Not long into the final season of Boardwalk Empire, Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is getting fitted for a suit while a reporter from Variety interviews him, and when asked what he thinks of gangster movies like The Public Enemy, he refers to them as comedies. And considering that the film stars James Cagney as a wise-cracking criminal, and that its most famed scene has the actor sticking a piece of fruit into Mae Clarke’s face as if it were a pie, Graham’s Capone isn’t entirely off base. His feelings toward gangster culture on the big screen speaks to the precarious balance the series has kept for four seasons now, a potent sense of how the often intoxicating style and vernacular of gangsters assuages their brute savagery in the eyes of the public. For series creator Terrence Winters (and executive producer Martin Scorsese, for that matter), to be a great criminal is to also be a great entertainer, a man looking to make a few people happy, often at the expense of the horror and misery of a few thousand others.
This has been a reoccurring concept in the series, one of the most thematically and historically rich stories to be laid out in the television format, and part of this concluding chapter is seeing how Steve Buscemi’s Enoch Thompson learned how to “entertain.” In the season opener, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” we see how our lanky antihero came under the corrupt sway of the Commodore (John Ellison Conlee), who catered to every dalliance of his customers and hired Enoch as a lobby boy. There’s a revealing detail in that the Commodore turns Enoch away at first for telling the truth, only to accept him when he sees the young boy fight over money. As much as Boardwalk Empire has had a preference for occasionally overt cleverness in its dialogue, not unlike in The Public Enemy or, say, Little Caesar, the show’s sober attitude toward the corrupt, decaying power of violence, and the cruelness of the men who exploit it, has always shattered the pulpy veneer, even if only for a haunting moment.
The violence, of course, is equally thrilling and gruesome in Boardwalk Empire, as much as when Enoch’s new Cuban bodyguard (Paul Calderon) carefully slices off the ear of an assassin as when “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) enacts a brutal hit on a mafia elder to ascend in rank. The series is defiantly dedicated to showing how violence, perhaps more so than money, is the currency of capitalism, and that the fabricated image of purity and good humor are just as essential to its mechanism. Though frequent and often protracted, there’s nothing flippant about the killings in Boardwalk Empire, a fact epitomized by an astonishing sequence wherein Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) takes two white women hostage with an unhinged fellow prisoner while on the lam.
Posters for the first season of Boardwalk Empire said simply, “You can’t be half a gangster,” and the series seems determined to follow up on that line. Chalky’s dream of going legit died at the end of season four, as did Shea Whigham’s Eli Thompson and Nelson Van Alden’s (Michael Shannon) dreams of being simple family men. Now an unsalvageable drunk, Eli works for Capone alongside Van Alden and shows little hesitancy when putting a bullet in the brain of a fellow hood. Even Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), Enoch’s estranged wife, finds herself in a perilous position after agreeing to cook a few books at her bank job, an unfortunate infringement as the stock market crash has made money America’s premier concern. The crash is talked about softly throughout the season, but the implications are felt hard when Margaret’s boss concludes a recap of a funny picture show by putting a bullet through his temple, all while assuring his workers that everything is okay.
Still, Enoch is dead-set on going out with some legitimate stamp on the world, wanting to “leave something behind,” as he puts it to his latest hesitant business partner, Joseph P. Kennedy (Matt Letscher). Just as our antihero has become a master of duplicity, the series has been built up into a masterful orchestration of the ugly history of capitalism tightly wrapped around the innovative but shallow mythology of America and its “heroes” like Kennedy. Even as squeaky-clean Elliot Ness (Jim True-Frost) busts up Capone’s liquor storages, the image of Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Enoch’s nephew, Willie (Ben Rosenfield), is of a new, educated, and more elegant brand of criminals who found blind spots in law and exploited them to make robbery and corruption legal. Indeed, when Enoch asks Kennedy how he gambles so carelessly, he answers bluntly: “By rigging the game, of course. What else is the stock market good for?”
The tragedy of Enoch is that he’s the best and brightest of the criminal generation that precedes Kennedy’s, a devastatingly charming host and showman, but one who can’t help but openly indulge his darker desires. There’s a great moment in the episode “What Jesus Said” in which Enoch trades a glass of red wine for seltzer after seeing Kennedy refuse the drink for a cup of black coffee to keep up appearances. But Enoch clearly loves the drink, and enjoys the bad work he does, and the final season of Boardwalk Empire suggests that no matter what cloaking his ilk partially hid under, it’s nothing compared to the whitewashing that’s about to come. The episode ends with Kennedy sliding a glass of liquor to Enoch, just as he promises to give a showgirl named Kitty “a saucer of milk” with a wink. The point, of course, is that there is no difference between the booze and the proverbial milk. You’re still just picking your poison.