In the aftermath of last evening’s riveting series finale, Across the Margin pays tribute to one of television’s greatest shows….
by: Michael Shields
Boardwalk Empire was birthed into this world a fully grown man. To say that the hype surrounding the show’s arrival was tremendous is a misleading understatement. It was as if we had a juggernaut in our grasp, an obvious heir to The Sopranos.1 Boardwalk was a mob series teeming with pedigree, expertly conducted by one of the grand maestros of storytelling, Martin Scorsese. Created by veteran Sopranos writer Terence Winter2 in tandem with talents such as Tim Van Patten (Producer, Writer) and Lawrence Konner (Producer, Writer), and flush with a dynamic cast including Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Vincent Piazza, and Michael Kenneth Williams (that’s just to name a few!), Boardwalk Empire built its foundation upon a captivating pilot that was reported to have cost in the range of eighteen million dollars3. Immediately, HBO had a hit on their hands.
In its first season, Boardwalk Empire netted eight Emmy’s4, and it seemed as if the show would reign supreme even amid the splendor of the current television golden age. Yet, something curious occurred during the course of Boardwalk’s run. Although remaining a critical darling, it had somehow slipped off the Outstanding Drama Series ballot at the Emmy’s the past two years. Furthermore, public sentiment towards the show had tempered. Whether viewers grew weary of the excessive violence, strained by the ambitious and comprehensive plotlines, or if the wealth of alternatives in the television stratosphere curbed some enthusiasm, the idea of Boardwalk Empire as a truly great crime drama had gone into remission. Well, I am here to proclaim that Boardwalk Empire was indeed great. In fact, it was one of the most exceptional programs of all time and an achievement in modern storytelling.
While Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire served as an introduction to the show’s players, the tension heightened swiftly and with zest. Episode 1 found Jimmy Darmody going behind his mentor Enoch “Nucky” Thompson’s back in a move that would light the fuse that set the season, and the series aflame. Right off the bat, a stunning story was unfolding before our eyes, rife with historical context and familiar names whose dangersome lives seemed manufactured perfectly for the screen. An era in our nation’s history never fully explored before was coming alive, and more than just that, it looked incredible! Every dollar spent was obvious and worth it. It wouldn’t be too far to call Boardwalk Empire’s head of set design, Bill Groom, the best in the business5, whom, along with the wardrobe designers, are owed a great debt of gratitude for allowing us to fully embrace the Prohibition Era that befell our nation for an hour each Sunday night.
Further broadening the scope of the show, Season 2 saw Boardwalk Empire’s reach expanding far outside of the confines of Atlantic City. And in another crowning achievement for the blossoming drama, we watched as the season concluded with a thrilling plot twist few of us saw coming. A turn of events that would forever alter the landscape of the show, exhibiting with verve the boldness that would go on to define Boardwalk. Jimmy Darmody, arguably the most relatable, likeable, and brilliantly complex character in the shows first two seasons, was executed in cold blood by his mentor, Nucky Thompson. It was as if Walter White had just put a bullet in Jesse’s skull in the climatic ending to Breaking Bad’s second season. Jimmy’s murder was that shocking. It was the shot heard ‘round the boardwalk. Its echo haunting us at every turn, lurking in every shadow, and so significant a moment that we were left wondering how strong the show would remain without Jimmy’s (Michael Pitt’s!) presence moving forward. But this type of concern diminishes the distinguished writing that came to be a trademark of Boardwalk’s entire run, and came in prelude to the awareness of the ultimate ace up the sleeve that was Bobby Cannavale’s Gyp Rossetti.
In the same vein as Anton Chigurh, Darth Vader, Gus Fring, Hannibal Lecter, and Joffrey Baratheon, Gyp Rossetti was a villain for the ages. Commanding every scene he entered into with combustible intensity and savage brutality, all while carting around a brown-furred terrier in his arms, Gyp was as unpredictable as he was domineering, and his storyline fortuitously steered the course of the entire season. Commencing on New Year’s Eve 1922, Season 3 exhibited the extent of Boardwalk’s power. It wasn’t simply Gyp, it was that a show already existing at such a high level, appeared to slide into even more of a groove. This season was where we found sympathy for a dejected and broken Eli. Where we began to truly get to know Richard Harrow and where Margaret found happiness in the endearing arms of the too short for this world Owen Slater. Where we get to see the burgeoning partnership between Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, not knowing at the time how pivotal a role this duo would ultimately play in the fate of Nucky Thompson. And it was where where a blossoming gang war leads us to one spectacular place, where Al Capone whisks to Nucky’s aid proclaiming, “We’ve been on the road for eighteen hours. I need a bath, some chow. And then me and you sit down….and we talk about who dies.” It was a dizzying and fierce season of television, assuring that Boardwalk fans will not soon forget the histrionics which occurred in Tabor Heights.
