Reasons to love Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi and Kelly McDonald play estranged husband and wife Nucky and

Steve Buscemi and Kelly McDonald play estranged husband and wife Nucky and

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire premieres it’s fifth and final season this week. For devotees, the announcement the show was ending so soon came as a shock.

Premiering in 2010, the series still feels relatively new, but in its short air time it has failed to generate the same cultural impact and award show love as other big ticket dramas, namely Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire’s HBO stablemates The Wire and The Sopranos.

So why should you watch this underrated, soon to be finished, program about the Atlantic City bootleggers? Here’s five reasons.

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Al Capone

Season five will see Al Capone (Stephen Graham) meet the tax man. Photo: HBO

1. The Premise

Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is the county treasurer of Atlantic City and controls a vast political machine and bootlegging operation.

The series begins in 1920 with the passing of Prohibition. Nucky, his colleagues and his rivals all figure out how to exploit the new possibilities from the illegal sale of alcohol.

The liquor business allows Boardwalk Empire to thread many real life historical figures throughout its fictional narrative universe: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky all feature as important characters whose stories are fleshed out through the course of the series.

Every character real or fictional, every situation factual or imagined, is written for maximum dramatic effect and entertainment value. The result is a very witty, wickedly entertaining crime saga.

2. The Era

The elaborate set is one of the rich components of the show. Photo: HBO

The elaborate set is one of the rich components of the show. Photo: HBO

This is a program that is embedded in the roaring Twenties – a world of slick talk, hot dancing and saucy clubs filled with exquisitely dressed men in tailored suits and their mistresses whose hemlines get higher as the years roll on.

In keeping with the spirit of the time, there is also a greater sense of public morality and religious adherence, a world where men and women are very much aware of how one is supposed to behave.

The formidable production budget – the debut episode of season one was rumoured to cost $US30 million – means that Boardwalk Empire can pay scrupulous attention to detail in creating a beautiful visual world.  

The show plays out across three cities – Atlantic City, New York and Chicago –  and moves from juxtaposing settings, such as The Ritz Carlton or a Chicago cat house, never hitting a false note in authentically reconstructing the era.

3. The Cast

With a current cast list that includes the evergreen Steve Buscemi, The Wire’s wonderful Michael K. Williams, Trainspotting’s Kelly MacDonald and independent stalwart Gretchen Mol, Boardwalk Empire also has an Emmy winning performance from Bobby Canavale from season three under its belt.

4. The Characters 

Steve Buscemi and Kelly McDonald play estranged husband and wife Nucky and

Steve Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald play estranged husband and wife Nucky and Margaret. Photo: HBO

Boardwalk Empire features a gigantic cast across three simultaneous plot lines in New York, Atlantic City and Chicago. The characters are all singular and idiosyncratic; each with their own troubled past and with a peculiar moral response to the business of bootlegging.

Nucky Thompson (Buscemi): A glad-handing, corrupt politician turned bootlegger. More than a gangster, Nucky is a slick politician and pragmatist. He is detached and almost never lets his guard down, but can be impulsive and turn violent unexpectedly.  His success has destroyed every close relationship he has had, leaving him alone and longing for a simpler life.

Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham): the former sheriff of Atlantic County who resents his older brother’s success. Eli is continually attempting to move out of Nucky’s shadow with disastrous consequences – at one time plotting to kill his brother, he reconciled with him only to later begin informing on him to the FBI. Eli finished season four barely scraping away with his life and being exiled to Chicago.

Margaret Schroeder (MacDonald): Nucky’s estranged wife who had a nervous breakdown trying to cope with the immorality that paid for their charmed lives. Eventually she escaped to New York with her children under a new name, before being lured into a scam by Nucky’s rival Arnold Rothstein.

Vincent Van Alden (Michael Shannon): A former prohibition agent who murdered his partner and turned to a life of crime. Vincent got caught up in a power struggle between Al Capone and Dean O’Banion for control over crime in Chicago.  He has progressed from an intensely religious policeman into a murderer and gangster embedded in the Capone criminal organisation.

Michael XXXX

Michael K. Williams is Chalky White, an African American kingmaker. Photo: HBO

Al Capone (Stephen Graham): Presented here as a brash, cocaine addled maniac, given to random bursts of violence, but also fiercely loyal and affectionate to those he is closest to: his deaf son and his two brothers especially. As the series has progressed, we have seen his increasing hold of organised crime in Chicago. As series five begins, expect to see Capone at the height of his power.

Chalky White (Williams): An entrepreneur and kingmaker of the African American community in Atlantic City. Chalky helped Nucky out of a pinch at the end of season three and was given the right to control the biggest nightclub on the boardwalk. But throughout season four his entire criminal enterprise was usurped by a diabolical black supremacist, Dr Valentine Narcisse (Jeffery Wright), leaving Chalky alone in the wilderness plotting his revenge.

Gillian Darmody (Mol):  A former showgirl who had a baby when just 13 after being molested by Nucky’s mentor, The Commodore (Dabney Coleman). A tenacious and manipulative woman driven into increasingly desperate circumstances: At the end of season four she was found guilty of having murdered a young drifter in her mansion and sentenced to life in prison.

5. What’s next?

Season five will be set in 1931, seven years after the end of season four.

Speculation abounds that the time jump was due to the hasty conclusion of the program and leaves some possible conundrums – namely what will happen to character of Arnold Rothstein, who in real life was murdered in 1928, but has been a central player on Boardwalk Empire since series one.

Alas, 1931 sees America in the throes of the Great Depression, with widespread desolation and poverty.

It was also the year Al Capone was indicted on tax evasion charges, and the year Lucky Luciano challenged mafia overlord Joe Masseria and set up the five families crime syndicate in New York.

Exciting times ahead! Get watching.

Boardwalk Empire airs Mondays at 4:30pm and 6:30pm on Foxtel’s Showcase Channel. Previous seasons can be purchased from iTunes.

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