Boardwalk Empire: Season 5
True Blood: Season 7
Two of HBO medium-to-long stayers concluded this year, both showing signs of fatigue and the problems of enduring past their prime. True Blood started out as a huge hit for HBO, revelling in its trashy lashings of sex and violence. This, along with its sledgehammer commentary on religious bigotry, kept it sufficiently energised for three or four seasons. But just how many shows maintain high standards for the expected seven? Boardwalk Empireducked out two seasons shy of that total, and one might have hoped for the knowing-when-to-quit approach that saw Breaking Bad go out on a high and leaving audiences wanting more. Unfortunately Boardwalk was, while consistently very well made and agreeable enough, never a show that scaled the heights of must-see. Too often, it found itself ebbing and flowing, uncertain where next to find narrative trajectory.
True Blood was never in danger of being a top of the pile show for me; it was always going to have its work cut out reaching that level because it was so derivative. But it did have the relative benefit of knowing what it was and being unapologetic for it. While this means that Season 7’s scraping the bottom of the barrel seem less marked but than other shows that could boast classic runs before tanking, it is only less disappointing in a relative sense. Ignominious declines also marked out recent non-HBO shows Dexter and Californication. The directionless mess of the former’s last run, along with a similarly misjudged farewells to some of its lead characters, also afflicts True Blood. The latter meanwhile didn’t really feel the pinch for me until the sixth season, which was merely so-so; the quality tail-off in the seventh was even more dramatic as a result.
How do these shows lose their way so profoundly? Part of the problem is repetition, certainly, part of it is becoming too cautious about killing your darlings (a problem Game of Thrones has studiously avoided). Maybe respective showrunners leaving didn’t help matters. But there’s surely more to it than that. We’ve seen series that maintained a high standard going tits-up as at the end as far back as Buffy (whereas the rockier five-season Angel went out on a high). I like The X-Files last couple of Duchovny-lite seasons more than most, but that was sunk by an utterly rote finale (Seinfeld also stands guilty of underwhelming through greatest hits packaging/summarising at the end). Going out fighting, rather than aware of one’s responsibilities to provide a clear finishing line, seems to be an essential ingredient.
That is, unless you have it sufficiently mapped out (Breaking Bad). And a limited run is no guarantee of success if the makers are winging it; Battlestar Galactica scraped by or screwed the pooch depending on who you talk to, but it illustrates that if you have an epic, over-arching narrative you need to figure it out in advance. On rare occasions a series can fool in that regard until the final moment, but be retrospectively be ruined by a last episode (Lost). But those series are relative exceptions. Most still maintain a loosely self-contained season structure with relative straightforward series-wide themes and elements. Dexter shat the bed in its finale in a manner not inconsistent with the disappointment of the season as a whole, but one that was so bad it made the rest of 8 look half decent in comparison.
True Blood Season 7 stands some comparison with the last of Buffy, to the extent that it seemed to have very little idea about what to do with itself. Buffy had a half-hearted Big Bad and a coterie of young Jedi. True Blood couldn’t even come up with a proper villain - perhaps it didn’t want to – and indulged in some elaborate retconning (particularly Eric’s past) in order to provide him with some awkwardly placed motivation against the Yakonomo corporation. Season 6 at least had the jiuicy idea of Vamp Camp amid a sea of averageness. The best the writers could come up with here were the enfeebled AIDS metaphor of Hep-V and – this being the end of the series – painfully self-conscious and trite ruminations on death. First Eric wants to die, then Bill. Another thing that happens with concluding seasons is the urge to kill off supporting characters because it makes a splash, and so often making a meal of that departure or imbuing it with insufficient dramatic consequence. The decision to throw a party-wake for Tara etc. at least has some incident absent from the turgid remembrance of Terry last season, but it indicates a similar level of ham-fistedness whenever the series attempts to put sincerity front-and-centre.
Boardwalk Season 5 is also guilty of writing out characters for dramatic fireworks rather than clear intent, and being overly aware of its legacy status as a finale. In outline form there are some reasonable ideas in the last run. The misdeeds of Nucky, for all his personability and relative civility as a hybrid gangster, needed to come home to roost. Relating it back to the first time he sold his soul, and what he did to Gillian, is resonant in a way that simply killing people would never be. Except that this hasn’t been marked out as a consistent theme of the series, so there’s a faint whiff of clutching at a weighty straw. And the Once Upon a Time in Americaflashback device never sits quite right. Mark Pickering gives an astonishing study of Steve Buscemi as young Nucky but, for the most part, the storytelling has little dramatic meat on its bones. There’s an attempt to instil in Nucky the sense of a tragic fall and broken dreams, but this is far from a Corleone-esque tale in terms of import and resonance.
