We All Have to Decide How Much Sin We Can Live With: ‘Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season’

Boardwalk Empire’s Atlantic City is awash in soft pastel colors, like a town made of pink and blue candy. But its sweet exterior belies what’s really going on in 1920: citizens brazenly passing out Ku Klux Klan recruitment flyers, men shuddering at the possibility of women winning the right to vote, mothers sedating their boisterous children with a milk-and-whiskey cocktail, wives and girlfriends using Lysol to prevent pregnancy, and powerful officials publicly feigning support for Prohibition while secretly popping champagne corks in celebration of profits to be made from the underground manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol.

One of these officials is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the Treasurer of Atlantic County who is as charismatic as he is corrupt. Nucky has a firm grip on Atlantic City, which he controls with a combination of ruthlessness, brutality, kindness, and charm. One minute he’s beguiling a room filled with pro-Temperance women, and the next he’s ordering Atlantic County’s Sheriff—who conveniently happens to be his brother, Eli (Shea Whigham)—to kill a troublesome witness to his illegal activity.

Nucky is referred to as “a dapper villain in a Sunday serial”, but there’s so much more to him than that. He’s an intriguing, mysterious, and multi-layered character brought to life in an impressive performance by Buscemi, who is believable and sympathetic as a man who is both a grieving widower and a benevolent playboy. Despite his lack of physical beauty, the well-dressed Nucky is sought-after by women not only because of his money, power, and connections, but because of his kind heart.

When he meets Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald)—a young and pregnant Irish immigrant who is seeking work for her husband—Nucky notices her black eye and correctly guesses that she is a victim of domestic violence. He slides an ever-present wad of cash out of his expensive suit, hands her a generous donation, and later orders two police officers on his payroll to give Margaret’s husband his due. Like a more refined and polished version of L.A. Confidential’s Officer Bud White, Nucky is a protector of abused women who will skirt the law to achieve justice—especially when Margaret’s husband physically abuses her to the point that she loses her baby.

Margaret and Nucky’s developing relationship is deep and conflicted, especially on Margaret’s part. Macdonald smoothly handles the nuances of Margaret’s personality, which is generally likeable yet realistically flawed. She is especially insensitive to Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)—a lonely World War I veteran and expert marksman assigned by Nucky to be her bodyguard—because she is repulsed by the facial disfigurement he suffered on the battlefield. Richard wears a metal mask, and during a touching scene in which Margaret reads The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to her children, he points to his mask and tells the kids that he is the Tin Man.

Margaret finally warms to Richard, and this is part of her transformative growth throughout the season. She changes from meek to outspoken while she vacillates between enjoying the comfortable new life Nucky has given her and struggling with the idea of being romantically linked to a criminal who, she is warned, is “capable of anything”. Her ethical dilemma is summed up by Nucky when he tells her that “we all have to decide how much sin we can live with.”

Sin—and the eradication of it—is the driving force of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), Nucky’s obsessive foe who is an agent with the Department of Internal Revenue and lives to uphold the Volstead Act. “I can offer you salvation,” he says to Margaret, although his intentions toward her are not pristine. Shannon oozes with talent and has the perfect physical attributes to portray Van Alden — a priggish, driven, and ultimately evil G-man. This morally confused character is a standout in Boardwalk Empire — a series that is crammed with rich personalities and a delightful blend of fictional and historical characters.

Among the real-life characters are Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, and Al Capone (Stephen Graham). Capone undergoes an interesting character arc as a vicious mobster and callous jokester who has an unexpected epiphany during a Bar Mitzvah. Graham—an Englishman—nails Capone’s Brooklyn accent and adeptly inhabits the character in a way that is an interpretation rather than an imitation. Capone’s relationship with Nucky’s protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt)—like all other relationships in Boardwalk Empire–develops slowly and believably, and is filled with clashing emotions.

Their association strengthens when Jimmy’s illegal activities force him to leave New Jersey and hide out in Chicago, leaving behind his common-law wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and their young son. Jimmy and Angela’s union is already strained, and in his absence, the bohemian Angela develops a romantic relationship with a local photographer’s wife. When Jimmy—a hot-headed tough guy—returns home, he suspects the photographer and reacts by beating him senseless on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

However, when Jimmy learns the truth—and finds out that Angela has been plotting to leave him and flee to Paris with their son—he quietly forgives her. Although Pitt delivers a dazzling performance as Jimmy, this disappointing inconsistency in the script abruptly deflates a storyline packed with tension, and is not in keeping with Jimmy’s explosive nature. It is also doubtful that during an era in which women who cut their hair short were considered scandalous rebels (Jimmy looks at disgust at Angela when she chops her long locks) and ladies are chastised for swearing (“You’ve got a fresh mouth for a broad,” Lucky Luciano tells his paramour) that Jimmy would be so passive about Angela’s betrayal—despite the fact that he has betrayed her, too.

But this is the only unauthentic moment in an otherwise stellar series. The unmistakable style of Martin Scorsese—who is an executive producer of Boardwalk Empire and directed its pilot—is evident, especially during a scene in which blood slowly seeps onto a carpet from a gangster’s fatal gunshot wound—just as Tommy DeVito met his end in Goodfellas. Terence Winter (writer and executive producer of The Sopranos)’s involvement in Boardwalk Empire is also obvious, even in the casting of several small roles. The late Tom Aldredge (Carmela’s father in The Sopranos) plays Nucky’s father, and Max Casella is a small-time gangster in both series.

The Sopranos depicted mobsters as complex people who lead unconventional lives rife with common problems, and it presented storylines that took time to simmer and gradually came to a rolling boil. Boardwalk Empire effectively follows the same pattern. Even minor characters are vital components of the beautifully elaborate plot—especially Gretchen Moll as Jimmy’s attractive young mother, and Dabney Coleman as a retired gangster whose significance in Jimmy’s and Nucky’s lives is startlingly revealed at the end of the season.

Boardwalk Empire credibly and delightfully recreates the Roaring Twenties with the decade’s sumptuous fashion, its Jazz Age slang (men call their pals “boyo” and girls refer to their boyfriends as “daddy”), references to popular products (Nucky suggests taking Brioschi for indigestion), and a lush soundtrack studded with gems like “Some of These Days” and “My Man”.

Given the historical accuracy of the series, the music in its introduction—played while Nucky stands at the Atlantic City shore while it fills with floating liquor bottles—at first seems oddly contemporary. But the modern music is appropriate and telling, as it indicates the timelessness of the issues and themes in the series. Take away the women’s Chanel silhouettes and the men’s fedoras, and the pathos of Boardwalk Empire — with its government corruption, political scandals, family dysfunction, difficult romantic relationships, bruised soldiers just home from war, and catastrophic financial losses due to the original Ponzi scheme — is not much different from politics and business these days. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons the series is so relatable.

The DVD contains character bios in written dossier format, and voice-over commentary of the episodes from the executive producers, writers, and cast. It also offers a wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creation of the series, which includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, and various cast members. Additionally, there’s a fascinating feature that unveils the meticulous research and historical accuracy required to re-create Atlantic City of the ’20s, which Terrence Winter describes as “Times Square on the ocean.”

RATING 9 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.