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John Doyle: The rise and fall of Boardwalk Empire

Some people might see it as an interesting coincidence. Just as the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire arrives, the news is full of reports that Atlantic City, N.J., its setting, is a city in serious decline. Four of its 12 casinos will have closed by the end of this year.

In the context of understanding what Atlantic City was and how it became what it is now, it would be unwise to disregard any connection between the real situation and the fiction that is Boardwalk Empire. For a start, it's not entirely fiction. Central character Enoch (Nucky) Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is based on the very real historical figure of Enoch (Nucky) Johnson, a man who controlled politics and business in Atlantic City during the Prohibition period of the 1920s and into the 1930s. And as anyone who has watched the first four seasons will know, Nucky does business with real mobsters including Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Charles (Lucky) Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

Boardwalk Empire returns (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) for eight episodes and immediately shifts gears from what has gone before. The story has leapt forward. It's now 1931, the Roaring Twenties are over and the United States is in the grip of the Great Depression. Most important, it is rumoured that Prohibition may be repealed soon.

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We meet Nucky in Havana. In fact, most of the action in the entire first episode is set there. Nucky, melancholy but wiser about the illegal drinking racket, is looking to the future. He wants to go legit if Prohibition is repealed and, in Cuba, they make a lot of rum. Somebody will get to distribute and sell it in the United States and Nucky wants to be that guy. At the same time, he's made a lot of enemies. There is one savage attempt on his life while he's in Havana.

We also catch up with Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), who dominated much of the fourth season. Chalky's fallen on hard times. He's been jailed and is working in a chain gang. He seethes.

Of more substance, though, is a delicately woven storyline about the boy Nucky Thompson. We see little Nucky, the poor, grasping kid, the one who was never strong enough to mess with the bigger boys but who learnt that cleverness, manipulation and connections would become more important than brawn. What we see is the origins story of Nucky, and the mood and tenor of that background is linked to the mood that the Depression has created in the U.S. One of desperation and anxiety.

At the very beginning, HBO said the series was about "the political and criminal machinery" behind the Atlantic City casinos, the booze trade, the whorehouses and the various mobs that struggled for control of the millions to be made. What we got over the four seasons was Nucky being forced to become ever more ruthless, more violent and tough. Prohibition was an opportunity because it was based on hypocrisy, and in the situation established by that hypocrisy, greed was rampant. The public wanted booze, showgirls and sex. The government was officially against all that but everyone, from the most powerful, established officials, to the most lowly criminal, was on the make.

The show became an excursion into the dynamics of political power in the United States. Nucky came to embody the U.S. as much as Mad Men's Don Draper does. His initial impulse has always been toward pragmatic decency but that impulse is overruled by the need to deal with the greed and ruthlessness of others. Each of the four seasons had one core story – Nucky had an enemy he had to overcome, someone more vicious than him and, in dealing with the threat, he too became more vicious. Nucky became the symbol of raw American capitalism, a system of greed and lies that would inevitably collapse in the Crash of 1929.

And now Atlantic City itself, a gambling and tourist resort built in part by the real-life version of Nucky Thompson, is crashing too. Casino-hotels that cost billions to construct are shutting down. The boardwalk is becoming decrepit, the lustre is gone.

These days there are competing casinos everywhere. There's more money to be made in other towns and states where the laws and tax breaks allow the hotel and casino operators to pay lower wages and keep more of their profits.

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A recent National Public Radio report on the closing of the iconic Showboat Casino in Atlantic City quoted one of the soon-to-be-unemployed cooks. "We're all feeling a little betrayed," the man said. "We're all walking around in a fog today. We worked really hard to try to keep it operating, and we're still profitable. We still don't understand why we were the one targeted to close, and nobody has given us an answer on that. There are too many jobs being pushed out of Atlantic City due to corporate greed."

In truth, the storylines of Boardwalk Empire explain it all. In this final season, it seems, gone are the parties, the glamorous whores and the handsome dudes in suits joshing about the illegal liquor trade. Instead there is the grim trajectory of demonic greed unleashed.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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