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REVIEW: Boardwalk vs. Empire: Can HBO’s Gangster Chronicle Bring Its Two Sides Together?

6 minute read

Boardwalk Empire debuted in 2010 with the promise of being HBO’s next great, big series. Well, it was big at least. It had a healthy budget that showed on screen. It was art-directed with a museum curator’s touch. It was (mostly) impeccably cast. It had a vast sweep of locations–at this point, I half-expect “New Jersey,” “Havana,” “Chicago” &c to spiral up from a map a la Game of Thrones–and created and added characters faster than it could kill them.

The result was a serial so sprawling that it could seem more like an anthology. In broad terms, the characters and stories fell into two groups. There were the drawn-from-history marquee names–gangland icons like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein, as well as figures from J. Edgar Hoover to Eddie Cantor. And there were the fictional or semi-fictional inventions–bigshots and little people, existing at the margins–immigrants and African Americans, suffragists and hustlers. It mashed up a boldface-name version of 1920s history with a populist, little-guy version: the Empire vs. the Boardwalk.

But the show, which begins its final season Sept. 7, also had a fulcrum connecting the two halves. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, fittingly, was both a historical figure and not one, having been based loosely on New Jersey boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Just as Jimmy Darmody once called Nucky “half a gangster,” he also had a foot each in the show’s docudrama half and its people’s history half.

The Empire half of Boardwalk Empire was a big part of its initial appeal: on the home of The Sopranos, here was a top-shelf, certified reconstruction of the birth of the actual mob. It checked all the boxes. Stephen Graham made Capone volatile and human, and Michael Stuhlbarg was mesmerizing as the abstemious chessmaster Rothstein. The aesthetics, even after Martin Scorsese stepped away from the camera, were appropriately whiskey-amber and grand. But most of the historical characters have always felt constricted by real-life fidelity and the show’s self-conscious use of them. (In the new season, a famous figure acterally gets a speech ending, “…then I say they don’t know _______!,” revealing his name like a punchline in a Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story.”)

The Boardwalk half was more interesting, even when it got less attention. Decent, tragic killer Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), his half-face-mask a reminder of the surreal, mechanistic violence of the Great War. Chalky White (Michael K. White), who became de facto leader of black Atlantic City but could feel out of place in his own house, among the children he hoped to raise to a better, legitimate life. Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), the activist immigrant whose first instincts about Nucky proved right. And Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), whose falling out with father figure Nucky gave the show an Oedipal (at one point literally) charge that the show never completely recovered from losing when he was killed off.

When the show committed to its gritty, marginal Boardwalk side, it was splendid: the season four arc pitting Chalky against heroin lord and Black Nationalist Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) was the show’s best. When it threw the balance to the gangland excesses of its Empire side, it floundered: season three, which pitted Nucky against cartoonish big bad Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) was its worst.

Not that the show was ever badly made or amateurish–not even close. If anything, it was too professional; that is, it was exactly what you would expect from a big-budget cable gangland drama, and not a thing more. One more show about old-timey men behaving badly needs more than execution (and executions) to be great: it needs an idea. The Knick, now on Cinemax, is a reconsidered kind of period piece, with specific ideas about the social and technological changes it’s covering. Deadwood, on HBO, was about not just a mining camp but about how community and law arise out of anarchy. What was Boardwalk Empire about? It was about, well, gangsters.

But Boardwalk Empire was too good to completely write off. Its biggest asset has been its willingness to make a big ask of its audience: patience. Season after season would begin seeming diffuse and disjointed, but the story threads would tie together, more or less, by season’s end. (Last season’s weaving the climax of the Chalky-Narcisse feud with Harrow’s end was lyrically heartbreaking.)

So credit due to Boardwalk, and producer Terence Winter, for refusing to abuse its audience’s patience; rather than slaughter, rinse, repeat for several more seasons, Winter decided that the show had just about told its story. And judging from the first three episodes, the final season is setting itself the task of bringing everything together, with only eight episodes to do it.

We’ve time-jumped forward to 1931: where we began on the eve of Prohibition, it’s now the eve of repeal. While I won’t spoil where every character is now (Wikipedia can provide the service for the real-life principals), Nucky is in Cuba, rum on his mind and the chance to go legit when alcohol does in his sights. At the same time, the series time-jumps backwards to 1884, in recurrent flashbacks to young Nucky’s early apprenticeship with the Commodore.

The first episode, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” is elegantly constructed; it takes its name from a morally didactic periodical for children, yet it shows Nucky’s education in exactly the opposite principles. (At one point, the younger Commodore scolds him for “think[ing] you were going to get something for being honest.”)

But as the device continues into the second episode, and the third, it seems like a risk. It’s natural for Boardwalk Empire to focus its last season on its star, but–as admirable as Buscemi’s restraint is in playing the ghostly gangster–Nucky’s strength has always been bringing out the more interesting characters around him. The other, surviving characters return to the series gradually. (How in God’s name has someone not killed Mickey Doyle?) But they’re scattered as far as ever; Chicago, in particular, still feels like its own planet, as entertaining as it still is to see Van Alden (the human pressure-cooker Michael Shannon) eternally abused and beset by morons. There’s a lot of thread here, and less time than usual to knit. In the first three hours anyway, there’s too much Empire, too little Boardwalk.

Of course, as any Prohibition entrepreneur knows, risk equals opportunity. If the final season can make Nucky into its most interesting figure, it might give the series, it retrospect, answers it’s been lacking. Who is Nucky Thompson? What does he represent? Is he a distinctive creation in the end, or one more antihero going after a last score, a Walter Pale White? If Boardwalk Empire has earned skepticism, its best moments have also earned it eight more hours of attention. Maybe, just maybe, its last act can show us what Nucky has beneath his lapel flower, besides a giant bankroll.

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