropped by one of the wealthy vacationers. Nucky (with the Ragged Dick stories as his blueprint) seeks out “the Commodore” (the wealthiest man in Atlantic City, and perhaps the first of the real “gangsters” in the series) hoping that turning in the money will show the Commodore that his honesty is worthy of rewarding with some employment. Poniewozik explains the character-shaping event that follows:

If Boardwalk Empire has had a consistent theme, it’s been to systematically, repeatedly undermine this righteous, golden lie. In Nucky’s world, being honest and true may not always get you killed, but it doesn’t get you glory. The folks standing tallest at the end of the series–the real-life characters who would get written into history–are the violent, like Luciano and Lansky, or the conniving, like Joe Kennedy. From the beginning of this season’s flashbacks, the Commodore made clear that he thought Nucky’s Alger-driven morality was not just wrong, but despicable: “You think you deserve something for trying hard,” he tells him, contemptuously, like it’s the worst human insult imaginable.

It becomes clear to Nucky early on that “getting ahead” (at least in Atlantic City) is not a path of virtue. The series begins in season one with Nucky rising to Atlantic City king pin when the Commodore (Dabne Coleman) fades to the background due to declining health. For the first four seasons, we watch Nucky try to stay on top of the food chain by shedding less blood than his gangster contemporaries, with varying degrees of success. The Nucky we first become acquainted with is more loathsome than a Tony Soprano or a Walter White, because we despise that he seems to delight in being able to have his bidding done (mostly) without the appearance of getting his hands dirty.

Simply put, Nucky has two paths to “getting ahead” presented to him: the path of “honest and true”, and the path of ruthlessness. He’s encouraged by his mentors and his circumstances to choose the latter. However, Terrence Winter and the creators of Boardwalk Empire make it crystal clear throughout the series that Nucky’s greatest sin wasn’t his dubious choice of paths. It was the depraved self-centeredness inherent in his desire to “get ahead” – the inner mantra that drives the pursuit of the “American Dream” drove Nucky to become a criminal.

Boardwalk Empire is full of multidimensional characters like Nucky (both historical and fictional). Then there’s Richard Harrow (a hit man for Nucky), a supporting player in BE, and my new all-time favorite TV character. He eclipses George Costanza in that respect (which, if you know me, is a lofty achievement). Harrow (who had come to Atlantic City as a World War I vet with half his face blown-off and covered with a painted mask) takes the Costanza downward trajectory to unprecedentedly tragic levels.

While full of HBO-style mature themes and content, I highly recommend the whole series as a morality tale that sheds light on the American Dream fallacy with some new and fresh insights, set against a vivid historical backdrop.

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