That may be the biggest problem with Boardwalk. It always felt like a functional, carefully manufactured show with little passion or direction to fuel it. Respectable but uninspired. There was an engaging dynamic in the first two seasons when Michael Pitt’s Jimmy sparred with Nucky. It also has the claim to fame of coming up with one truly memorable and moving character in Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow. But its motor only ever ticked over. The gangsters on the periphery, from Capone to Lucky to Meyer, were fitfully well used but never felt fully interpolated.
And then there were characters whom the producers never seemed to know quite what to do with but held on to due to the chops of the actors playing them; Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White was forever waiting for the plotline that would make him as compelling as Nucky or Eli, but it never came (Season 4’s romantic tumble was a damp squib). Worse was Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden. One gets the impression the writers just made random choices as to where to have fetch Nelson up next. Others (Gretchen Mol as Gillian, Shea Whigham as Elias) had strong arcs, but weren’t immune from unfortunate failings of repetition.
And repetition particularly blights True Blood. Maybe it also suffers from being too conscious of its fan base, so fails to follow its better instincts. After a lousy first quarter of the season, in which Stephen Moyer pulls out all the stops to direct a clumsy and inept opener (in general, the direction of this season was very weak) and the plot seems to consist entirely of Arlene and Holly locked up by Hep-Vamps while others fret about them, things pick up ever so slightly. Mostly that’s because of Skarsgard, whose legendary sex appeal takes on meta-levels (fan fiction dream sequences with Ryan Kwanten, the origins of his throne etc.). Even he has to overcome a stodgy “I want to die” plot before getting half-baked motivation for killing Sarah Newlin.
One keeps waiting this season for the main plot to kick in, but it never does. Tara is killed off in the first episode, and it remains peripheral; that said, the one effective note struck by the season is rehabilitating Lettie Mae. Adina Porter gives a fine performance that overcomes the rather facile writing and subplot. Muscle-bound wolfman Joe Manganiello follows, but no one really cares about him. There are other predictable, fan-pleasing decisions (Jessica and dullest of dull characters Hoyt; Deborah Ann Woll continues to be the best actor in the show, but poor old Jim Parrack can’t save Hoyt from being a bore even when he’s rewarded with heroics). Rutger Hauer is brought back, seemingly as a completely different person. The Yakonomo plotline has potential but it is under-baked. So much so that Eric’s final ascendency should play for easy laughs but struggles to salvage any. And Sookie, as ever, goes round and round in circles doubting who she wants to be with and whether she wants to keep her powers. The one nice touch in this respect is the unseen beau of the last scene.
Bill is sacrificed because a central character has to die. Unfortunately it feels arbitrary. At least with Nucky there is good reason. Everyone’s incredulous reaction to Bill’s decision (Eric tells Sookie it makes sense when Bill explains it, but it doesn’t really, no) pretty much mirrors our own. It’s a WTF because the reason he gives (Sookie deserves to be free of him) is terrible and doesn’t do anything to release her (she retains her powers so will remain the object of vampire predation). If only he had broken the fourth wall and admitted its because the writers were stuck, that might have been memorable. The last episode is straight-up lousy, in which poor dying Bill twists poor Jessica’s arm into marrying Hoyt because he never got a chance to see his own daughter wed and everyone turns up. It plays alarmingly close to parody, but it’s never so bad its good. The result is so bafflingly poor that, with this and Dexter, one ends up wondering if the makers were actively trying to sabotage their shows. It also serves to make Bill look like a self-indulgent prick and renders his death impact-free. But the series long since lost that. We don’t care when Tara goes either.
Nucky’s death can be seen coming a mile off. Of the “Who’s this young whippersnapper we haven’t seen before and why is he suddenly becoming central to the show, now of all times?” Buscemi’s performance in Boardwalk keeps it ticking over when the writing isn’t exactly dynamic, and the finale does at least have a fine farewell with Whigham (there is also a memorable scene with Mol). But it smacks of the inessential. Striving for something it never was. One can feel the sombre worthy tone seeping through every pore of the season, which makes it more Godfather Part III in terms of effectiveness. Boardwalk is a series that faltered by intentionally straddling too many fences it couldn’t service. Nucky was never the full-blown gangster, so the series was unable to fully embrace such fireworks. And he was never really the politician either, so such machinations never got full vent.
But at least Boardwalk Empire finishes with its head held up, even with a bullet hole in its cheek. True Blood ends in a place that guarantees it wont be oft revisited, whereas Boardwalk will be a “That was mostly quite good, actually”. And it was quite good; just not great. HBO has several new contenders in the mix, both of which, on first innings, impressed me immensely. True Detective’s future depends on whether it can repeat the cast and storytelling alchemy of its debut. But, even then, a stumble with a serialised format like this means they can always do better third time out. The Leftovers seems like a cancellation waiting to happen (then next Carnivale?) with a retooling next season for reasons unspecified. If the fates of True Blood and Boardwalk Empire suggest one thing, though, it’s that its better to have your time cut short than to overstay your welcome.