“Everybody’s got guns.”
Lately, you might have heard a lot of folks talking about getting home for a little Nucky. Well… it’s not what you think. They’re talking about Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi on HBO’s latest gangland series, Boardwalk Empire.
I can’t say for sure that I’m part of a trend, but when HBO finally closed its doors on the production offices of The Sopranos, the HBO channels became victims of our attempt to cut back on expenses here. It was the last time I subscribed, and I have a feeling I wasn’t alone. Since that time the network has tried hard to come up with the next “must-watch” series. For many those needs have been filled with the likes of Big Love or Game Of Thrones. They are both interesting shows with the expected high production values, but neither can replace Tony, Paulie, and the boys. But it appears that HBO might have at least come up with a contender in Boardwalk Empire. I’m not ready to say the show is anything as good as The Sopranos, but I see some potential here to bring back all of those viewers with a gangster jones. And who better to try and pull them back in the fold than the king of the gangster film himself, Martin Scorsese? Scorsese is one of the show’s executive producers, but more than that, he directed the first episode and set the tone and visual style for the series.
“It’s like Prohibition never happened but for one thing. Prices will increase twenty-fold. We got a product a fellah’s gotta have. Even better is that we got a product he ain’t allowed to have.”
The story centers on Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Buscemi). He’s the city treasurer for Atlantic City in the 1920’s. The story begins just hours before the start of Prohibition. He works with the movers and shakers of the City Council and pretty much owns the Mayor. Nucky controls the city’s purse strings, and he’s the center of political power in the town. Like the Godfather, people come to Nucky when they’re in a jam, and he collects favors like many of us collect DVD’s or Blu-rays. He puts them on a shelf until he has the need to use them. One such piece of his collection is Margaret Schroeder (McDonald). Her husband beats her and gambles away his earnings. Nucky offers her help…and eventually much more. Let’s just say he’s good at removing obstacles. But make no mistake. Whatever he does is always for his own benefit, and helping others is a side effect that he can often cash in on. Most important, now that Prohibition has begun, Nucky controls the flow of booze into the city.
There are a lot of players here, and HBO has provided a good recap on each:
Equal parts corrupt politician and gangster (and equally comfortable in either role), Nucky Thompson is capitalizing on the opportunities presented by Prohibition. The shrewd and charming Treasurer of Atlantic City is a consummate glad-hander and back-room dealer who also maintains strict control of the illegal activities running rampant in “The World’s Playground.” Hardened as he is, he appears to have a soft spot for Margaret Schroeder.
Margaret Schroeder (McDonald)
Beautiful and intelligent with a survivor’s instinct, Margaret can hold her own with powerful men, traits that serve her well with Nucky Thompson and the power brokers in his circle. This Irish immigrant’s quick thinking and fiery spirit have caught Nucky’s interest.
Agent Nelson Van Alden (Shannon)
A senior Prohibition agent with the Department of Internal Revenue, Van Alden approaches his work with the zeal of a man on a mission. Aware that his partner was in Nucky’s pay, he drowned the junior agent under the pretense of baptizing him.
Al Capone (Graham)
Young Al Capone learned his trade at the feet of kingpin Johnny Torrio, including the hard-won lesson to be less hotheaded and impulsive if he wants to take advantage of the myriad opportunities Prohibition presents.
Arnold Rothstein (Stuhlbarg)
A strategic thinker and consummate gambler, Arnold “The Big Bankroll” Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series and never makes a bet he doesn’t know he’ll win. He has been on both sides of a deal with Nucky, always keeping his options open.
Lucky Luciano (Piazza)
Cunning and ruthless, the young Luciano is savvy enough to align himself with Arnold Rothstein. But his youth, passion, and ambition are a sometimes-dangerous combination: a dalliance with a showgirl went awry when she turned out to be Jimmy’s mother, Gillian.
