With names such as Martin Scorcese and Terence Winter attached to it, Boardwalk Empire promises to be a mobster show with all the brutal, complex, and gritty realism we’ve come to expect from the genre.
However, it didn’t quite lived up to its potential with this slow-paced opening episode. A story with this many moving parts needs a large amount of exposition and no doubt there will be plenty of action in the episodes to come; but this week’s installment didn’t really get off the ground until the last thirty minutes.
Jimmy’s impetuous power play brought some forward motion to the plot, while there was also the gruesome mobster violence we were waiting for. Fortunately, what the episode lacked in excitement, it made up for in its careful exploration of its main characters.
Interestingly, Nucky Thompson, a corrupt Atlantic City councilman, is played by Steve Buscemi, a man better known for his supporting roles. What he lacks in leading man looks, he ably makes up for in shrewd characterization and general likability.
He ably projects the character’s beady-eyed endeavoring to retain and enrich his wealth in the face of Prohibition, while seeming reluctant to go too far into gangster territory. Playing both pillar of the community and corrupt official, Nucky is a politician all the way. He even remarks, “First rule of politics, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” A good quote from a man who shrouds himself in mystery, especially when it concerns his personal life.Understandably, Nucky’s main concern is money and most of his actions relate to that subject, but his behavior towards Margaret is incredibly inscrutable.
Naturally, he seems to have a bit of reputation as a local humanitarian, but why does he react so intensely to her situation? Offering her husband a job and sending her off with money seems within the limits of the “caring” councilman, but he is incensed by the sight of her husband gambling away the money she needs for their kids. Already agitated by his confrontation with Luciano and Rothstein, he beats the drunken Hans and sends him home, where Hans savagely beats his own wife causing her to lose her baby.
Upon hearing the news, Nucky schools his face into an expressionless mask, which hides the possible myriad of feelings – shock, anger, guilt, and maybe even opportunism. His expression mirrors his earlier impenetrability when watching the premature babies on the boardwalk’s local Incubator shop. Obviously something in his past, possibly involving his deceased wife, has endeared this newly widowed woman to him. Or possibly her company would be more enjoyable that the shrill Lucy.
Nucky’s young driver, Jimmy, is also a self-sustained man, but he has ambitions that his employer continually ignores. Eschewing his education at Princeton to serve his country, Jimmy comes back a changed man. The psychological trauma of World War I and trench warfare made a huge impact on American life, and it certainly affected the young family man as he is convinced that now his only skill is killing people.
Taking the reins of his own life, Jimmy takes Nucky’s advice and makes his an opportunity for himself. After feeding the feds a useful tip about a local gangster’s bootlegging operation, Jimmy is free to arrange the heist of Rothstein’s liquor. Although unprepared for the bloodbath that ensues (Capone startles easily), Jimmy readily blasts off the face of a New York gangster.
Jimmy will be an entertaining character to watch as he fights his way into the local gangster scene, but Nucky’s involvement in the mob world will definitely be the main focus of our viewing. In this new era, Nucky cannot, as Jimmy says, be half a gangster anymore. Hopefully, his journey deeper into the crime world will move a little quicker in the episodes to come.