When Boardwalk Empire debuted on HBO on 2010, it was positioned to be the next The Sopranos, i.e. HBO’s next big heavy hitter and anchor of their lineup. Four years, three dragons and one Veep later, it’s ended up being much more True Blood than Sopranos. That’s not to say it’s not a good television show. Because it is. It’s just not the cultural monolith HBO had hoped it would be.
And there are some reasons for this.
The first reason: the casting of Steve Buscemi as the show’s main character, Nucky Thompson. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Boardwalk Empire is that the actor they needed to cast as Nucky Thompson was the one actor they couldn’t- James Gandolfini. The next Sopranos couldn’t feature the man who made The Sopranos. So they went in the other direction, hiring The Other Tony, Buscemi. Steve Buscemi is a great actor. One of the best! But I don’t think he was ever the right choice to build a show like Boardwalk Empire around. He lacked the strength, charm and gravitas that was needed. The show suffered as a result. Tony Soprano was a brooding barbarian, but he was also a lovable joker and believable Casanova, two things Buscemi has never really been able to get too as Nucky. Buscemi has never been able to be bright enough of a sun for everything on Boardwalk Empire to revolve around- not like Tony Soprano. If Boardwalk was set up like Game of Thrones or The Wire, show’s built on the strength of ensembles, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. But they went the other direction, a show built on one man in the midst of a sprawling world of chaos. Unfortunately they didn’t cast the right actor to handle that kind of heavy lifting.
The second reason: the death of Jimmy Darmody and subsequent exit of actor Michael Pitt. From a story perspective, the death of Jimmy at the end of season two made sense. But that is accepting the fact that the story preceding that made sense. Jimmy’s rise was rushed and seemed hastily planned. Instead of becoming a long-running foil for Nucky, which would have made both the show and Nucky more interesting, he was killed and with it, any lasting tension that could have benefited from his presence. Not to mention how interesting, captivating and great Pitt was as Darmody. The show never seemed to recover from this move.
The third reason: the numerous settings the show’s action takes place in. Atlantic City, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Florida, Maryland, Washington D.C. And I may be missing one or two. The show never stopped getting bigger, especially when it should have narrowed it’s focus. Game of Thrones can keep growing because it has the talent both in front and behind the camera to do it, as well as a story that merits it. Not so for Boardwalk Empire. I really think the show would have been better if it had stayed in it’s lane and been about the 1920’s in Atlantic City.
But again, all that aside, Boardwalk Empire is a good show and with season five starting this Sunday, I’m legitimately excited for it, even more so because this season takes place roughly seven years after season four ended. A reset of sorts was exactly what the show needed- a fresh jolt as they hit their home stretch. It’s hard to imagine them doing a final season that followed the exact same beats the previous four had.
And speaking of the previous four seasons, I’ve found myself wondering…what exactly has happened on Boardwalk Empire? A week or so I caught part of an episode from season one and had no idea what was going on. This made me realize that my knowledge of the show’s happenings is spotty as best. So I decided to see how I could do- recapping the show up until this point without any resources; a recapping from memory only. And let’s see how it goes.
Boardwalk Empire opens on the eve of Prohibition starting. No worries in Atlantic City, New Jersey though. They’re in a good spot to handle the coming government-induced booze drop pretty well. At the center of it is Nucky, the treasurer of Atlantic City, but also kind of the man in charge, an old school boss and man behind the red curtain who is pulling all the strings. Nucky is dating a show girl and lives in a hotel. Nice suits, a blue Rolls, a loyal butler named Eddie. Things are good.
Jimmy Darmody returns home from war- World War I. Darmody is the son of a show girl and this old dude called the Commodore, who used to run things until he got thrown in the clink for rigging elections. Nucky should have gone to jail too, but cut a deal with his boss (the Commodore) to stay out, run AC and keep the Commodore’s seat warm for when he got out. This did not go exactly to plan. Jimmy has demons, as well as a wife and son. And a bum leg. And ambition. Jimmy has no desire to be just Nucky’s driver, which is what he starts out to be. There are two tiers of gangsters essentially. There are the old pros: Nucky, Arnold Rothstein and Johnny Torrio. And there are the rookies: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Jimmy. There is also a dude in Philly, but I forgot his name. NOT IMPORTANT! At some point Jimmy kills someone and has to lay low. Laying low on Boardwalk Empire essentially means “move to Chicago.” He does and in the process, meets Richard Harrow, a fellow vet who rocks a mask to cover the part of his face that was blown up during the war. Their relationship will be one of the show’s strongest and Richard will become one of the show’s most interesting characters.