The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire built off the extraordinary momentum of the previous, and to guarantee that not a beat would be skipped after the loss of the iconic Gyp Rossetti, Boardwalk ensured their already stout cast with the exceptional talents of Jeffrey Wright (an ideal adversary for Nucky Thompson in Valentin Narcisse), Ron Livingston, Stephen Root (whose character only spoke in riddles), and James Cromwell, further stacking an already stacked deck.
Within the final dramatic episodes of this fourth season blood was brazenly spilled. The best laid plans of Nucky and his brother Eli led to three murders, violent encounters that changed the course of the embattled Thompson brother’s lives. The first, Agent Tolliver, would lead to Eli’s banishment from Atlantic City. The second, Chalky’s daughter Maybelle, would shatter to pieces a strong and dogged man. A man whose life, we were soon to find out, would spiral out of control, ultimately landing him in prison and part of a chain gang. And the third took the the life of one of the most beloved and misunderstood characters in all of Boardwalk Empire. A simple man named Richard Harrow whose loyalty knew no bounds, and whose tragic life met a beautiful end in the waning moments of Season 4’s emotional finale.
And in the final season, Boardwalk Empire found a way to bring the entire story arc full circle. Further highlighting the brilliance of this interwoven narrative, Boardwalk’s final season included flashbacks to Nucky Thompson’s more modest days. In what felt like a tip of the hat to the shows most hardcore fans, these flashbacks shone a light on a young Nucky (played by Marc Pickering, a dead-ringer for a young Steve Buscemi) and his transformation from an eager sheriff to the fanatical overlord of Atlantic City. Season 5 was a pitch-perfect conclusion to a tale that was as much about the battle between good and evil that rages inside each of us, and how life’s hardships and the choices we make in the face of them define us, than it was about the nefarious acts of notorious gangsters. Boardwalk Empire, in hindsight, unfolded as a shrewd character study, wrapped like a towel around the barrel of a shotgun, and flourishing amidst crisp three-piece suits, gunshots, and unlabeled, bootlegged whiskey bottles.
We have never really spoken about Boardwalk Empire here at Across the Margin. About our affinity for it, our deep undying love. Our passive approach towards Boardwalk has always been done out of unmitigated respect. Boardwalk Empire simply existed, and was brilliant, and that was always enough for us. It didn’t demand explaining or over-analyzing. Boardwalk Empire was, in essence, just too good to break down. But as we bid adieu to one of the all-time greats, we feel obligated to take a moment and build it up. It was a series that brilliantly unified Martin Scorsese’s impeccable cinematic eye to Terence Winter’s comprehensive mastery of weighty character development and gripping storytelling6. Boardwalk Empire brought to life historical stalwarts from members of the Harding administration to Joseph Kennedy, as well as mobsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Joe Masseria, George Remus and Arnold Rothstein, and paired them artfully with characters that will linger with us as some of the most fascinating we have ever encountered, characters such as Mickey Doyle, Lucy Danziger, Eddie Kessler, Manny “you’re husband did this to you” Horwitz, and Commodore Kaestner. Nothing was left to chance as Terence Winter enlisted a team of fastidious researchers to ensure the show’s historical accuracy7, and it paid off in spades, as Atlantic City, under the vigilant watch of one Nucky Thompson, was breathed to stunning life during Boardwalk Empire’s five seasons.
