We begin, in true period style, with an iris-out shot of a man's hand holding a ticking watch. And, in one way or another, the premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire is all about countdowns: There's the countdown to midnight, which, in a few scenes, will usher in Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties; the countdown to the show itself, HBO's most anticipated new series since The Sopranos; and, as we'll see by this episode's end, the countdown that marks time running out — for these characters and their previous way of life.
But first, back to our ticking watch: A gangster waits on a fog-enshrouded boat. It's a hooch swap, and as you know if you've ever seen a gangster movie, hooch swaps rarely go smoothly. The gangsters pack their trucks with crates of contraband Canadian Club and point them toward New York, but are soon stopped on a wooded road by an apparent accident. Enter two hood-wearing thugs. "Do you know who this belongs to?" shouts one defiant bootlegger. One of the thugs answers, "It's pretty fucking obvious now, ain't it?" before dropping the guy with his shotgun butt. Here we're treated to a classic Martin Scorsese freeze-frame, which makes sense, because the director of the Boardwalk pilot is Martin Scorsese. You could almost hear "Rags to Riches" from Goodfellas kicking in.
Cut to: Three nights earlier. Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is solemnly addressing a meeting of the Ladies' Temperance League, regaling them with a heart-wrenching tale about the young boy who killed wharf rats with a broom handle so his family wouldn't starve. The boy turns out to be Nucky, and the story turns out to be a concocted yarn — Nucky reveals as much to his lieutenant, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) — but what's striking is not the story's lack of veracity but its abundance of brutality. This is a tale of a kid who'll do anything to survive.
And thus we're introduced to Nucky: scrapper, smooth operator, and wheel-and-palm-greaser extraordinaire among the blazing bulbs of the Atlantic City boardwalk. "Pressing city business" calls him away from the Temperance speech, which turns out to be smoking cigars and chortling gleefully with other corrupt city bigwigs, all toasting the incoming Prohibition and the fortune they stand to make. Nucky, happiest of all, promises to keep Atlantic City as "wet as a mermaid's twat."
Nucky's sidekick is the brooding Jimmy, a smart, sharp, Princeton-bound kid who got detoured to the trenches of France, which derailed his life. "I seen things. I done things," he says later, and you get the sense he's this show's Michael Corleone — the favored son who was headed out of the dirty family business, but instead went to war, came back, and took over. He bristles when Nucky consigns him to be the right-hand-man to some underling, and later busts a bottle over the head of Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), who is, admittedly, a giggling nudnik who makes his living diluting alcohol with formaldehyde. (Jimmy's violent reaction suggests less that he's protecting his honor and more that the formaldehyde recalls some horrific experience from the war, about which we may learn later.)
In one bit of crackerjack editing, Scorsese shifts, to the sounds of gunshots, from Jimmy's son knocking over toy soldiers to the training of a new kind of army: The Prohibitions agents, or "Probies," entrusted to enforce the new, unenforceable anti-booze laws. Chief among them is Nelson Van Alden, played by the purse-lipped and sour Michael Shannon, in what might be the most inspired bit of casting on a show with a uniformly inspired cast. (It's a banner series for intense, underrated actors named Michael, from Shannon to Pitt to Stuhlbarg, who plays cold-blooded gangster Arnold Rothstein, and who you may — or, more likely, may not — recognize as the lead from the Coens' A Serious Man.)
Rothstein and his sidekick, Charles "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza), show up in Atlantic City, along with "Big Jim" Colosimo (Frank Crudele) and Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), to strike a deal with Nucky for some contraband booze. Jimmy, meanwhile, makes small talk with Colosimo's driver outside who, in a nice reveal (and one we got to enjoy before a million reviews spoiled it), is a young and hungry kid named Al Capone (Stephen Graham). By this point, the paving stones are all being put in place to lead us back to where the episode began: It's Rothstein's booze, via Nucky, that's getting boosted, and it's Jimmy and Al Capone, in masks, doing the boosting.
The heist goes horribly wrong, of course, as Al gets trigger happy and they gun everyone down. Jimmy coldly executes one man at point blank, then considers him blankly, in yet another scene that hints at how his time at war may have irreparably corroded his soul.
Meanwhile, a comely Irish woman, Margaret Schroeder, shows up to petition Nucky for mercy; her no-good, wife-beating drunk of a husband, Hans, needs a job. Nucky offers a fat wad of cash instead (because he's good-hearted? Because she's beautiful? Stay tuned) and we, the audience, suspect said wife beater will come to a bad end. As you may recall from Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather, wife-beating lowlifes are useful in gangster movies because the gangsters can mercilessly knock the crap out of them and everyone will cheer.
In fact, Nucky stumbles on said drunk of a husband at his casino, frittering the handout, and promptly goes all Pesci on him, slamming his face a few times into the table. (The money scatters and a nearby couple scrambles, all to the tune of ragtime, in just one of many nice poetic touches by Scorsese.) Later, the hapless Mr. Schroeder is shanghaied by Nucky's brother, Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), taken to sea, beaten senseless, and dumped dead overboard, all the better to take the fall for Jimmy's hooch heist.
Early reviews of Boardwalk Empire have suggested that the show is just a little too familiar, and it's true that there's plenty in the pilot that evokes mobster déjà vu: from Jimmy's backstory to a Coppola-style whack-a-boss montage set to Enrico Caruso to, later, the shot of the assassinated Colosimo lying dead on white tile, his head slowly leaking a crimson corona, that seems an intentional nod to The Untouchables. (Or, perhaps, to whatever the The Untouchables was nodding to.) And there are plenty of the familiar gangster-movie pleasures, including the rat-a-tat-tat of tough-guy patois, courtesy of Terence Winter, who made his bones on The Sopranos. One two-bit smuggler, after bartering with Nucky, suggests a drink. "I already got what I wanted," Nucky says. "What the fuck would we talk about?"
But the show also offers its own lush pleasures, not the least of which being the time period in which it takes place. This first episode makes 1920 seem like the most decadent, twisted, conflicted era in history, at least since Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate. Various historical threads — Prohibition, women's rights, urban reform, racism, post-war shell shock — don't entwine here so much as collide like runaway trains. Even a throwaway scene of midget boxing hints at the existential viciousness poisoning the post-war water. Naturally, there's Al Capone in the front row, cheering it on.
And at the center of this pileup: Nucky, the dapper city treasurer. He's a complicated man at a complicated time, and this is never so clear as when he confronts Jimmy over the hooch-heist. Jimmy says what, we suspect, will be the thesis of the entire series: "You can't be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore." When the clock hands struck midnight, it sounded a death knell for the age of gentlemen grafters like Nucky — the Tammany ward-boss style of benevolent corruption — and sounded a starting pistol for violent young toughs like Capone. When Jimmy complains of wanting more opportunity, Nucky snarls, "This is America. Who the fuck is stopping you?" Yet we suspect it's Nucky who's in the real bind here, as a new generation of cutthroats — from Rothstein to Capone to Luciano to maybe Jimmy Darmody — threaten the peaceful sanctuary of his corrupt oceanside kingdom. In episode one, Nucky already seems like the last of a bygone breed — not quite a gangster with a heart of gold, but with a heart, at least. The episode ends with an iris-in of Nucky, bearing flowers, at the hospital bedside of Mrs. Schroeder, after her latest (and last) beating by Hans.