Margaret Schroder is important. Her husband is a dick. He beats her, drinks and gambles away the little money they have. Margaret meets Nucky, Nucky likes Margaret, Nucky has Margaret’s husband killed, Nucky starts hooking up with Margaret, ditching his show girl lady friend. That show girl lady friend ends up meeting this dude Van Alden. Van Alden is a Prohibition Officer. Also kind of a dick, but in more of a bible-thumping, repressed sense than Mags’ deceased husband. Van Alden is after Nucky. Nucky ain’t got no time for Van Alden’s monkey business. He also has Van Alden’s number two on the payroll. Van Alden goes nuts, kills his number two in front of a black church congregation and…wait, I think I might be getting ahead of myself. Van Alden does however hook up with Nucky’s ex, although oops, gets her preggers in the process.
Nucky learns to become a gangster this season, riding dirty with dudes like Rothstein and Torrio- two legitimate gangsters. They have a few tiffs, nothing major and nothing a quick meet up and back scratching can fix. Jimmy and Capone hold up a caravan of booze that’s headed to Rothstein. That ruffles some feathers. But everything gets smoothed over. Some people die, some people live, Nucky survives. Jimmy however, not so stoked about it. Although this is deep-rooted because at some point he found out that Nucky had basically served up a 13 yr old Gillian, Jimmy’s mom, to the Commodore and bing, bang, boom, that’s how Jimmy was born. Jimmy doesn’t see Nucky as a good guy, he sees him as a hustler pimp. Jimmy also has that ambition, lack of patience problem, which leads to a season-ending alliance with his pops and wait for it…Nucky’s brother, Eli, who also thinks Nucky is a douche and is/was the sheriff.
I never really mentioned Chalky White. Chalky is the defacto head of Atlantic City’s African American community and work homies with Nucky. Season two opens with dudes in KKK outfits shooting up a booze bottling operation run by Chalky. Who is behind the shooting? The Legion of Nucky Haters- the Commodore, Eli and Jimmy. Their motivation is basically Eff Nucky, he’s a douche. That’s really it. Yeah they want power, but mostly they just want Nucky to get his. They all feel wronged by Nucky, so screw him. They have secret meetings at the Commodore’s crib, Jimmy starts wearing a different hat and making moves to the same dudes Nucky was cavorting with in season one. It looks like Jimmy is on his way up, Nucky is on his way out. This seasons kind of cool; kind of promising.
Nucky is living with Margaret- they’re basically married. He has a new number two- an Irishman named Owen and while I don’t remember how they got connected, I think it was through the head of the IRA, who came to Atlantic City, looking for some financial backing from Nucky. Later in the season Nucky goes to Ireland with Owen, that head from the IRA gets killed by his own men and Nucky strikes a deal with the new head of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army)- guns for whiskey. Nucky is back in business!
I think it was around this time that Van Alden kills his former partner. He also has a baby with Nucky’s ex. She splits once the baby is born because she’s not a caged bird, man, leaving the bambino with Van Alden. By the end of the season, Van Alden has peaced out of Atlantic City, accused of killing his partner, split from his wife and making googly eyes at his kid’s Swedish nanny.
The second half of the season is Jimmy getting too big, too fast. His wife and her lady lover get murdered, Jimmy starts doing drugs, I’m pretty sure he kills his dad at one point with a spear and Eli realizes he’s on the losing side of a game nearing the ninth inning. Eli switches teams and in kind of a WHAT THE SHIT JUST HAPPENED MOMENT, Nucky kills Jimmy. Everything was leading up to it happening, but it was still a surprise. No one felt good about it. Well except Nucky. He was cool with it because Jimmy had eff’d up his ish and needed to go. All looks lovely heading out of season two until Margaret signs over the deed for the land that would become the Atlantic City Expressway to the hospital. That will not go over well.