Throughout the arc of the series we were privileged to witness Al Capone as a youthful American lad, a chubby ambitious young hustler who was a driver for a wealthy man who didn’t even know his name. We were treated to the more human side of the nefarious gangster as well. The side that showed a man – a father – who worried deeply about how his deaf son would survive in this dangerous world without him. We beheld the trying experiences of African Americans in the Prohibition Era through the scowling eyes of Chalky White. We watched as Arnold Rothstein almost entirely sustained on milk and cake while Agent Van Alden fought distressingly with his bellicose demons. We labored with a beleaguered and marginalized Eli as he toiled in the shadow of his brother8 who never quite gave him the respect he deserved. We were bathed in blood as Jimmy took back Greektown, Richard Harrow plowed through Rossetti’s men, and as Frank Capone was riddled with bullets. We walked with Margaret Thompson (played brilliantly by Kelly MacDonald) as she went to the utmost lengths for the sake of her children, all the while going toe-to-toe with two of the era’s most notorious gangsters9. And we sat on the edges of our seats as in the waning moments of the series, the hypocrite preacher Dr. Valentin Narcisse finally got his, in the form of a hail of bullets as he expelled his religious babble to the very people he was exploiting.
But it was always all about Nucky, the man who struggled in earnest with being “half a gangster.” In the series finale, “Eldorado,”10 his malicious compromises caught up with him, and Nucky, a man who fruitlessly tried to throw money at the problems he superciliously birthed, learned the hard way the terrible consequences of misguided ambitions. In the final season the focus rightly landed square upon what Boardwalk Empire has actually been about the entire time, the battle for Nucky’s soul. A soul that was doomed from the moment he made a promise he was never set to keep (“I promise I’ll always look after you.”). This was Nucky’s original sin, one that he would never be able to attain redemption for. Nucky became what he surmised he needed to be11, and before he knew it he was far past the point of no return12. His ugly denial of the hurt he had spawned, his lack of empathy and his unwillingness to bury his past sins finally caught up with him, in the form of Tommy Darmody, who resurfaced to avenge his father’s death, and his mother’s betrayal.
As the vision of a young Nucky swimming in the ocean, finally capturing that gold coin dancing about the fluttering swells, faded to black, Norah Jones’ arresting voice piloted us towards a world without Nucky as she sings “If you want the rainbow, You must have the rain.” This served as a chilling reminder of Nucky’s obsessive quest for rainbows13, and how in the process, he ultimately ended up getting drenched. Beautiful.
But he grew old-
This knight so bold-
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow-
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be-
This land of Eldorado?
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Eldorado”
- Boardwalk Empire premiered on September 19th, 2010, three years after The Sopranos had concluded, and in that time period no other HBO drama was able to captivate viewers like Tony and his gang, until Boardwalk. [↩]
- Based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson. [↩]
- The actual boardwalk, built in an empty lot in Brooklyn, cost an estimated five million dollars alone to erect. [↩]
- It lost Best Drama to Mad Men, whose showrunner Matthew Weiner worked with Terence Winter on The Sopranos. [↩]
- Bill Groom began working for Boardwalk Empire in Season 2, brought in to re-define the look of the show through the dynamic and ever-changing 1920s. Bill Shaw handled Production Design for Season 1 [↩]
- Terence Winter ‘s next project reunites him with Martin Scorsese and actor Bobby “Gyp Rosetti” Cannavale, along with Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger for a new HBO show about the explosive 1970s New York City rock scene. [↩]
- Headed by Edward McGinty and Vicki Gold Levi – two Atlantic City natives whose connection to the town goes back to the days of Prohibition. [↩]
- “How come you got all the brains?” – Eli “Because you needed me to be.” – Nucky [↩]
- Margaret’s admission of her complicity in the season finale was remarkable. “All you did was offer. I’m the one who took.” [↩]
- El Dorado is the term used by Europeans to describe a tribal chief of the Muisca native people of Colombia, South America, who as an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and dove into Lake Guatavita (akin to the opening sequence of this finale). Imagined as a place, El Dorado went from a city to a kingdom and then an empire of this legendary golden king. This episode’s title also refers to famed Central Park West apartment building where Nucky and Margaret shared one last dance. [↩]
- “How’s that make you anything at all?” [↩]
- “I went past the surf line, further than I ever did as a kid…Keep going until you can’t go back; I swear there isn’t any choice. You can’t know until you pass it, then it’s too late.” [↩]
- “I was a bellboy. Carried people’s bags. First time I was tipped a nickel, I thought the world is a marvelous place. But a dime would be better. Then a quarter. Well, you know how it works.” [↩]