Many of my favorite shows are only available on premium channels. One of these is HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
I’ve been a Steve Buscemi fan for years. But it took a level of genius above mine to see him as a leading man. I’d have never thunk it, but the role of Nucky Thompson is perfect for him. He’s a brilliant actor but his unique appearance would not normally fall into Hollywood’s ideal of handsome. This would normally mean he’d always be a supporting actor and never a lead. In Nucky, we get to see a man use something other than attractive appearance to earn a high status: charisma.
Some people are aware that Nucky Thompson is based on real life historical Atlantic City power-broker Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson. The story of the television series is nothing like real life, however. Atlantic City saw a rather low prohibition related violent crime rate – simply because Johnson had so much power and control in the area that no one contested it. That would make for boring television though.
In the fictionalized version, we still get to see Thompson wielding a hefty portion of control over the Republican party of the era, ultimately picking who will become the next President. We get to see the corruption of our political system, and though the show seems to focus on the Republican Party as corrupt, watchers who pay attention will see that the democrats are portrayed as being part of Nucky’s corruption.
Somehow, Buscemi makes this very corrupt and very criminal person a hero. It’s mildly perverse that I found amusement in a scene where the “good” guys of the show kill their rivals. One rival, already kneeling and bound, talks trash to Nucky, thus inciting Nucky’s muscle, Jimmy Darmody, to draw his gun. The rival then asks, “What, you gonna shoot me?”. Darmody replies, “I wasn’t gonna, but you kinda talked me into it.” Blam. Right in the forhead. It was a quick quippy exchange, unlike the next slow death of a man who all but admits lynching the black driver of Nucky’s friend and counterpart in the African American community, Chalky White. Chalky strangles the guy over the course of about a minute.
As the guy is strangled to death, we get to see the character of the other people in the room by how they watch. Darmody looks away. He’s a soldier willing to kill because he think’s he’s already damned to hell for his actions in The Great War. Another, less reputable associate, a rat who’s changed sides twice so far in eight episodes, watches with a gleeful but nervous smile. Nucky watches askance, with a grim look on his face. He’s clearly not fond of killing but sees it as a necessary part of keeping Atlantic City running.
That does seem to be Nucky’s driving motivation. Through a thick gauze of greed, he ultimately seems to care about the city more than anything, even more than his odd obsession with mothers of young children. We learn from him that his wife died from Tuberculosis at a young age. It’s never said, but his behaviors indicate she may have been pregnant when she died.
And somehow we fit a love story into all this. Well several, really, but the one the viewers will care about is the one between Nucky and Mrs. Margaret Shroeder. Note the Mrs. She’s woman widowed when Nucky’s brother kills Mr. Shroeder. For the record, Mr. Shroeder had few redeeming qualities. On the outside it seems Mr. Shroeder was chosen to be the patsy for a crime he wasn’t involved in. On the inside it looks like he was killed for treating his wife poorly, including beating her and taking money from her.
I’d say the show teaches history in the process but so much is fictionalized, teaching is too strong a word. It does create an awareness of history. For entertainment, that’s exceptional enough. There’s always speculation as to who is based on whom in real life. But this is so fictionalized that, if the name is not recognizable, it’s probably a fictional character. As in Forrest Gump, they link the characters to participating rolls in every major new story of the era. Unlike Forrest Gump, the connections are planned and intentional and oddly enough, mostly based on fact, albeit loosely.
I have to give a special mention to Gretchen Mol, who plays Jimmy Darmody’s mother. Though her character is a classic wiser than she looks showgirl, she looks really good playing the part.
The drama of the show is, as I mentioned, mostly created through heavy fictionalization. It is very well written drama. The major storylines are so gripping that we hardly notice Al Capone, who is a minor character with his own storylines, but not one we care about as much as Nucky Thompson’s.