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.
That said, what really makes the three previewed episodes sizzle -- and creates a powerful sense of building toward the culmination of Nucky's tale -- are those flashbacks to his youth, featuring an impressive kid actor (Nolan Lyons) portraying Nucky's younger self, taking those first furtive steps into a life of graft and corruption. Not only are these scenes beautifully executed, but they bring a different look to the boardwalk with their late-19th-century trappings, both in terms of literal design and general flavor.
Without giving too much away, there's also a sense that some key characters who have been essentially exiled to roles removed from Nucky's life will gravitate back toward that orbit, reflecting a desire to bring together loose ends as the show approaches the home stretch.
Of course, as an alum of "The Sopranos," series creator Terence Winter is unlikely to fret overly much about the ending being completely neat and tidy. But if these first three hours are any guide, "Boardwalk" looks like it's heading toward a finish worthy of what preceded it -- one that might not be black and white, but will at least provide a sense of where all the bodies are buried.