“As you know, in less than two hours liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation’s Congress. To those beautiful, ignorant bastards. Rest assured that, dry though the country may be, I am in the midst of concluding arrangements that will keep Atlantic City wet…”
HBO has finally released a full series set of Boardwalk Empire on Blu-ray. This is an HBO trend that has gone full tilt in the last year, seeing such hits as The Sopranos, True Blood and soon The Wire all coming in wonderful full-series releases. They look great on your video shelf. Together they create a tremendous number of hours of quality television. I love having it all in one place. If you’re new to the show, what better time to climb on board? Here’s a primer on what you’re going to see. I almost envy you folks who will watch it all for the first time in one sweep.
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 for the first two seasons:
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.
Jimmy Darmondy (Pitt)
A former Princeton student and combat veteran of the Great War, Jimmy returned to Atlantic City a changed man. Chafing under Nucky’s rule, he fled to Chicago to work alongside Al Capone but returned at Nucky’s behest. New information about Nucky’s role in his mother’s life years ago has strained relations between Jimmy and Nucky.
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.
The Commodore (Coleman)
Nucky’s one-time mentor, the Commodore, controlled Atlantic City before passing the mantle. The cost of succession has never sat well with the deposed king, who now seeks to oust Nucky and reclaim his city.
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 has 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.
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 who 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.
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. 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?
“Everybody’s got guns.”
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.
The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire began pretty much the only way it could have after the bloodbath that ended the previous season. It was an explosive season that delivered the best gangland war in television history. Now there has to be some kind of peace, or at least status quo, after the end of the violence. Nucky is making his peace with Arnold Rothstein and his people. He also owes Chalky White for saving his behind when war broke out. It’s all going to cost him: money to Rothstein and the rebuilt club on the boardwalk for Chalky. The new Onyx club is now run by a man who is not allowed to sit in the front section of his own club.
With the death of Gyp the show needs a new nemesis, and it’s found in two places. Chalky’s club opening is marred when one of his men kills the booking agent supplying the talent. It’s made worse because said agent was working for Dr. Valentin Narcisse, played with great flair by Jeffrey Wright. You’re going to love the character. His front is a society to better the condition of blacks, whom he refers to as Libyans. His real goal is to corner the heroin trade in Atlantic City. He’s going to be going against Chalky White to get there, and Nucky’s going to be put in the middle. It’s a nice payoff to last season when it was Nucky who needed help with an enemy.
The second enemy comes in the form of the new Prohibition agent in town. He’s Agent Knox, played by Brian Geraghty. He poses as a willingly corrupt official, but he’s actually working undercover as an agent for the Bureau of Investigation and its new leader J. Edgar Hoover, played by Eric Laden. It’s another in the line of popular historic figures shown in their early days. Hoover is trying to move into a big chair, and it doesn’t matter who he has to use or step on to get there. Knox has just as much to worry about from inside his own organization as from the mobsters he’s targeting. He’s a young agent crying out for respect.
Nucky also expands his business to our neck of the woods here in Tampa, Florida. It starts as a favor to a friend who was in trouble. A land investment turns into a land of opportunity for the booze business as he ends up swapping whiskey for rum, and it makes money for all parties until someone gets greedy and adds narcotics to the mix. The Florida storyline also introduces Nucky to Sally Wheet, played by Patricia Arquette. Sally’s a new kind of love interest for Nucky. She’s a tough girl who isn’t above giving him a shot to the kisser. It’s a good idea for a character, but Arquette is terribly miscast, and the potential never really comes through for me. It just becomes another in a long line of weak female characters for the show.
The final season of Boardwalk Empire breaks the mold of what the show has been for the first four years. The action jumps ahead several years to 1931. It’s a necessary plot point if we’re going to be ending the popular series in the fifth season. I understand the jump and why it works. I guess my only real question is: why are we jumping ahead to end what is one of the best shows on television? The answers likely lie within the powers that be at either HBO or the show’s production staff. There’s little point arguing the point. This is your last chance to get some Nucky… Nucky Thompson, that is.
