LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Any past nitpicking about slow starts is obliterated by "Boardwalk Empire's" opening flurry, as the show attacks its final season with admirable gusto. Looking even more sweeping and cinematic than usual, the early episodes owe a distinctive debt to "The Godfather" saga, using extended flashbacks to provide insight into the character of Nucky Thompson, while jumping among multiple locales. The repeal of Prohibition always felt like a logical end point -- indeed, a built-in expiration date -- for this splendid HBO series, and if the remainder sustains this level of storytelling, fans should happily hoist a glass to all concerned.
The season jumps ahead several years to open in 1931, and centers on the astute Nucky (Steve Buscemi, never better) recognizing that Prohibition is hanging by a thread (its elimination came two years later), while trying to segue into legitimate businesses that will capitalize on his established bootlegging apparatus. Of course, his reputation precedes him, which makes some queasy about the prospect of collaboration -- although a certain wealthy Boston businessman named Joseph Kennedy (Matt Letscher) is clearly intrigued.
Meanwhile, shifting alliances have produced a new mob boss in New York, Salvatore Maranzano (Giampiero Judica), as Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) chart their paths to enhanced power within this changing world. As for the status of African-American mob boss Chalky White (the brilliant Michael Kenneth Williams), the less divulged, the better.
"Boardwalk" has always had considerable fun weaving historical figures into its narrative, and this season is no exception. Moreover, the throes of the Great Depression and recognition about the mob's evolving rules -- one old boss expresses a desire not to be "the richest man in the cemetery" -- add considerable weight to the storyline. Nor does it diminish them to note how the flashbacks, a sojourn to Havana and Nucky's sometimes-uncomfortable attempts to go legit can't help but evoke memories of "The Godfather," part II especially.