“You Can’t Be Half a Gangster”: On “Boardwalk Empire”

By George PottsDecember 2, 2012

“You Can’t Be Half a Gangster”: On “Boardwalk Empire”

BOARDWALK EMPIRE BEGINS in Atlantic City on January 16, 1920, the evening before the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the Treasurer of Atlantic County, stands before a crowded meeting of the Women’s Temperance League. He is every bit the model politician, first paying tribute to the branch’s chairwoman and then recounting his impoverished childhood, ravaged by his father’s alcoholism. The crowd hangs off his every word, the camera panning over their tearful faces as they gasp and look on in sympathy and admiration. Nucky delicately takes his leave — not before offering support for women’s suffrage — with an assertion that, “Prohibition means progress.”

Outside the meeting, Nucky’s driver and understudy Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) marvels at the harrowing tales divulged on stage. Nucky shakes his head with a wry smile as he climbs into his Rolls Royce. “The first rule of politics,” he reminds Jimmy, “is to never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The yarns he has spun for the meeting are certainly more story than truth, but the phrase’s wider meaning becomes clear as the engine starts and the car drives off. From the chastity of the Women’s Temperance League — envisioning a teetotal society standing to moral attention — we cut to the Atlantic City waterfront, resplendent with flappers, brass bands, and copious amounts of liquor.

Buscemi’s character walks through these hordes with ease and familiarity. To the League’s members he was introduced as Enoch, but to the Boardwalk’s revellers he is always Nucky: it’s clear which group knows him best. There is even a mock funeral for drunkenness, complete with a bottle-shaped coffin and black balloons. At midnight, the revelling crowds count down to Prohibition as you would the New Year, offer five seconds silence as the clock strikes 12, and then pop the corks on another round of champagne bottles. The king is dead. Long live the king.

This latter image of the Roaring Twenties is closer to the truth of Prohibition America than the chaste sobriety that campaigners yearned for, and thankfully, it makes for a much better story. There is perhaps no era more mythologised in the American psyche than the Jazz Age, or at least no era that more greatly epitomizes that kind of decadent splendour which so demands to be captured on film. Boardwalk Empire debuted on HBO in 2010 to greater expectation and media hype than had greeted a new television series in recent memory. Following the final seasons of The Sopranos (2007) and The Wire (2008), in 2009, HBO was without a great drama series — specifically a great crime drama.

Instead, the televisual zeitgeist had shifted over to AMC, who held all of the serial drama trump cards in the form of Mad Men, a stylized period drama and media darling, and Breaking Bad, a disturbing and tirelessly inventive series that lives up to HBO’s own motto: “It’s not TV.” Ultraviolent and revolving around drug production and terminal lung cancer, Breaking Bad was exactly the kind of show on which HBO had cut its teeth, only this time it was not theirs to tout. The network needed a series on which to build from those recent successes, and Boardwalk Empire can be seen as a cherry-picking of HBO’s finest talent and an attempt to fuse its gangster drama pedigree with the period style that had won Mad Men so many plaudits and magazine-spreads. If AMC were pulling people in with the glamour of 1960s Madison Avenue, HBO would beat that with the unabashed decadence of 1920s Atlantic City. I’m still waiting for the latter’s Banana Republic special collection to hit the stores.

If you were to assemble a series as you would a fantasy football team, it’s unlikely you could envisage a better roster of players than Boardwalk’s. Martin Scorsese, the master of the gangster film, is one of the show’s executive producers — he also directed the pilot episode. Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire’s creator, was an executive producer and writer on The Sopranos and co-wrote “Pine Barrens,” widely considered its greatest episode. Boardwalk stars not only Buscemi but other established film actors, including Kelly Macdonald and Michael Shannon, as well as Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little on The Wire. The show’s pilot had a budget of about $18 million, making it not only HBO’s most expensive pilot, but possibly the most expensive pilot of all time.

The money being poured into Boardwalk Empire is on scale with drama that now commands the small rather than big-screen. As David Denby commented recently in The New Yorker, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, “serious drama” is no longer the interest of Hollywood studios, which prefer the $150 million blockbuster to “small and medium-sized winners.” Thanks to contributions from HBO and other like-minded networks, the void is increasingly filled by television, which has redefined what you can expect of the long-narrative drama series to the extent that Scorsese himself praised it as “a new opportunity for storytelling,” one that is “very different from television of the past.” As Hollywood’s interest in one mode of storytelling has waned, the TV drama has grown in ambition to the extent that it has arguably surpassed the majority of American cinema and remains the only area keen to stake large amounts of money on serious drama.