Chalky White (Williams)
The de facto Mayor of Atlantic City’s African-American community, ex-boxer Chalky White runs a major bootlegging operation for Nucky, a business that puts strains on their already-complicated personal relationship.
As you can see, the series has a very large supporting cast. The best decision the team made, however, was casting Steve Buscemi in the critical lead role. This guy has always been able to deliver a powerful performance. He gave Tony Soprano a run for his money for a full season. Here he is as much the character as anyone you’ll ever find. From the way he dresses to the way he walks across the room, he is Nucky from head to toe. And that’s even before you start to get hypnotized by his wonderful expressive facial movements. This is the reason to watch the show. Sure, there are other great performers, but everybody gets dimmed just a little bit when Buscemi walks into the room. It all begins with very effective yet simple opening credits that have Buscemi on a beach as liquor bottles come rolling onto the surf. This guy bears watching. The character is based very loosely on the real Nucky Johnson who did run Atlantic City during this era.
The supporting cast of characters and actors is also quite good. Michael Kenneth Williams made his mark on The Wire as the colorful fan-favorite Omar. Who can forget that moment on the stands when Omar is asked what he does for a living? “I robs drug dealers.” It was one of the best line deliveries in television. Pizza Hut might say they deliver, but Michael Kenneth Williams is the real delivery guarantee, and he doesn’t disappoint as Chalky White. He’s the only character that truly holds his own with Nucky. Stephen Graham does a good job of hiding his British accent to give us a very young Al Capone. This is before the days that Capone built his own empire. He’s an up-and-comer without as much of the ego and self-confidence he would one day find. A gem not included in the HBO press is Greg Antonacci as the Chicago crime boss Johnny Torrio. It’s a pretty sweet part, and he eats it up. This is one scary gangster. It’s all in the eyes, and that’s where the best actors make the magic happen. Finally, there’s Jack Huston, who plays the disfigured army vet who joins the organization as an enforcer. He ends up working for Jimmy’s mother and another bad season end for him. This guy never says a lot, and half his face is covered, so it’s hard for him to emote just properly. Still, I think he’s the scariest guy in the show. Very clever acting, to be sure.
There are some cast and character disappointments. The most glaring is the Margaret character. I really can’t fault McDonald here. It’s just not a well-written part. Her morality shifts are just not believable at all. Every time you want to relate to her she does something so out of character that the performance falls flat. She gets a ton of screen time, and it’s almost always a disaster. These writers just don’t know how to write these female characters. It’s hard to believe that the same minds that came up with Nucky wrote these parts. Another disappointment is the Jimmy character. He’s essential to the ongoing story, but Michael Pitt is just sleepwalking the entire time. He looks completely bored to tears and couldn’t pull together an emotion if you shot his dog and took away his candy. Of course we’re talking about an actor here who got fired once as an extra because he couldn’t keep himself from firing up a joint on the set. I’ll tell you this, Michael. You do have that mellow thing down pat. Finally, I’m just not getting the Agent Van Alden part. This guy is certainly a character, but they’ve tried too hard to make him dark and complicated. I’d rather see someone competent going after Nucky. Where would Capone have been without Ness?
The series does have some wonderful sets. The Boardwalk set is absolutely stellar and just as much a character on the show as any of the supporting cast. The level of detail here is truly outstanding, and it has to be one of the greatest set pieces ever designed for a television show. Combine that with the costumes and cinematography and you have a totally convincing period piece, to be sure. If you want to be completely and utterly whisked away to another time and place, this is the show you’ve been waiting for. I don’t think a single detail was left to chance. Scorsese left a solid template for the other directors to follow and set a standard I hope the series continues to honor.
When I was growing up, my grandparents took me to Atlantic City about once every summer. I remember the boardwalk and the piers. I saw the horse jumping from the Steel Pier and rode many of the attractions on the boardwalk. That was the 1960’s and 1970’s, so it wasn’t quite the same era at all. But there’s something about the essence of pre-casino Atlantic City that is captured here. The series is authentic if anything else. They play a little bit with the timing of certain events and trivial pop references, but the show pulls you into a certain time and place. And isn’t that always just great fun?
