As brutal as the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire was (summarized in a mayhem-filled two minutes) the start of the fifth and final season of the Atlantic City prohibition saga couldn’t have been more lyrical.
Young boys in what looked to be long underwear, swimming like innocent fish in the blue of the Atlantic as golden coins are showered around them and a women’s voice intones from a long-ago children’s book, “Be Honest and True” by George Birdseye, from the May 1887 issue of the journal Golden Days for Boys and Girls. (His mother fished it out of after someone thew it away, she says later; it also serves as title of the episode).
“Be honest and true boys, whatever you do boys, let this be your motto through life,” reads what seems to be the voice Gretchen Mol (the only trace of her in this episode unfortunately). And so the boys, among them the young Nucky Thompson, dives for the golden coins, thrown out as a summer-opening ritual at Atlantic City circa 1884 (we won’t press the historical inconsistency).
The scene switches quickly to Havana, where Steve Buscemi’s suavely-dressed and moody Nucky circa 1931 is reminiscing in one of the fine casinos, while trying with Patricia Arquette’s great character Sally Wheet to get rights for Bacardi rum in the U.S. once prohibition is lifted. As if following that childhood poem, the grown up Nucky is trying to be “honest and true,” hoping to go legit once that constitutional amendment falls, as he is sure it will. To do so, though, he falls on some of his old fashioned ways, getting a Congressman in a compromising position in order to secure his support for the business plan. He also apparently has to fight off competing bootleggers.
In between the lavish Cuba scenes, the episode switches to some stark chain gang scenes for Chalky White, where he manages to escape during a swift prisoner uprising. Just as jarring are scenes with Kelly Macdonald, the former Mrs. Thompson, in her Wall Street job where the effects of the Depression are much more vivid as her boss calls them all in to the office where he shoots himself. Later in the episode, she tries to fish out the files of the insider trading deals she had been doing with the now-deceased Arnold Rothstein.
The scene moves back to young Nucky — as it will for several episodes this season — where his gruff father is played by Ian Hart, the character actor who has been popping up a lot of places lately, on The Bridge, in the miniseries Klondike, on Bates Motel and in HBO’s one season Luck after his standout role as the paparazzi in Dirt. We follow young Nucky’s attempts to get ahead among the boys who retrieve hats for swells in a notoriously windy ocean road, eventually getting a job sweeping the porch at the less than grand board hotel of the Commodore’s.
As if to remind us that this is the best New Jersey mob series since The Sopranos (yet gets only a fraction of the acclaim), there is a brutal boss hit in New York engineered by reliable hothead Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), whose comrade Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) Nicky spies in Havana, lying about being there for a vacation. The other literary quote is from Marcus Aurelius regarding “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” It is repeated by a new big boss this season, Salvatore Marazano (Giampiero Judica), to whom Luciano pledges his fealty in a messy blood brother ceremony.
There is blood too in Cuba, where Nucky is nearly macheted by a stranger and saved by an even more mysterious person who takes an ear for a souvenir. A chance meeting with the bogus woman Lansky had identified as his wife sends a chill through Nucky: Had he planned this attack? As he considers this, Nucky recites that old Birdseye poem, which his character had committed to memory.
It’s a pretty strong start for the season and a reminder of what a sturdy (and generally overlooked) series this has been. Or maybe we begin to miss something as soon as we know it’s about to go away for good. That might be some of the winsomeness in Nucky’s demeanor as well, knowing that things are about to change some more.
Next week’s episode brings in a lot of people who haven’t been seen yet from Johnny Torrio, to Van Alden and Capone in Chicago, to Nucky’s nephew Willie. And perhaps something for Gretchen Mol to do other than 19th century voice overs.
Boardwalk Empire airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Canada.