Not a Gangster

'Boardwalk Empire' Left New Jersey and Lost Its Way

Good acting—and in the case of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ great lighting, gorgeous sets, and an impeccably researched, eclectic sound track—can't always get you through misguided writing.

I don’t think there’s ever been a television series—and for that matter, very few movies—that has featured more good actors than Boardwalk Empire. Steve Buscemi, of course, as Nucky Thompson, and two actors whose careers the series helped break: Michael Shannon as former federal agent Nelson Van Alden and Jack Huston as the war-mutilated hit man Richard Harrow (perhaps the show’s most compelling character).

Last season introduced Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Narcisse, a Marcus Garvey-posing black heroin dealer and Patricia Arquette, whose Florida cracker saloon-keeper Sally Wheet brings the series some much needed sass.

I could easily name a couple dozen others, but I’ll confine this to Shea Whigham as Nucky’s self-perceived disrespected younger brother, Eli, British actor Stephen Graham as the most kick-ass Al Capone ever, Paul Sparks as the annoyingly entertaining Irish bootlegger Mickey Doyle, and Michael Kenneth Williams as the sullen and explosive black bootlegger Chalky White, velvet-voiced Gretchen Mol as Gillian, and Kelly Macdonald, who returns in this fifth and final season as Nucky’s estranged wife.

Three superb actors bought three underworld legends to life: Michael Stuhlbarg (as the mob’s first financier, Arnold Rothstein), Vincent Piazza (the best Lucky Luciano since Stanley Tucci in Billy Bathgate), and Anatol Yusef (Meyer Lansky).

From past seasons, we had Michael Pitt as the Irish war vet/hitman Jimmy Darmody, whose murder created an uproar among fans at the end of Season 2, and Bobby Cannavale’s psycho mafiosa Gyp Rosetti in Season 3.

So many great actors, so little for most of them to do. Good acting—and in the case of Boardwalk Empire, great lighting, gorgeous sets, and an impeccably researched, eclectic sound track—can get you through times of confused and misguided writing, but can only take a show so far.

For the last two seasons and at least the premiere of Season Five, Boardwalk Empire has been chasing its characters down blind alleys in at least seven different locales to no particular purpose or effect.

The idea for the series sprang from a truly original premise: the character of the former Atlantic City sheriff and treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (renamed Thompson for the series, probably to avoid lawsuits from still-living relatives), one of the leading players in New Jersey turned bootlegger and gambling house proprietor.

With his enormous personal power and political clout, Johnson controlled traffic through the Pine Barrens to Atlantic City from both New York and Philadelphia, a broker for the nascent multi-ethnic mob that was springing up in the mid-1920s. (It was Johnson who hosted the 1929 “convention” of mobsters from all over the country, the first time they came together and organized.)

What Nucky Johnson was not was a gangster, though he did go to prison for a short stint, like Al Capone, for tax evasion.

There was potential for a fascinating character, someone who moved back and forth between the factions of the Jewish-Italian-Irish syndicate, arranging and arbitrating deals while managing to keep himself in the shadows. Instead, Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson was transformed not merely into a mobster but the lynchpin of the entire Mob, a man who Arnold Rothstein and the heads of Mafia families drove hours through the dark and lonely pine woods to make deals with. A man who the FBI actually thinks should be investigated as the nerve center of organized crime in America.

Now, as the last season of Boardwalk Empire kicks off, there’s scarcely any Atlantic City left in the story—no boardwalk in Nucky’s empire. All the interesting stuff seems to be happening from Tampa to Havana as Thompson tries to plan for the future as soon as Prohibition is repealed. But exactly what will this new empire be built on? Legal rum from Cuba seems to be one possibility, though the idea of becoming a legitimate liquor peddler hardly brings any heat. Gambling? This was organized crime’s staple even before Prohibition, but Nucky’s intentions aren’t clear.

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Nor is it clear why so many of the characters in the subplots, including Van Alden and Eli, have been shifted to Chicago. With so many sources for illegal booze, including Canada, why does the Capone mob need Nucky Thompson and Atlantic City?

It’s obvious why Boardwalk Empire needs Capone. Al Capone is the only gangster who most of the audience easily recognizes, so a disproportionate amount of time is given to a story line which has nothing to do with Atlantic City or actual history. In fact, the Capone stuff is getting so far afield from anything fact-based, it’s beginning to resemble old reruns of The Untouchables. (We don’t complain because Graham is so much fun to watch.)

This year, the show has even resurrected Eliot Ness, seen making a pompous speech to reporters about bringing Capone to justice. The real Ness, though a courageous foe of the Capone mob, had little to do with his downfall; his subsequent fame was largely due to a best-selling, self-serving 1957 biography he co-authored, The Untouchables, which was published a month after his death. Now it appears Boardwalk Empire is not only going to feed us more fiction but, with the addition of Ness, recycled fiction.

Set seven years after the events of Season 4, Season 5 seems to be rushing to tie up the many loose ends. Mol’s Gillian is in an insane asylum (for God’s sake, someone put this poor woman, who has been through incest, prostitution, murder and heroin addition, out of her misery). Nucky’s nephew, Eli’s son Will (Ben Rosenfield), escaped prison for accidentally killing a fellow student and is now an ambitious assistant DA in Chicago, but we have no idea why.

A bigger miscalculation is the off-screen death of Arnold Rothstein. The soft-spoken, milk-drinking, keen-witted Rothstein, played with a sinister and subtle intelligence by Stuhlbarg, was the show’s most enigmatic character, around whom most of the major characters and events revolved. Frankly, he was a much more interesting character than Nucky himself, and Buscemi often seemed to be deferring to him as an actor in their scenes together.

The real Rothstein’s murder in a card game would surely seem to be perfect for the show, and perhaps producer and creator Terence Winter intends to give it to us in a flashback. If so, it’s bound to be a major dramatic letdown. Instead, we’re left watching Luciano and Lansky making deals, wondering where the hell Rothstein is.

Speaking of flashbacks, the biggest misfire of Sunday night’s episode, titled “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” is to remind us of Nucky’s miserable childhood in a series of hazily photographed flashbacks. What’s the point? We’ve already been told most of what is presented here in the first four seasons, and at this point we either care what happens to Nucky or we don’t. The tortured scenes of his sister’s death and his father’s drunken abuse seems like padding, a too-obvious attempt to emulate Coppola’s flashback technique in The Godfather, Part II, as well as a chance to squeeze out one last dollop of nostalgia for a lost time and place.

As Burt Lancaster put it in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then. It was really something.”