Jimmy is dead, Van Alden, now named George Mueller is lying low outside of Chicago selling vacuums and Nucky is pissed at Margaret for signing away the super valuable land deed. Women, am I right? All seems kind of okay for Nucky until Gyp Rossetti, a cartoonishly hot-headed New York gangster, shows up. Gyp gets pissed because he feels slighted by Nucky and disrespected. Gyp has inferiority issues that have never been totally addressed. Nucky doesn’t even notice though because his new lady is a little phillie named, Billie. Nucky effs up, Gyp creeps in and there we have our Atlantic City-based conflict of the third season. Once again, the conflict is basically rooted in Nucky Envy.
Gyp first sets up shop in a small town in between Atlantic City and New York, where he can ambush any shipments Nucky is sending to his new bestie Arnold Rothstein. Nucky and Arnold try to have Gyp killed- unsuccessful. Gyp eventually heads to Atlantic City, where he moves his operation to the Commodore’s old crib, which is now a brothel run by Gillian. Nucky is forced into hiding and depends on Chalky and his people to hid him. Oh how the tables have turned.
Anyway, Margaret starts hooking up with Owen, Nucky’s number two and eventually Owen slips one past the goalie. The two Irish, star-crossed lovers make plans to run away together. Of course this plan is eff’d once Owen gets killed during a botched hit attempt on Gyp’s boss, Masseria. I’m pretty sure Margaret blames Nucky for this and I’m also pretty sure she alludes to her and Owen having you know…wink, wink relations. Either way…oh yeah, this is what causes Nucky to go into hiding. Nucky in hiding is actually pretty cool because for the first time you see Nucky as human and not as a robot.
In Chicago, Van Alden/Mueller goes from vacuum salesman to mob hit man and yadda, yadda, yadda ends up working for Al Capone.
Back in Atlantic City, Nucky mounts a comeback and threw some back door dealing with Rothstein and Masseria, basically clips Gyp’s balls off. However, the real star of the show is Richard Harrow. Richard could care less about Nucky. Richard cares about Tommy, Jimmy’s son who is essentially being held captive by a crazy Gillian in her lady den. Richard busts into the place, shoots practically everyone in one of Boardwalk’s top five most bad ass scenes. He drops Tommy off at his new lady friend’s house before going into hiding. I think. Either way, Richard is awesome.
Gyp ends up getting killed by one of his own men. Everything is awesome. Nucky wins.
On to season four.
Nucky no longer lives in Ritz. He lives in a hotel on the outskirts of town called the Albatross. Margaret lives in New York. After the hullabaloo of season three, Nucky is determined to lie low, rock a lower profile. He starts traveling to Florida for some reason, only to meet Patricia Arquette, who runs a swampy dive joint. Nucky sets up a booze connect and she runs it. They hook up in a thunderstorm. Totes adorable.
Back in Atlantic City, Chalky faces a threat of his own, Dr. Narcisse, a heroin-peddling pimp from Harlem. This creates waves for Nucky as well as Dr. Narcisse is effin’ up the delicate balance needed in AC for things to run at least moderately smoothly. Some people die, some people don’t.
Richard has left town for his old home in the Midwest, where he kicks it for a while before eventually heading back. He marries the gal who is taking care of Tommy and things look rosy there. Gillian is now a heroin-addict and eventually gets busted by the Pinkertons for the murder of a Jimmy look-a-like in the third season. This is a blessing because Gillian had become kind of a buzz kill and time waster. Unfortunately Richard’s happiness is short-lived because the season ends with him accidentally killing Chalky’s daughter and eventually dying of a bullet wound of the beach. So close, Richard. So close. That same fracas results in Chalky running away to Maryland and Dr. Narcisse arrested.
Eli kills a federal agent and has to run away to…wait for it…yup, Chicago! In Chicago Al Capone has come into his own, although his brother Frank got killed. Torrio also got killed. Van Alden/Mueller is now a full-fledged mob hit man and is the one who picks Eli up at the train station.
Also this season, Eli’s oldest son killed a kid at college, Margaret became friends with Rothstein, Nucky’s man servant Eddie jumped out a window and J. Edgar Hoover showed up.
I guess we’ll see.