Ironically, the underworld is the one place where our antihero’s real-life inspiration — Nucky Johnson — made a legacy that lasted. As the host of the 1929 Atlantic City Conference, a multiethnic gathering of crime bosses from across the country whose ranks included such Boardwalk Empire characters as Meyer Lansky, Charlie Luciano, John Torrio, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Waxey Gordon, Jake Guzik, and Owney Madden, Johnson was a pivotal player in the organization of the criminal network known as the National Crime Syndicate. This in turn was a crucial step on the road to the establishment of New York’s “Five Families” and the nationwide governing body called the Commission by Luciano and Torrio several years later, following the bloody resolution of the war between Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano.
But the Atlantic City Conference – like Arnold Rothstein’s murder in 1928, like the stock market crash and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 – falls in Boardwalk‘s seven-year gap between its fourth and fifth seasons. Generally, Boardwalk‘s storytelling instincts are sound, particularly in building to big climaxes, so that’s a decision worth trusting. Lining up the end of the show with (presumably) the final consolidation of power by Luciano and Lansky makes sense — and hey, nothing’s stopping us from deciding that Nelson Van Alden and Eli Thompson were Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day triggermen on our own. But given the fictional Nucky’s envy of Joe Kennedy’s legacy, cutting the real Nucky’s single greatest contribution to American history is a curious choice. However, Nucky’s conversation with Lansky in Havana, in which it’s revealed they haven’t seen each other since 1928, means the Conference never even took place in the Boardwalk universe — so it’s possible that the show’s simply playing with the timeline.
Either way, Nucky’s empire as it currently stands has narrow boundaries, and establishing them cost him everything. His sister and parents, including his abusive father, are dead. His brother Eli is in hiding. His surrogate father and son — the Commodore and Jimmy Darmody, respectively — both turned on him, and both died for it. His closest companion for years, Eddie, killed himself. He lost his first wife, Mabel, in childbirth and his second, Margaret, when she could no longer stand him. His relationship with his nephew Willie is cordial enough, sure, but as Kennedy notes, that’s a very thin reed to hang a life on.
It’s only in talking to Sally Wheat – long-distance love interest, business partner, and the closest thing he’s had to a friend in the entire series – that Nucky feels truly at home. In moment so sweet it’s shocking for a show like this, the two of them listen to “Happy Days Are Here Again” together over the phone. Suddenly a relationship between two Prohibition Era bootleggers becomes recognizable to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a favorite song with a loved one over videochat.
Well, I used my knowledge of mafia lore and close reading of film to try to predict the end of Boardwalk Empire AND compare a very sweet plot point to using Google+ Hangouts in my review of tonight’s episode, so I’ve probably peaked.