Much of the fanfare led many people to believe that Boardwalk Empire could be television’s finest hour. Boardwalk’s cultural moment was significant: 10 years earlier, television had not been regarded as a worthy vehicle for serious art. The Sopranos changed all that, and many of those involved in that show’s production were returning to the small screen with some noteworthy additions and a larger budget, in a far more receptive climate.

Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner also made his bones on The Sopranos (as a writer and executive producer), but his subsequent creation moves further away from his earlier work than Winter does with Boardwalk Empire. Tackling the same genre again is always difficult, particularly when the series you previously worked on is also the juggernaut which utterly redefined what one could expect of the medium. Boardwalk’s stated aim is to explore the very birth of organized crime, made possible by a legal act which turned ordinary citizens into criminals overnight.

In this it is very different to The Sopranos, which considers the role of the mafia in 21st century America, generations after its rise in the 1920s. Tony Soprano’s frequent anxiety within that series relates to cultural dislocation, a fear of how changing values have robbed the mafia of its heritage. In his watching and referencing of films such as Public Enemy and The Godfather, Tony tries desperately to reconnect with an idealised Mafioso past, a past made all the more unattainable by its refraction through a romanticized Hollywood lens. Boardwalk Empire locates itself in that very past for which Tony pines; had it been made before The Sopranos, Silvio and Paulie would surely have discussed Nucky’s antics in The Bada Bing each week. If The Sopranos creates a crew of postmodern gangsters, haunted by their cinematic and real-life predecessors, Boardwalk retreats back into that past, trying to capture the specific historical moment at which the mafia emerged in America.

That historical moment begins on the eve of Prohibition, as Nucky and the other corrupt politicians of Atlantic City outline their plans for the importation and distribution of alcohol to begin in earnest. In a private dining room with Atlantic City’s major players, Nucky spells out the real implications of the Volstead Act, toasting “those beautiful, ignorant bastards” who think they can outlaw alcohol. Immediately following from the "story" that he has spun for the Women’s Temperance League, we are back again to the "truth" of Prohibition, a moral agenda which, far from moving America towards a perfect moral society, made millionaires of those capable of turning it to their advantage. Here is a truth far darker than the glamour of nightclubs — we must retreat further beneath the surface of the Roaring Twenties to see the machinations required to make that era glitter.

Yet those sitting around the table in this instance are not of the mafia underworld so often imagined but of the town’s political elite: Nucky’s brother Eli, who is the County Sheriff (Shea Whigham), the Mayor, and other pen-pushers. The folklore villains of the Cosa Nostra arrive later in the episode — Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and a young, brooding Al Capone (Stephen Graham) — but they are by no means the only figures profiting from Prohibition. Corruption and bootlegging subsume not just the mobsters willing to sell liquor, but also ordinary citizens and the entire political class.

Of these two camps of gangsters and politicians, Nucky most acutely straddles the divide. Like Tony in The Sopranos, Nucky is the pivot around which the series revolves, its opening credits strangely recalling those of the earlier show with its focus on one protagonist and the world surrounding him. In Boardwalk’s opening, Nucky stands on the seafront, calmly smoking while the tide laps at his feet. As the waves roll inward towards the beach, bottles of liquor begin to appear on the horizon, gradually washing ashore until the beach and ocean are littered with glass.


There’s obvious symbolism here — bootlegging as an unstoppable force, its prevention a futile attempt to hold back the tide — but it also makes for interesting comparison with The Sopranos’s intro, suggesting that Nucky is not your average gangster. In the Sopranos sequence, Tony drives through New Jersey, the camera cutting between close-ups of him and the minutiae of his commute. Rather than the rarefied landscape of the Atlantic City shoreline, we have the gritty New Jersey suburbs. Tony chomps aggressively on a cigar, whereas Nucky delicately twirls a cigarette taken from a small gold case. Compared to Tony in his casual clothing, Nucky’s presentation is meticulous — the camera focuses on a red carnation in his lapel and his extravagant two-tone brogues.

Some of these differences can be explained by the chronological disjuncture between each show's setting and the intense stylization period drama often evokes. But there is also a contrast here between James Gandolfini’s hyper-masculine Tony and the svelte figure of Buscemi, whose preening and delicate gestures make him stand out against the true mobsters of Boardwalk Empire as well as his cinematic predecessors in The Sopranos and elsewhere.

