TV series: Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Originally aired: 2010-2014
What made me finally start watching back in 2020? I’ve previously mentioned how I was looking for a picture to get an idea of what a roleplaying character looks like, and ended up finding a picture from Boardwalk Empire that fit just about perfectly. Well, seeing as how the whole premise of the show is 1920s Prohibition era gangsters and bootleggers – read: also the premise of said roleplaying campaign – I couldn’t not watch it. My character’s a bootlegger who runs a speakeasy, for goodness sake! This show was sure to teach me a lot of interesting things about that subject, right? With the added bonus of being able to see my character in person, so to speak. Match made in heaven. (And it also led me to watching more of that particular actor’s work, and I haven’t looked back since.)
So, as it turns out the show was available on Sky On Demand so I dove straight in. It was the 1920s! Men in three piece suits and fedoras! Boots that were thoroughly legged! Gangsters with Tommy guns! Intriguing characters! Prohibition! History! I was hooked. I mean, what else is a doll to do when there’s a plague on? Dreaming back to the 1920s, when they had only just come out of the Spanish Flu pandemic and put their glad rags on and danced the Charleston and listened to jazz. Perfect escapism.
The series Boardwalk Empire is based on a non-fiction book by the same name. In order to have some creative freedom with the show, instead of the show being about Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, a real life person, they made a fictional version – Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi). Nucky is the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County, New Jersey, and basically runs Atlantic City. When he doesn’t deal in bootlegging, he deals with gangsters in New York and Chicago.
The first season opens with Prohibition coming into force in January 1920. The show brings history to life, especially as the writers actually cared to be historically accurate. Michael Stuhlbarg researched his character, New York mobster and millionaire Arnold Rothstein, so well that the writers ended up asking him about Rothstein. Now that’s commitment! Of course the writers had to make the show fit around history and historical figures, but generally, they do it so seamlessly you sometimes don’t know if a character is real or not.
You see the rise of people like Al Capone (Stephen Graham) in Chicago, and “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Michael Zegen) in New York. You see the fall of people like Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Dean O’Banion (Arron Shiver), Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), Salvatore Maranzano (Giampiero Judica), and George Remus (Glenn Fleshler). There are so many people from history books in this! You even get to see not just Al Capone, but his brothers Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Frank (Morgan Spector). You even see his mother, wife, and son on occasion, and Al’s interactions with his deaf son are some of the stand-out moments in the show.
I knew Stephen Graham is from Liverpool, Kelly Macdonald from Scotland, Charlie Cox from England, and quickly learned that Jack Huston (Richard Harrow is arguably the best character in the entire show – FIGHT ME!) is at least half-English. I had no idea Anatol Yusef was a Londoner! Brits really do get everywhere!
“So it’s just about bad guys, huh?” No. I wouldn’t say Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) is a bad guy. I love Margaret. She goes on such a journey through the years! Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino) isn’t a bad guy either, nor is Nucky’s butler Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura). Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta) and Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) both got kind of a raw deal, but weren’t a bad guy either. Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) is arguably an actual good guy, and depending on if you want people to work on the side of the law or not, there’s also Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson). Hm, kind of makes it sound like mainly the women are good, but then they don’t generally get involved in the illegal stuff … with a few exceptions.
And then there are the sort of morally grey characters, who manage to both be good and bad guys at the same time: Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller (Michael Shannon) and Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) perhaps first and foremost, but also people like “Chalky” White (Michael Kenneth Williams), Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette). They all have their reasons.
Of course, you also have characters that have you go WTAF? Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) has a few moments of “uh, what?” throughout, but it comes to a head near the end of season 2. Dr Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) is all for the “betterment” of people of colour but comes across as a massive hypocrite. You end up wondering how the heck “Mickey Doyle” (Paul Sparks) makes it all the way to season 5. The most insane “I’m sorry, what?!” moments are probably down to Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale). He’s both hilarious and makes Al Capone look like a saint.
The first four seasons follow the years 1920 to 1925 or thereabouts. They were only getting one more season to wrap everything up, so instead of experiencing the next few years – and historical events such as the stock market crash and the death of Arnold Rothstein – it cuts straight to 1932. At the end of the fourth season, a still relatively unknown Al Capone takes over the Chicago Outfit from Johnny Torrio. At the beginning of the fifth, he holds court at a hotel – he has become the infamous gangster boss we still know about today.
Season 5 seems to be the one people like the least. It’s introspective in a way the previous seasons aren’t. We see plenty of flashbacks to Nucky as a child, and how he came to be involved with the Commodore, and how Gillian fits into the puzzle. The ending is divisive, but not to the same degree as Lost or The Sopranos.
Favourite character that isn’t one of the Capones? Richard Harrow, as mentioned above. A lot of people will say Richard Harrow, and for very good reasons. Watch and find out. Jack Huston’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal.
For sumptuous costumes, amazing scenography, music score, and a reminder of a time long gone by, Boardwalk Empire is excellent. Its like watching history unfold. We’re reminded of how bad those times were – from lynchings to polio and questionable healthcare (both physical and mental) – as well as the weird ones (gawking at premature babies through a shop window springs to mind), but also the good times. In some ways people haven’t changed that much in a hundred years.
Since first watching it, I’m now on my fourth re-watch, I think. I refer to it as my emotional support show, as it’s become a bit of pick-me-up when I need to escape modern life being absolute shit, and it’s also great to have as background noise when writing about 1920s gangsters. Season four remains my personal favourite, because it has all my favourite characters in it: all three Capone brothers, Eddie Kessler, Sally Wheet, Richard and Emma Harrow, Julia Sagorsky …
I think that’s enough of waxing lyrical about this show for the time being. It’s an amazing period drama, with an outstanding ensemble cast, and it also features the one portrayal I’ve seen of Al Capone that seems to have any kind of nuance to it. So there.