Monday, October 27, 2014

Boardwalk Empire and the Dawning End of an Era

I've always liked Boardwalk more than most. Its sense of lived in-culture and long-form structural storytelling are without peer. And this season was a great reminder of that, whether it was Alfonse Capone speaking to his son, Bugsy Siegel touching the mezuzzah, or Joe Kennedy telling County Kerry jokes to Margaret.

It never picked the most obvious of stories to tell, taking several bold risks over the years. But it also never managed to tell completely unexpected stories, the sort of raw brilliance (or insanity) that Mad Men and The Sopranos so keenly traffic in.

And so, Boardwalk Empire's finale largely acts as a fastidious wrapping up of loose ends. Very similar in tone to Breaking Bad's final stretch, perhaps a little more satisfying in parts.

But it also felt like a safe ending, in full keeping with its forebears. In all of our male anti-hero dramas, the final season builds a moral ledger of our protagonist's crimes. They're either too unaware or uninterested to really examine themselves, and ultimately pay a steep price. Roll the immaculately made credits.

It makes me feel ever more hopeful and glad for Matthew Weiner's Mad Men to exist. Don Draper, the last buffalo of a dying breed, already hit his moral crisis a year ago. And the last seven episodes not only had him confront his failures, grappling and wrestling with his past choices. Don emerged a changed man, utterly unrecognizable from the suave dashing enigma from the pilot. Here was a Don Draper stripped of mystery, but finally able to connect to some semblance of humanity. He didn't just go on an apology tour. He listened and advised and consoled and PARENTED his own daughter for the first time. He sacrificed the entirety of his career to his protege, and relied on others for some measure of personal success.

I'm unsure what Weiner has in plan for Mad Men's final episodes, the curtain call to this whole era of television. And I look forward to the legions of untold stories suddenly being told for the first time in shows like The Americans, Masters of Sex, Orange Is The New Black, and Transparent. And eventually, those shows' once daring style will give way to formula that will, over time, atrophy.

But I also hope that other shows will come along and choose not to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes we just want to live in a different world, luxuriate in a well crafted story.

And so I'll wrap this up by posting my favorite scene from all of Boardwalk Empire. I once wrote that the show "often feels like the holder of a thousand brilliant spin-offs." None carried more weight or were told more elegantly than Richard Harrow's time in Atlantic City. A scarred veteran from World War 1, he stood at the center of several of the show's finest action set pieces. None of those matches the sheer wonder of watching him slowly come to life, episode by episode. The culmination is the clip below, as he enters a Veteran's dance with his future wife.