Boardwalk Empire is loosely based on Nelson Johnson’s historical narrative Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City, but aside from the title, the setting, and some loose biographical similarities, the series shows little concern for historical accuracy. The real-life Enoch “Nucky” Johnson becomes Enoch “Nucky” Thompson; Johnson was, according to Winter, a “big burly guy with a square jaw” but the creators wanted to create a different kind of protagonist. As Winter has observed elsewhere: “If we were going to cast accurately what the real Nucky looked like, we’d have cast Jim Gandolfini.”

By and large, all characters central to the plot in Atlantic City are entirely fictionalized — or so heavily-fictionalized that their relation to Johnson’s history makes little difference. Winter won't allow the truth to get in the way of a good story, and his story creates a far less typical gangster protagonist because of its disregard for truth. In The Sopranos pilot we see Tony run a man down in his car and beat him to the ground; in the opening episode of Boardwalk, Nucky warns Jimmy that he could have him killed, to which Jimmy knowingly responds, “yeah but you won’t. You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore.”

“Not anymore” locates the series at a precise historical moment, suggesting that Prohibition ushered in an era of violence and mob-rule that would utterly change America. There is only one group of characters whose biographies can’t be altered: the real-life major mafia figures such as Capone, Luciano, and Rothstein. While the rest of Boardwalk’s cast will always keep the viewer guessing, we know when these players will rise and how far they will fall (Rothstein is the first to go, and that won’t be for another six years within the series’s timescale). This group of fully-fledged gangsters are the stuff of legend and cliché, but having their lives pre-emptively mapped-out also diminishes suspense. It is the half gangsters we care for, those given full run of their fictionalized world, free to do as they please.

If Boardwalk has a wider narrative goal, it is the development of Nucky from a corrupt County Treasurer to a man capable of murder — the confluence of gangster and politician in one elusive figure. The protagonist standing in as a symbol of America and the American Dream is standard fare of the gangster genre, and Nucky’s initial teetering on the border between politics and organised crime — the latter no less dishonest, just more removed from the bloody realities of power relations — seems to imply a deepening corruption in the country that Prohibition wrought.

Unlike Capone or Luciano, who order death as they would room service, Nucky fears murder occurring in an election year in case voters are put off by a dead body being washed ashore. While Boardwalk Empire does not shy away from the stylized execution scenes that are among Scorsese’s fortes, they are rarely at the behest of its main protagonist. The show’s second season revolves around an all-out power struggle for Atlantic City, with Nucky’s former protégé Jimmy now siding with his father the Commodore (Dabney Coleman) for control of the county. This is a war in which battles are infrequent, played out through negotiations and business deals rather than with guns.

At the season’s end we have one final confrontation between the two, late at night in the pouring rain. Jimmy’s plot against the emperor has failed, and he accepts his fate with a calm certitude. He arrives unarmed, offering no resistance. For a man about to die, he knows how to play out his last few words to maximum effect. Nucky is not just threatening to have Jimmy killed; he will do the killing himself. Nucky holds the weapon, but it is Jimmy who knows what it takes to pull the trigger. “My first time I vomited after for two days straight. Second time I didn’t even think about it.” Nucky has always been the master and Jimmy the protégé, but in the art of murder it is the understudy who’s doing the coaxing: “Just try to make yourself calm … breathe Nuck, you’ll get through it.”

All this makes for a great season finale, a stylish execution worthy of the movies, but it comes at a price. Jimmy’s quiet fatalism, his calm acceptance that this is his time to die, derives from the revelation of a troubled past that gradually unfolded in previous episodes. A man who claims he spiritually “died in the trenches” of the Somme and whose family relations are complicated to say the least, Jimmy is snubbed out just as he reaches his most twisted and interesting point as a character. As Nucky stands over his dying body he declares, “you don’t know me James, and you never did.” There’s a cinematic grandeur to these words but there’s also the promise of more to come for the viewer: Jimmy may be dead, but Nucky has a long way to go, and we can assure you that there’s much more to him than you’ve thought so far.

Jimmy is not the only character in Boardwalk Empire who arouses the viewer’s interest more powerfully than its protagonist. There is the puritanical Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a Federal agent who, despite his fire and brimstone rhetoric, will justify even homicide to pursue a bootlegging case. And Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), Nucky’s mistress and later his wife, never seems sure why she is with the most corrupt man in town, and struggles with her faith accordingly. Though if there is one character whose understated performance steals the show, it is Richard Harrow, played by Jack Huston. A former army marksman who wears a tin mask to cover his disfigured face, Harrow somehow balances his 63 kills with a polite shyness and penchant for scrapbooking.

