The fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire begins with an epigraph of sorts, a treacly rhyme from the 1884 pamphlet that gives the premiere episode its title. “Be honest and true boys, whatever you do boys,” a woman’s voice intones. “Let this be your motto for life.” Nucky Thompson has good reason to return to the poem: he first read it in his final days on the straight and narrow path, a path he’s trying to get back on after decades of political corruption and bootlegging. Which is why an observation from the head of Bacardi, though it may not open and close the premiere, is a far better summation of the episode’s major theme: “It’s always wise to have an exit arranged.”
Arranging an exit is precisely what brings Nucky to Havana in the spring of 1931, a full seven years after the events of season four. After New York, Chicago, and Philly, Havana’s pretty much the last remaining epicenter of 20th century organized crime Boardwalk hasn’t stopped by yet, making it a perfect place to open the final season. Sally Wheet’s moved to Cuba to profit off the legal booze, and the signs that we’re not in Kansas/the US anymore are everywhere: kids making cocktails! Ruffled shirts! Steve Buscemi in a conga line! Even though the locale’s changed, however, Sally and Nucky’s adorably businesslike dynamic remains. “Shut up and dance…the customers are watching!”
Once Nucky and Sally loosen his tongue with a few Presidentes, the fictional Senator Wendell Lloyd confirms that there are plenty of people in D.C. who value the hard cash legal booze could bring a Depression-squeezed government more than temperance’s intangible benefits. The only problem is that Nucky’s biggest advantage in a post-Prohibition world—his affiliation with organized crime and the alcohol trade it’s run since 1920—is also bound to scare off potential partners. The Senator’s easily blackmailed into submission, but Nucky won’t be able to win everyone over with force.
And just as the straight world won’t necessarily welcome Nucky with open arms, crime won’t necessarily let him walk off unscathed. Fresh off of winning Bacardi’s American distribution rights, Nucky narrowly misses assassination by machete. Chekov’s bodyguard (he’s brought up twice before he slices the would-be killer’s ear off, cutting the surprise of the scene in half) intervenes, but much as Nucky wishes it would, $200 doesn’t make the fact that someone wants him dead go away.
The question of whether Nucky can successfully maneuver himself onto the right side of the law is an intriguing one, and the Havana scenes set up Nucky’s trajectory for the rest of the season well. Less successful are the flashbacks that bring us back to our protagonist’s childhood at the bottom of Atlantic City’s street urchin food chain. Over the three episodes HBO sent for advance viewing, these glimpses into Nucky’s past slowly improve, but nothing in the premiere tells us anything especially revelatory. Did we really need anyone to tell us that a kid who grew up to be Steve Buscemi wasn’t a champion athlete? Does a sister dying of tuberculosis accomplish anything besides giving sympathy points to a character who doesn’t even need them? The only bright spot is Nucky’s first exchange with the Commodore, an effective rebuttal to that opening poem: “Thought you were gonna get something for being honest. What’ve you got?” A broke, abusive dad, that’s what!
Back in the present, the importance of arranging an exit comes up once again when Margaret Rowan’s boss decides to raise company morale by shooting himself in front of the entire secretarial pool. All of a sudden, the mundane, (mostly) lawful existence Margaret’s made for herself and her kids crumbles before her eyes. She’s out of a job, and her attempt to cover her tracks by fishing “A. Redstone’s” file out of her ex-boss’s cabinet fails spectacularly. Arranging an exit’s much harder for a working-class secretary than Enoch Thompson.
Then there’s Lucky Luciano, who’s exited rather smoothly from his place in the Joe Masseria camp and defected to Salvatore Maranzano. Due to the time jump, we haven’t seen all the Mafia drama leading up to Masseria’s assassination, but the boss’s last speech makes the Castellamarese War sound more like a disagreement over management styles. Lucky steps into the bathroom while Bugsy Siegel does his dirty work, a partnership that makes Meyer Lansky’s “I don’t have time for that guy, I’m married now!” schtick seem more dubious than ever. Then Luciano participates in a blood oath ceremony up in the Bronx where he growls and squeezes hands with a lot of other mob guys and it’s all very homoerotic.
Finally, there’s Chalky, who’s been demoted from his place at the center of season four. We don’t know why Chalky’s in prison—beyond “getting caught”—thought it’s easy to imagine how a broken man responsible for his own daughter’s death might do something rash enough to land him behind bars. But the why of Chalky’s current situation matters less than how he responds to it: an unmoving Michael K. Williams Signature Grimace that shows Chalky hasn’t forgiven himself and won’t anytime soon. He still has enough fight in him to escape, though, an impulse move (and yet another exit! Thematic unity FTW!) that throws him together with a possibly brain-damaged, definitely unstable fellow inmate named Milton.
Milton’s a far less compelling foil to Chalky than Dr. Narcisse; as we can tell from his knowledge of telephones, this guy is about a hundred IQ points removed from a PhD. He’s also something of a wild card, leaving Chalky’s story (and the question of how Boardwalk will wrap it up) the most open-ended of the premiere. “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” leaves out a few key players—Gillian Darmody, the entire Chicago crew—but it lays out a clear vision for at least one of Boardwalk Empire‘s main characters, and offers a promising start to the final story lines of a few others.