The third season of Boardwalk Empire is much darker than the first two. It’s actually pretty hard to believe. I mean, this is a gangster show with plenty of cold-blooded violence from the start. No one is safe, and each of these first three seasons has seen regular characters get whacked. It’s not so much that there is more violence. There is less of the gala atmosphere that marked the first two seasons. Nucky is no longer in politics, so he’s not worried about showing a happy public face any longer. The season begins with an elaborate New Year’s party as the show rings in 1923. It has an Egyptian theme and introduces a mistress for Nucky in the form of Billie Kent (Steedle). She’s the ultimate flapper from the roaring twenties. She likes to have a good time without commitments while trying to promote an acting career. After that party there just aren’t any celebrations. Nucky has his back to the wall the entire season.
Enter Gyp Rosetti (Cannavale). He’s one of the most ruthless players in the show. His first episode introduction is a shocking moment in the series, and that’s saying something. He takes things quite personally, and when he feels slighted by Nucky he engages in an all-out war with him. The bloody result will put Nucky on the run for the first time in his life. He’ll find out who his friends really are this season. The Gyp character brings brutality to a new level.
We also get to meet even more classic real-life gangsters before they became icons. Bugsy Siegel (Zegen) and Gaston Means (Root) join the fun for the first time. And even though Jimmy’s gone, his mother Gillian (Mol) takes a more commanding role. She’s running a brothel but wants it to be so classy she can’t pay the bills. She takes up with a lover who looks amazingly like Jimmy, but not for the reasons you might expect. She’s the perfect example of an evil character who believes she is totally good.
I continue to have issue with the Michael Shannon character of Agent Van Alden. I love the actor, and anyone who has seen the new Superman movie knows how good an actor he really is. The problem is that no matter how compelling and interesting the character is here, it never appears to fit in with the story. Each time we go to his life, it’s a diversion that tears me out of the ultra-realistic world of these gangsters. I’m sure they’re going somewhere with the guy, but they need to get there already.
Each is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The series is quite dark most of the time. Even the brighter exteriors on the boardwalk during the day are somewhat darker than you would expect. It’s a fine style point, and fortunately we get excellent black levels that allow the viewer to appreciate the subtle cinematography here. The high-definition image presentation is always flawless. Colors, while muted, put us firmly in the period. The detail might as well be considered bragging, because it highlights the incredible care of the production design.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is pretty much what you would expect. There are moments where the action brings out an aggressive burst from the presentation. Mostly, however, it’s the dialog, and it works just fine here.
Advanced Viewing Modes allow you to pull up certain points of information and features during each episode.
Evolving Character Dossiers
All of the features are in HD
American Empires: This is an interactive text-based feature with plenty of information on the gangsters by region.
Newsreels: There are 24, two per episode. These are not really classic newsreels, but supplementary features with the crew that give you more info on episode-related elements of the real story.
Director’s Chair: (29:56) The directors take you through many key scenes from the season and break it all down for you.
Scorsese On Season 3: (4:34) The famous director gives his take on the third season.
New Characters: (4:57) A run-down on the new faces for season 3.
Distilling Season 2: A recap of the second season.
The series succeeds in its portrayal of the sheer idiocy of the Volstead Act. Speakeasies were an open secret, and Nucky found it more compelling than politics. This season brings out the true gangster in Nucky and many of the other players. We cut to the Tommy gun violence of the Cagney and Robinson films of the 20’s and 30’s in a way that hasn’t really been seen since those days. Martin Scorsese is on the production team, and his influence can’t be missed. He’s a true fan of the era of gangster films. More than that, he’s a careful student of the genre, and it is quite starkly notable here. Scorsese teaches us that “there’s no such thing as being half a gangster”.