I find endings to be the most difficult to write. Beginnings come easy. Middles can sag, but there are simple ways to beef them up (add more conflicts, introduce new characters, do something surprising, flesh out subplots). But endings? Endings are impossible (or at least they feel impossible every time I need to write one). Of course, anyone can write “The End” and come up with some convoluted conclusion (after all, even the ancient Greeks had the deus ex machina). But to write an ending that sticks, that makes sense, that surprises, that satisfies — that is the hardest thing to do.
The series finale for Boardwalk Empire has me thinking endings, what works and what doesn’t. I have been watching the show from the beginning, and since that time, I’ve often thought about how I would write and structure the show if I were the creator. If I were approaching the ending, I’d first consider whether Nucky would live or die. There are basically four types of endings (although I concede that there are variations): The main character wins and something changes; the main character wins and things go back to normal; the main character loses and something changes; or the main characters loses and nothing changes.
For Boardwalk, the first decision is whether Nucky wins or loses. Does he live or does he die? If he were to live, the most satisfying and thematically appropriate ending is to have him lose everything and end up destitute and alone (basically, everything he ever wanted has come to naught). Perhaps he goes to jail, perhaps he just lives in an old shack somewhere and is forgotten. But I think it’s expected that Nucky should suffer. Most gangster stories, in fact, are highly moral in the sense that the gangster “gets what’s coming to him.” So whether he lives or dies, it seems fitting that Nucky should suffer some kind of emotional damage.
If he were to die, then he should probably be struck down by someone he has hurt (again, this puts the gangster story firmly in a moral universe). If the show wanted to go for a nihilistic ending, I suppose Nucky could be killed by some random person, but this would make things seem less moralistic and more random/meaningless. There *is* room for that kind of ending in a gangster story (with the theme being something like, “if you try to make money in a dangerous world, don’t be surprised if it bites you in the ass”), but I am not sure the random/meaningless ending is the most satisfying.
And that’s the key to a good ending: it should be a satisfying and fitting ending to the story. Endings (and the climaxes that precede them) are really where the main theme makes its presence known. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the series finale, Nucky tells the story about how when he earned his first nickel he thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world, and then he thought, “but a dime… a dime would be better.” That’s the whole sum of his character right there; he was never satisfied with the wealth that he got. [Sidebar: I am reminded of the season two opening sequence where we watch a montage of the main characters while the song “After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It)” plays over the images. It’s the theme again: nothing is ever enough to satisfy the greed and desire to “get ahead.”]
BOARDWALK EMPIRE SPOILERS AHEAD
So the ending we actually got — Nucky is killed by Tommy Darmody — should be a satisfying ending. Nucky dies (punishment for his sins), and he is killed not by a random person, and not even by the police or a fellow gangster (both his “natural” enemies), but by the grandson of the woman he originally wronged way back in his early, “good” days. Nucky’s crime against Gillian is his original sin/fatal flaw, so in a very Greek-tragedy sorta way, Nucky’s punishment must come at the hands of Gillian’s grandson.
But is this a good ending? Is it fitting? Is it both surprising and satisfying? Does it communicate the theme of the story? I was once told by a writing teacher that the best endings surprise us, but then as we reflect back on the story, we realize it couldn’t have ended any other way. Great endings are paradoxically both surprising and inevitable. Does the Boardwalk Empire ending do this? Does it feel like, yes, this was the only way this story could have ended?
I know I was surprised that the young man whom Nucky had taken under his wing earlier in the season turned out to be Tommy Darmody. I’m actually mad at myself for not figuring it out. (I even remember noting that this relationship seemed like Nucky & Jimmy Redux.) However, many fans online *did* figure out Tommy’s identity. So perhaps the ending wasn’t as surprising as it seemed.
Further musing: Is surprise necessary for a good ending? Yes, but the surprise doesn’t have to be “shocking” or a “gotcha” moment. But I do think the best endings give us something unexpected. Maybe not in *what* happens but in the *way* things happen.
While watching Boardwalk’s finale, I was surprised. I did not expect the young kid to be Tommy Darmody, and I actually thought Nucky might live out his life in obscurity, left alone with his conscience. As I watched the finale, I found it satisfying.
However, looking back on it a few days later, I’m not so sure. The ending definitely shocked me, but part of me wonders if Nucky got off too easy. Death is a release, and it might have been more punishment for Nucky to live out his life with the crushing guilt of what he did to Gillian. There is a part of me that wonders, “Maybe a different ending would have been better…”
I still think the ending the writers came up with is a good one. It certainly brings the story full-circle, and there is a kind of satisfaction in that. But even with an ending that I think is good, there’s a nagging feeling that maybe it could’ve been better. That’s why endings are so darn hard.