It may not have the seamless blend of drama and comedy of Breaking Bad, the expansive fantasy of Game of Thrones or the cool charm of Mad Men, but HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has as much going for it as any show in the so-called ‘Second Golden Age’ of television. Since 2009, it has delighted and amazed audiences with the career of politician-cum-criminal Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, and his personal and professional troubles during the prohibition era. And now, as it enters its fifth and final season, it must maintain the qualities that distinguish it from the multitudes of drama series in order to cement its position alongside the greats, and not tumble into obscurity or, worse, undo all the good work it has already done.
Were it not for the prominent inclusion of one young Al Capone, you might be forgiven for thinking that Boardwalk Empire was wholly fictitious. Prohibition is hardly something prominent on most curriculums, and perceptions are broadly shaped by the Jay Gatsbys of the 1920s and their end of the bootlegging trade. A full understanding of the shadier, less glamourous side is rare. Consequently, the criminals and politicians who make up the Boardwalk Empire ensemble are a deft mix of real life figures, contorted by dramatic license, or total fabrications, who fit effortlessly into the authentic world.
And it is this authenticity which makes Boardwalk Empire what it is.There is a great enthusiasm for accuracy in the costumes, sets, storylines and dialogue which allows for total immersion into Nucky’s world. With period dramas often under the scrutiny of pedants and passionate historians, and the likes of Downton Abbey guilty of numerous anachronistic offenses, the precision with which every element is designed and realised is vital both in terms of avoiding criticism and creating a real, captivating world in which the drama can play out.
It is lavish when it has to be lavish, simple when it has to be simple, and doesn’t compromise on historical integrity for spectacle nor comfort.
The production values are not, however, the only elements which make Boardwalk Empire so enduring and prosperous among such remarkable competition. The experience and personality behind it is key. The creator is Terence Winter, one of the writers of The Sopranos, while Martin Scorsese is an executive producer (he also directed the pilot). Although Scorsese could be seen to be in unfamiliar territory on the small screen, both he and Winter are clearly comfortable with fast-talking, short-tempered, brutal characters. Both have a pedigree which gives Boardwalk Empire a much needed edge. There are times where episodes seem to be going nowhere, and business talk is drowning out the more interesting, tense moments, but the audience can remain confident that, with such acclaimed names behind the show, there are always clues to look out for, and always something bigger bubbling under the surface.
But this simmering tension can bring about problems. Although the characters’ actions leave greater imprints on both each other and on the audience, their words are plenty.
Boardwalk Empire is, without a doubt, a slow-burner, and not every episode has the release of a shootout or a fistfight. Thus the cast must be talented and balanced, and they are.
Steve Buscemi, another Sopranos alumnus, leads the line with mesmerising charm. He can be graceful or severe, gentle or prickly, welcoming or cold, and, against a sea of middle aged men, his striking, almost manic, appearance allows him to catch the audience’s attention. It could be argued that the show is difficult to follow because, in such a large cast, it is hard to keep track of who each dark haired, middle-aged man in a suit is, but with the man described in Fargo as ‘kinda funny looking’ playing him, Nucky Thompson is able to stand out to great effect.
While everything eventually comes back to Nucky, the broad scope of the show demands a quality ensemble. While everyone has their best moments, there are three who stood out from the beginning, and will help to share the Buscemi’s burden into the final season. Among such vicious and tough characters, Kelly Macdonald gives a more vulnerable and empathetic performance as Nucky’s mistress-turned-wife Margaret.
Although not completely innocent, MacDonald bridges the gap between the audience and the brutality of the show, and lends an equally tragic, but more personal storyline against the grand political narrative.
Michael Shannon’s zealous but slimy fallen Prohibition agent is one of the most interesting of the characters, and, while everyone rests in a grey morality, his troubles and disasters are perhaps more compelling than most of the rest, as he fluctuates wildly from one end of the moral spectrum to the other. Finally, Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White is deliciously hostile, ruthless and explosive, but is also a brilliantly sympathetic leader and someone who fights not only for his political allies, but also doggedly for his people and his family.
The early seasons of Boardwalk Empire had enough time in building the world and characters to cover such diverse themes as religion, fidelity, race, nationalism and family. As the plot begins to turn towards a suitable conclusion, such depth has, at points, fallen by the wayside, to be replaced more obviously with the story and individual characters. It is possible that some of the quiet intelligence of the past has transformed into more spectacular dramatic flair, but the overall appeal remains unblemished. No matter how direct it gets, the groundwork has been done so that it never becomes stupid, incoherent or superficial.
The final season must look to consolidate everything that has contributed to its diverse and colourful characters, as well as tie up loose ends both thematically and of the story itself.
Demanding quite a high level of concentration to keep track of every twist and character introduction, it is hardly the easiest show to binge-watch late into the night, but Boardwalk Empire has a tone and cast which has allowed it to compete with the most popular of shows. Buscemi’s fine performances are enough to place Nucky Thompson alongside Walter White, House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano and the Wire’s Jimmy McNulty as one of the 21st century’s great TV antiheroes, while his supporting cast are engaging and affecting. It will be a shame to see the back of them, but an immense pleasure to watch their high and lows in the final throes of Prohibition.