We've come to the 'Boardwalk Empire' series finale, to the end of the line, where all of Nucky's reflections on his past -- both recent history and memories nestled deep in those flashbacks that have punctuated the season -- serve to illustrate that timeless question: is it the man who makes the choices, or do the choices make the man? This final season has been guiding us to the understanding that for Nucky, it was one singular choice that made him, a choice that also shaped the future of Gillian Darmody, intertwining their lives and fates.

As Luciano proves and as it is said time and again throughout the series (repeated here in the finale with Narcisse's scripture), there's always someone waiting to come up next -- Narcisse may meet his inevitable end, but he will be replaced by another, just as most men in this line of work will eventually die and be replaced by greedy, vengeful versions of themselves. Greed and revenge are the twin rulers of this business, and there is always someone waiting in the shadows to step out into the light, waiting for their moment to take what is rightfully theirs. The world is moving on, and there's no place for men like Nucky and Capone and Maranzano and even Johnny Torrio, who Luciano's guys think of as dead weight.

Capone's greed was his downfall, and he's a cautionary tale to the others, who must be more careful with their illicit dealings. But even in his final hour, he's still painted with the most human of brushes, given a final farewell with his deaf son. For all his grand-standing, deep down at heart he's still a gangster who was just trying to provide for his family and do the right thing. If there is any flaw in "Eldorado," it's how blatantly it tugs at our heartstrings as Capone says goodbye to his son, or as Nucky bids farewell to Eli.

Nucky walks into a tent on the boardwalk, guided by a woman dressed as a genie, who promises to show him "the future." The tent is foreboding and black, and inside is a small, rudimentary television set with the genie woman's face inside. It's clear that Nucky doesn't belong in this world -- this is the future, but he isn't a part of it. The world is changing, and there's no place for Nucky in this strange new place.

The entire final season has seemingly built to the concept that it was one choice, not many, that sent Nucky on his path: the moment when he delivered Gillian to the Commodore's service. It was a choice that made Nucky an eventual criminal, and a choice that sent Gillian down her dark path. And while the season seems to have been building to that scene in flashbacks (and further back than that, if you count Gillian's recollections from earlier seasons), it's too easy to peg Nucky's rise and fall on that one moment. It's impossible to pinpoint a singular moment that changed Nucky's life -- these flashbacks have shown us a series of choices made for better or worse; the point is that our lives are a constant stream of tiny moments in which we make choices every second of every day, some much bigger and more affecting than others. This moment, this choice, affected someone else's life. What's important about the choice he made that day on the boardwalk when he delivered Gillian to the Commodore is that their lives became so deeply intertwined -- and in that moment, a new series of choices were laid before him, even though he didn't know it yet. In that moment, he was sealing his -- and her -- fate.

As Margaret plays the fast and harrowing game of stock fraud, it all comes down to that perfect moment. Here's a terrifying idea, she tells Mr. Kennedy: imagine what you want to achieve in life, then imagine yourself in a dress. When you put it that way, maybe the things Gillian has done aren't as horrific. A victim of sexual abuse, her mental illness drove her to act out in terrible ways -- no, the incest was not okay, and neither was the murder or the drug addiction, but perhaps we can understand it through the lens of a desperate woman, victimized, abused, and boxed in by a patriarchal society. To see Margaret gaming a stock system and slyly rebuffing Mr. Kennedy's flirtations feels like a small victory in some way.

Just like the stock game, Margaret dancing with Nucky in the empty apartment is one of those in-the-moment things; it needs to happen then and there or the moment is gone forever. And when the other prospective tenants walk in to view the place, both Margaret and Nucky know that their chance is lost; they've been busted and the risk hardly seems worth it now.

Everything comes down to a single moment. Every choice we make, every risk, every opportunity. This is a show that's long been about opportunity and what people make of the ones they're given. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising and stomach-turning that poor, young Joe is actually Tommy Darmody, who has spent this entire season working for the right opportunity to take his revenge on the man who killed his father. There are infinite what ifs to contemplate in the infinite choices we make, both large and small, but for Nucky it all goes back to the little girl on the boardwalk, illustrated beautifully in the editing as he falls back, hand outstretched just as she reached her hand out to him for help so long ago. There is no help for him now, just as there was no real help for her then.

Nucky told Tommy that life is what you make of it. And this is the life he made.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I've really enjoyed reviewing 'Boardwalk Empire' in this space for the last few seasons, and I've loved watching this entire series from beginning to end. What a beautiful and sad and bleak ending. But it felt right.
  • It's also kind of a female-oriented outing, no? Gillian lives, and there's some justice for her in some way, while Margaret appears to be in a position of agency for herself -- and when she almost comes around to Nucky, it's on her own terms as an independent woman.
  • What the hell was up with the genie woman? I would have been totally okay with more David Lynch weirdness like that in this episode.
  • Important to note that Tommy shoots Nucky in the exact same spot in the face where Nucky shot Jimmy.
  • Talk about a statement: forgoing the opening credits and instead opening with a shot of Nucky's clothes and shoes on the sand, him swimming naked in the ocean.