Over the course of its first four seasons, Boardwalk Empire, the hit HBO series from Emmy Award winner Terence Winter and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, garnered critical accolades for its top-rate performances, beautiful costumes and set pieces and breathtaking cinematography. Concluding a powerful and groundbreaking run, Season 5 jumps forward six full years to 1931. In stark contrast with the Roaring '20s, the country is in the throes of the Great Depression, and with the end of Prohibition in sight, Nucky is looking to legitimize himself by forging alliances with liquor producers.
It's ironic that the maxim of the final season of 'Boardwalk Empire' is "No one goes quietly," yet it's been the modus operandi of the show to quietly exist. It burst onto the HBO scene with swanky set production, big name stars like Steve Buscemi, and a pilot episode directed by Martin Scorsese. However, after that first glamourous season, the hoopla turned to other HBO shows. 'Boardwalk Empire' never really took over the pop culture discussion quite like 'Game of Thrones,' 'Girls,' or 'True Detective.' It seemed that every year 'Boardwalk Empire' had a new season HBO was churning out another ultra-popular show that would steal the spotlight. Over the first four seasons 'Boardwalk Empire' held up against any show out there. Its quality was impeccable, its storytelling deftly cinematic, and its performances were top-notch. It's always been HBO's quiet gem. However, the fifth season might just sully its otherwise stellar reputation.
Rushing through an eight-episode series finale 'Boardwalk Empire's fifth season fails to recreate the gangster magic of previous seasons. Even though it feels like you're careening through eight quick episodes, there are many moments where it's quite apparent nothing of consequence is happening. In earlier seasons the show could afford to be contemplative. Here, those same scenes feel like filler. Creating a season-long narrative that starts and stops so often that it's hard to stay interested in it.
The fifth season is replete with flashbacks of Nucky's (Buscemi) childhood and how he got his wise guy start. We see young Nucky, his difficult childhood, the death of his kid sister, his alcoholic dad, and the rich benefactors that befriend him. While the flashbacks give us more insight into who Nucky is and where he came from, they also never really fit within the confines of the season. They feel out of place and disconnected. Sure there's some foreshadowing of future fates, but boy does it take a while to get the ball rolling.
We join Nucky et al six years removed from the end of season four. It's now 1931. The Roaring '20s are fresh memories in the collective consciousness, however, the harsh realities of the unforgiving '30s are taking hold. The Great Depression is beginning. The end of Prohibition is coming, and Nucky can smell money. His first order of business is to secure liquor distribution rights from Cuba, and then use those distribution contacts to become a legitimate businessman when the Volstead Act is lifted. Though, easier said than done. Someone wants him dead. After an assassination attempt on his life in Cuba, Nucky becomes paranoid that someone wants to off him before he even gets started.
'Boardwalk Empire' has always shone brightest whenever it gave enough time for out-of-this-world crazy villains to manifest themselves. Season four – and to a lesser extent season five – featured Valentin Narcisse (Jeffery Wright), an intellectual with a vicious mean streak. Season three Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) elevated the crazy to delicious insanity. Season five just doesn't seem to have that extra spark to really make it stand out. It seems so intent on showing us what happens to everyone that it doesn't take time to really savor the moment.
The show is still incredibly well-produced. The set production, costume design, and overall look of the show remains cinematic to its core. It's never looked like a TV show. So, while the fifth season wallows around a narrative that feels like it doesn't live up to the show's original spirit at least it never skimped on the production costs. At least it appears that way.
It's sad to see the show go. The fifth season wasn't the best by any means, though seasons one through four will remain some of my favorite television ever. This lackluster ending doesn't diminish the fact that most of this show was great. It does, however, leave a less-than-impressive final impression.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
The eight-episode final season is presented in three-disc set with 50GB Blu-rays. The discs are packaged in a swanky cardboard foldout that mirrors previous seasons, only it's slimmer given that it's only three discs. Each disc has its own hub. The cardboard foldout slips into an outer sleeve.
As per usual HBO's 1080p presentation of 'Boardwalk Empire' is nearly flawless. This is one of those shows that is simply a delight to watch in high definition because there's rarely anything to complain about. Such is the case this time around.
Mirroring the near-perfect demo quality of past seasons, season five is presented, for the most part, impeccably. The show's cinematic feel is helped by its decidedly film-like cinematography. If anything this season is a bit more bathed in blackness and shadows than past seasons. The shadowy areas of the show can be a little hard on detail. Some semi-negligible crushing can be detected at times. Though, most of the time we're greeted with inky blacks, strong defined edges, and beautiful sepia tones.
Colors pop in the light. Reds, greens, yellows, they're all bright and vivid whenever the lights are turned up. Facial detail is impossible to miss. Intricate clothing textures are superbly rendered. If it weren't for the few times where shadows are a bit too overzealous, we'd be looking at a five-star video presentation.
Now, the audio is certainly top shelf stuff. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is every bit as engaging and enthralling as earlier seasons. Here we have so much audio depth, so much variety, that it's hard to believe that this is a TV show we're watching and not something that was once on the big screen.
The surround channels are alive much of the time. Whether its gulls cawing at the beach, birds chirping in the Cuban city center, or the hustle and bustle of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, there's no shortage of ambient sound. It surrounds you and never lets up. It's one of the most active surround sound tracks in all of television. You don't really notice it as much during the original broadcast, but hearing it on Blu-ray is a completely different experience.
Along with the tremendous surround sound experience, it also nails the basics. The dialogue is always clear. The bass is always deep. The directionality is sound. Prioritization is spot-on. There's not much more you can ask from this audio presentation, but somehow it offers just a little bit more.
The show definitely doesn't end with a roar. It kind of limps across the finish line with a shortened eight-episode season that doesn't give the season enough time to breathe. It's a little disappointing that such a prestigious and awe-inspiring show ended so anti-climactically. As if HBO thought so too, the special features on this are paper-thin. Previous releases have been packed full of features and Blu-ray exclusives. Season five's features package feels thrown together, and anemic. Fortunately, the video and audio are excellent, at least there's that. Given everything else though, the fifth season is a for fan's only recommendation. If you're a big fan of the show, then you're picking it up regardless. Recommending it to the general public? Out of the question.