Welcome to echoflam.com’s coverage of HBO’s new series, Boardwalk Empire. Warning: The review below will contain spoilers and plot points, so read at your own risk.
What is the most important thing the debut of a period piece needs to accomplish? Establish the universe for which all the action will take place. In Sunday’s debut of Boardwalk Empire, we are introduced to Atlantic City, 1920. As has come to be expected from HBO, no detail seems to have been overlooked from the manner of speaking, to the fashion, right down to a shot of one of the characters thumbing through an issue of Vogue Magazine. Shots luxuriate on hotel lobbies and boardwalk storefronts that seek to transplant the viewer right into the heart of our setting. In this regard, Boardwalk Empire is already highly effective as the visual ambience of the show is stunning and at no point do any of the tiny details detract from the story. They enhance it.
Which is not to say that the premiere of Boardwalk Empire is devoid of plot. Quite the contrary, actually. A lot happens in the inaugural hour as we meet Nucky Thompson speaking at a women’s temperance rally where he tells a hilariously cliché story with a predictable ending that about how alcohol ruined his family that, while incredibly transparent, works effectively for the painfully earnest audience that receives it. When it’s pointed out to Nucky that parts of his story were fictitious, Nucky responds thusly, “First rule of politics: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
And with that line, we understand our central character. Nucky is the town treasurer for Atlantic City, and with Prohibition beginning that very day, Nucky sees opportunity in the newly illegal world of alcohol. We meet the others in Atlantic City government, all of them on the take and ready to embrace their new cash cow of illegal booze. Nucky works all sides and is just as comfortable pandering to a group of women for temperance as he is backroom dealing with gangsters and politicians on the take.
And who are these gangsters? There’s Arnold Rothstein, the biggest of the bunch who solicits Nucky for 500 crates of Canadian Club to supply the wedding of a crooked judge. There’s Lucky Luciano, Rothstein’s hot headed lieutenant. And there’s a young, hungry Al Capone ready to go into business for himself with the help of Nucky’s assistant Jimmy Darmody who recently returned from war a conflicted man.
Complicating things is Mrs. Schroeder, an attendee at the temperance rally to whom Nucky feels inclined to help for reasons that aren’t entirely clear yet. Mrs. Schroeder’s husband is an alcoholic, and we see him beat her twice, the second time sending her to the hospital where she loses her unborn child. We know he is very bad news as the camera lingers on the knife Mrs. Schroeder uses to slice bread as Mr. Schroeder begins to menace his wife.
Meanwhile, Jimmy has partnered with Capone to double cross Rothstein and hijack the booze from him after Rothstein cheated in Nucky’s casino and extorted money from him. Nucky fears Jimmy’s betrayal, but when Jimmy explains himself and gives Nucky a cut, Jimmy utters this foreboding line, “You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore.”
The episode concludes with Nucky having the abusive husband picked up, beaten, killed, and thrown in the ocean only to be scooped up by a fishing net the next day and having the booze hijacking pinned on him. It’s swift action from a confident man that has no problem solving his problems with force. But why is it so important for decisive action? It’s an election year.
Television has become the land of the anti-hero. Characters like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and Dexter Morgan live in ambiguous worlds. What is right often takes a backseat to what is pragmatic, and the characters survive on their ability to thrive in a multitude of worlds. Dexter Morgan tries to be all things to all people, and much of the fun of the show Dexter is watching the threads begin to unravel and wonder how Dexter will get out of his latest predicament.
Boardwalk Empire has set itself up in a similar fashion. Nucky is compassionate to Mrs. Schroeder, yet doesn’t hesitate to murder her husband and pin what are ostensibly Jimmy’s crimes on him. He must keep dead bodies from showing up in his city to save face in an election year, but he also seeks the fortune of an illegal rum running enterprise.
In the spirit of this show, when I think about Nucky Thompson in this first episode, I’m reminded of the old vaudeville act where a performer spins plates on the ends of rods and must keep them all going so they don’t come crashing down onstage. Nucky is the plate spinner, this premiere episode makes us wonder if he can all those plates going with pressure from the Feds, the unpredictable behavior of Jimmy and maintaining his public persona. And even better, what will happen when they start to slip?