These are all memorable characters, but the point they are drawn to is Nucky, around whose dealings they all revolve and meet. Buscemi acts his part terrifically but there is something lacking in Nucky’s character which prevents him from satisfyingly filling that focal role in Boardwalk. This is problematic because, no matter how great the series’s supporting cast, when a conflict occurs the series has to side with its protagonist, as fans of Jimmy were disappointed to discover at the end of the second season. For The Sopranos this was never a problem: each season would pit Tony against a variety of mobsters (including Buscemi himself) but the audience always knew who they wanted to win. Nucky cannot yet command the same awe and respect, it seems.

Upon its release, critical response to Boardwalk Empire was not the unanimous praise that many had expected, but it was strangely unanimous. By-and-large the consensus seemed to suggest: “I wanted to like it, I know I should like it, but something doesn’t quite add up.” In the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley called the show “an artful reworking of the gangster myth,” but said that, “it isn’t a great work of art.” Nancy Franklin described Boardwalk as “authentic in a way that, paradoxically, seems lifeless.” Emily Nussbaum continued this strain of criticism, grouping Boardwalk in with those “ambitious series whose lacquered looks crack apart when you apply the slightest pressure.” The consensus was that the series could not add up to the sum of its parts: ambitiously conceived, cinematographically gorgeous, well-acted, yet ultimately lacking the factor that made The Sopranos or The Wire into gangster narratives par excellence.

Each of those earlier two series did something to the gangster genre that hadn’t been done before. “Most mob dramas are period pieces,” Sopranos creator David Chase commented. “Even if they’re set in the present day, they feel like they belong to a different era.” When Chase initially pitched The Sopranos, he was clear that it couldn’t just be another gangster epic. Instead, psychiatric analysis, dream sequences, and satirizing of suburban life transformed The Sopranos into much more than just a gangster show. Its constant riffing on The Godfather and Goodfellas confronted its cinematic predecessors head on, explicitly showing their differences, and thus becoming something wholly sui generis. The Wire’s first season focused on an investigation into a single criminal organisation, but in subsequent seasons would expand on this theme to produce perhaps the most all-encompassing television series of all time. In examining trade unions, politics, public schools, and journalism with a desire to capture all aspects of American life, it presented a more radical political message than had ever been made in TV drama.

Complaining that Boardwalk Empire falls short of the two masterpieces of modern television may seem unconstructive, but comparing it to those earlier works may go some way to explaining why the series has not lived up to the burden of expectation placed on its shoulders. It seems almost symbolic that while Chase recognized that most gangster series are just “period pieces” and refused to go along with this trend, his fellow Sopranos alumni have retreated back into the world of period drama. Boardwalk is a magnificent gangster series, but in the contemporary TV climate, this may no longer be enough to satisfy the most-discerning viewer.

Now in its third season on HBO and already renewed for a fourth, Boardwalk Empire continues to develop upon Nucky’s character and the various worlds in which he moves. Early in the last season, Nucky and his new driver Owen Slater (a former IRA enforcer who began to fill Jimmy’s shoes as protégé in season two) stake out a young boy called Rowland Smith who robbed their trucks. When circumstances force them to hide out with Rowland overnight, the young boy shows himself to be more than a common thief. Plucky, smart, and charming, we wonder if we are looking at a future star of the mafia underworld. As Nucky and Owen take their leave, Rowland pops the question: “how’s about I come work for you?” His tone is intense but warm, and when Nucky offers the boy a cigarette his meteoric rise in organized crime seems to be taking shape. But it is not to be. As Rowland turns his back, Nucky pulls a gun and shoots.

As with Jimmy’s death the bullet goes clean through his head, but there is no fear in Nucky this time, no hesitation. When Owen realizes what just happened, he’s the one shaking: “I thought you were letting him go.” Nucky replies, “Why would you think that?” “I misunderstood,” Owen replies, controlling his shock but visibly rattled. Nucky’s expression hardens, his response an act of self-definition: “As long as you understand now.” Three seasons into Boardwalk Empire, Nucky is still dealing with Jimmy’s early warning, learning that to succeed in Prohibition America you just can’t be “half a gangster.” As the series continues, Nucky’s emergence as a cold-blooded killer — his moral descent and financial rise — becomes a symbol of a corrupted American Dream that may create the troubled and troubling anti-hero that Boardwalk needs at its heart. It remains to be seen whether being just another TV gangster, or just another gangster television series, is enough.


LARB Contributor

George Potts is the London Representative for The American Reader. A PhD candidate in modern literature at University College London, his thesis explores the relationship between the poetry of John Milton and Geoffrey Hill. He reviews fiction for the Times Literary Supplement.


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