The next change is in the presentation of the episodes. While there have been flashbacks before, they have been somewhat limited. This season finds us in a Godfather Part II scenario where we’re watching two timelines progress simultaneously. In the 1931 world we find that Nucky has grown tired of the gangster life. He’s in Cuba trying to broker a deal with Bacardi planning for the inevitable demise of prohibition and a chance to be a legit booze dealer. Old allies are seeing a weakness and begin to squeeze him out of all of his business affairs. We are watching the absolute decline of Nucky and his Boardwalk Empire. Nucky is a more contemplative character now. Less action, more thinking about the past, hence the many flashbacks.
The second story finds us back in Nucky’s childhood. He’s an awkward kid who isn’t as aggressive as the other kids and finds himself always in last place when it comes to the local pastime for kids: hustling a coin. Opportunity finally presents itself, and he finds himself under the mentorship of The Commodore (Conlee). This is the same man we saw at the end of his life in earlier seasons, played by the wonderful Dabney Coleman in those episodes. Here he’s the man in charge, and we find young Nucky using him to escape a poor home and abusive father. This is where he learns the lessons that bring us to the scary dude we’ve known well these past five years.
Later we see Nucky as a teenager beginning to come into his own. Here he’s played by Marc Pickering. This was a brilliant piece of casting which should come as no surprise from the guys who brought us Steve Buscemi in the title role. He looks quite a bit like Buscemi, but the real magic is in the performance. He has the subtle movements of the character down cold. He’s great with the particular way Buscemi speaks in the role, parsing his words and phrases in such a way that I can absolutely hear Buscemi repeating them.
In the 1931 story we finally see those young famous gangsters take their places in history. Capone (Graham) is now the ruthless boss of Chicago, where Van Alden is now one of his right-hand guys. Michael Shannon is a great performer, but even at the end I never quite understood where the character actually fit in Nucky’s world. I always found him to be one of the few wasted resources of the series. Luciano (Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Yusef) are also playing with the big dogs now and form the syndicate that’s taking over Nucky’s empire.
Most of the characters get good closure. Chalky White finds himself facing off with Narcisse and finding a way to free Daughter Maitland. Eli gets a rather emotional arc, and of course Nucky’s fate has to be met.
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. This is one of the last television shows to use actual film. It shows with a warmth and organic nature that only enhances the atmosphere.
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.
All of the extras from the season sets remain. There is an additional disc that contains some new extras in HD:
The Final Shot – A Farewell To Boardwalk Empire: (29:21) Cast and crew offer up their remembrances of the show. Many talk about getting the gig and/or their first day on set. There’s a lot of the expected pride here, and almost everyone is included. There’s also short segments on the sets, costumes, and everyone has their favorites.
Anatomy Of A Hit: (8:11) Terence Winter, Tim Van Patten & Howard Korder take us through a few of the show’s greatest “hits”.
Building The Boardwalk: (3:22) The production design crew talk about this extensive set used for the first three seasons. It was the largest set ever built in New York for a film.
Shooting The Series: (5:06) No, not that kind of shooting. The series DP’s Jonathan Freeman & Bill Coleman talk about the look of the show.
Designing The Series: (4:27) The production design crew talk about authenticity.
Visual Effects: (8:29) F/X supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster gives us a peak behind the curtain on some of the show’s best f/x moments.
“If we’re good today, we’ll be better tomorrow.”
There’s already talk of a film with Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair. Without giving away any spoilers, the team itself reminds us that it would “obviously” need to be a prequel. I have to say they have really whetted my appetite for more of the younger Nucky. I certainly want to see Buscemi back, but there should be more of the Marc Pickering character. It wouldn’t hurt to see Harrow again, either. The five years were filled with some wonderful characters and moments. Ah, but, “What’s the sense of looking back, it never does any good.”