Near the start of tonight’s season premiere of Boardwalk Empire, there is a guns-blazing Ku Klux Klan attack on the bootleg warehouse of Chalky White, Atlantic City boss Nucky Thompson’s ironically named black cohort. Nucky’s luck gets worse from there.
While the first season of HBO’s dazzling, trenchant Prohibition-era drama gave us Nucky (the brilliant Steve Buscemi) at the height of his power, this season puts him in more peril – which gives us more reasons to root for him and highlights how deeply the idea of the good gangster has taken hold in American culture
The 1920’s details are wonderfully vivid, from the Jolson songs and glittery chandeliers to Nucky’s plaid vests and the Boardwalk itself. But the colorful period is just backdrop, not enough to sustain a drama (a mistake that adapters of The Great Gatsby keep on making). What drives Boardwalk Empire is our affection for Nucky, who is television’s perfect replacement for that other beloved, warm-hearted, cold-blooded crime boss, Tony Soprano. The connection is not accidental; Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire’s creator, was one of the main Sopranos writers.
Like Tony, Nucky is about to have some big problems with his illegal business, and we want things to go his way. The government is after him for election fraud - but really, isn’t that just politics as usual? Our sympathy there speaks to a deeply cynical yet genuine streak in American politics. (Easier to take when it’s in the past of course, rather than, say, Florida in 2000.)
And there are fewer and fewer people Nucky can trust. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who has been like a son to him, may be about to act on his divided loyalties. Nucky can’t trust his own brother, the sheriff. Such wounding disloyalty almost makes Nucky an underdog.
And it is wounding because in the code of Nucky’s world, he deserves better. As we’ve done with so many appealing mobster-heroes, we can overlook innocuous crimes - no going after innocents, especially children - but a little violence against villains seems OK.
Nucky did have Margaret Schroeder’s (Kelly Macdonald) husband killed last season, but the husband was a brute who beat her, and look how much better off she is now. Did Nucky always have it in mind that Margaret would become his mistress afterwards? Maybe even he can’t answer that.
But since Margaret, the widowed young mother, has become his well-kept mistress, their relationship has become the centerpiece of Boardwalk Empire, their relationship as close, rich and fraught as the Sopranos’ marriage.
“It’s nearly eight a.m.,” Margaret says when Nucky finally walks in the door.
His level-headed reply: “Considering the night I had I’m amazed I’m home before nine.”
Like Tony, Nucky never questions his life; killing and corruption are not moral issues for him, as long as he lives by his code of honor among thieves.
Like Carmela, though, Margaret has a conscience and a moral dilemma. She likes the comfortable life Nucky provides, and knows there’s bloody money behind it. But at heart she also genuinely loves Nucky, and this season will have to get her hands dirty if she’s going to protect him.
None of this would work without Buscemi’s nervy, tightrope-walking performance, letting us see what’s despicable about Nucky’s behavior while emphasizing what’s decent and likable about him. And Macdonald keeps us as off-guard as we should be about Margaret, whose position – loving Nucky despite those glaring character flaws - is closest to our own.
The rest of the cast is just as sharp, especially Michael Pitt as Jimmy, Michael Stuhlbarg as the fastidious crook Arnold Rothstein, and Michael Shannon as the emotionally tortured, ultra-repressed federal agent Nelson Van Alden. When Van Alden takes his religious wife to sinful Atlantic City for an anniversary weekend, the episode adds a whiff of comedy as they dine at a restaurant that actually offers them bootleg liquor. The Van Aldens make Nucky and Margaret’s world look seem more alluring - wouldn’t you rather be a crook than a Van Alden?
(Shannon also stars in one of this season’s best indie films, Take Shelter. You can find my video interview with him here.)
With all that talent, it’s no surprise that Boardwalk Empire is the only series since The Sopranos to approach its richly layered moral complexity and gripping drama. And like The Sopranos it goes beyond great entertainment. Nucky and Tony, blood brothers, reflect the American psyche more truly than it may be polite to admit.