Inside The Greatness of Boardwalk Empire

“You Can’t Be Half A Gangster.”


Boardwalk Empire isn’t a show that will immediately sweep you off your feet, because it takes its time building it’s storytelling bridges and requires you to buy in completely on its historical premise.  When I think of this show, I think of Mad Men with less talking, more sex, more bloody violence and actual real life characters thrown into Terrence Winter’s greedy world of depressed anti-heroes.   There are no good people on this Boardwalk.  Everyone is covered in dirt, blood or carries a ten mile walk of guilt.  For simple reasons, Boardwalk Empire is one of HBO’s greatest shows that you may not know enough about outside of it’s shiny features.

Take the central character of the show, Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson (based on Enoch Thompson), for example.   He is a former city treasurer who has his hand in every pocket in town and lives life a 100 dollar bill at a time, keeping everybody at a distance and maintaining the coldest of hearts.  Yet Nucky is on the verge of collapsing if he lets his guard down for a second.  He killed his prodigal son.  He’s threatened to kill his own brother twice.  He burned down his father’s home.   He will shake hands with a man and make a deal, only to back stab him the next day.   In a way, Nucky signifies the world Boardwalk Empire strives to live.  Cutthroat and sinister to a point of life and death, a hot barrel tip of a Tommy Gun makes most of the decisions around on this strip but the strongest who survive carry the sharpest mind.  Buscemi is so direct and adept at playing slick snakes that Thompson was tailor made for him.  At best, he is a supporting player holding a leading man’s deck of cards with his brain power alone.

When this show was on the verge of debuting back in 2010, several people debated whether you could build a show around Buscemi.  In the process, they were missing the entire point.  While Buscemi’s wickedly ruthless businessman is the moral center of many of the storylines, he is one body inside the best ensemble of actors currently working on television.  Buscemi was scooped up by Winter back when he was writing episodes of The Sopranos for David Chase and Buscemi was guest starring.  Take a look around and you see a viciously versatile group of performers that helps you understand what makes this show run so hot and heavy.  A show about the roaring 1920’s and the effect of Prohibition on organized crime just wrapped up its fourth season with tantalizing flavor, and knowing the cast is just as good as knowing what makes this program tick.

Michael Shannon as a disgraced FBI agent with a nasty underbelly of anger lurking inside of him as he slowly works his way into play with Al Capone, played by steamy vigor by British actor Stephen Graham.  Arnold Rothstein, given the same of chill by Michael Stuhlbarg as the glasses of milk his character constantly consumes.  A forgotten talent in Gretchen Mol, playing the most keen and deadly mothers those days have ever known in Gillian Darmody.   The son was Jimmy Darmody, played with a youthful end of innocence by Michael Pitt.  His friend, Richard Harrow, a fellow soldier from the sea, given a building’s worth of heart and soul by British actor Jack Huston.  A man with only half a face but a full blooded cry for love, Harrow was a bit part that travelled full circle due to Huston’s grace.   His menace only feeding his will to survive and be desired, Harrow epitomized the aim of the entire series.  Bittersweet sadness wrapped inside a bullet.

Shea Whigham, as Nucky’s brother Eli, is highly effective as a man constantly walking the line between shame and honor in the shadow of his big dealing brother.  Vincent Piazza’s grating attitude and deadly arrogance as a young Lucky Luciano with Anatol Yusef holding many different cards of virtue as Meyer Lansky.  Kelly McDonald played a fine hand as Nucky’s Irish immigrant wife Margaret while Michael Kenneth Williams shows a whole new bag of morality tricks as the benevolent gangster Chalky White.

Winter doesn’t mess around when it comes to decorating his regulars with seasonal power and his guest list is astonishing.   Jeffrey Wright as Valentin Narcisse, a new age suit who aims to take all the treasures in Season 4.   Bobby Cannavale’s Emmy winning performance as the monstrous loose cannon Gyp Rosseti.  Sure, Cannavale chewed scenery and turned in a performance that didn’t require nuance, but watching him tear through the carefully crafted world of Nucky was spellbinding and wildly entertaining.   Ron Livingston and Patricia Arquette were valuable presences as well in this past season.

Boardwalk Empire works you over like baseball does.  It’s a slow boil that takes time and patience and delivers the goods to those who can wait.  Dealing with real life characters, Winter’s balances the pot of unpredictability by bringing in the fictional players like Gyp Rosetti so the normal players can be kept on their toes.   The set design is immaculate and the music is perfectly set to the tune of those times but it’s the acting that places this show at a high level.  There isn’t a single performance that feels phoned in.  Everything comes from inside the actor and out towards our senses at the speed of a bullet.  For a show without a real good guy and lead character, Winter makes due by suiting these anti-heroes up with enough spicy traits to keep us guessing who is noble and who is just plain greedy.  A show about a period in time where the price of liquor turned regular criminals into deadly souls and turned a dirty enterprise into organized crime.

If I am holding out here with plot details, trust me it is on purpose.  Boardwalk Empire needs to be seen to be appreciated.  The setup is simple.  Nucky has a ton of power and everybody else wants a piece of it yet has to pay a price.  In a way, it is like the love child ofSopranos and Game of Thrones.  Power, envy, despair, guilt, violence and pure sexual anger are the roots of those quiet gem.

If it feels like the cast is loaded with testosterone pumping males, then that was the intent and the relevance of its time in history needs to observed.   There are no fairy tale romances on this show or real housewives to be annoyed by.  This is a world ruled and dictated by powerful yet flawed men. If you give it the time to let the whiskey settle, Boardwalk Empire will rock you to your core.  These men aren’t just mad.  They are truly bad.

Written by Dan Buffa

Film-Addict Co-Creator and Writer

Reach me at for feedback, comments and general thoughts.  It takes two to tango, so start the conversation.

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