Revisiting Boardwalk Empire, the Most Underappreciated Drama of Its Time

Steve Buscemi in particular was criticized for his portrayal of the Big Man Antihero.

They’re getting the band back together, man! When Vinyl, HBO’s new series about the music scene in 1970s New York City, debuts this Sunday, it will effectively double as a reunion tour. Creator Terence Winter, producer-director Martin Scorsese, and star Bobby Cannavale are all veterans of a single show: Boardwalk Empire, Winter’s five-season exploration of Prohibition-era Atlantic City and the gangsters — some factual, some fictional, some fictionalized — who fought for its control. But in terms of audience size, critical acclaim, and pop-culture cachet, the Empire was, to many, a crumbling one. “Boardwalk lasted for five seasons, but it never did more than yeoman’s work,” writes Slate’s Willa Paskin in her review of Vinyl. “As the prestige drama meant to replace The Sopranos,” she continues, “it only ever filled its time slot.” Former Grantlander Andy Greenwald, a Boardwalk skeptic of long standing, dismissed the start of its final season: “It’s a show built around a hero with nothing much to do living in a town in which nothing much happens.”

But if you give Boardwalk another spin before pressing play on its successor, you may find these analyses don’t stand up to repeated listening. As a visual, aural, and, most important, moral experience, Boardwalk Empire is the Golden Age of TV Drama’s hidden treasure.

It’s not hard to understand how Boardwalk Empire lost the war for control of the prestige-drama trade. As the successor to HBO’s revolutionary first mafia series, The Sopranos — on which Winter was a prominent writer — it was always doomed to comparisons with that incomparable show. It also faced an apples-to-apples matchup with fellow Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, a contemporaneously running period prestige drama about bad men in beautiful suits. In its Zeitgeist-tapping revisionist fantasy Game of Thrones, HBO itself produced an even more sprawling, more violent, more expensive drama about the sins of people in power against which Boardwalk was forced to compete for attention. Memories of Deadwood and The Wire — two series about the intersection of community and crime, which with The Sopranos comprised HBO’s holy trinity — lingered. Throw in the smash success of Breaking Bad, the era’s other major crime drama beginning with a B, and it was all Boardwalk could do to hold its head above critical and commercial water.

And certainly, the show’s initial appeal lied in its familiarity, perhaps to a fault. Both its creator, Terence Winter, and star, Steve Buscemi, worked on no less a mob masterpiece than The Sopranos. Scorsese directed the pilot, giving its gangster goings-on an even more unbeatable pedigree. Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein, all of whom appeared in the opening episode, were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of major historical gangland figures who took on major roles in the show, making it a mafia buff’s dream. If you liked this kind of stuff, boy howdy, appointment viewing. If you didn’t, the mind-set that Boardwalk was little more than the sum of its genre parts proved nearly impossible for the show to shake over the course of its five seasons (though the blockbuster climaxes of seasons three and four made some waves and earned the show a slow-burn/big-payoff reputation).

Despite the show’s surface similarities to its peers, a focus on these programs’ shared thematic concerns or structural elements ignores the devilish quality of Boardwalk Empire’s details, so many of which were experiential, even sensual in nature. Tuning into Boardwalk every Sunday night was a positively decadent ritual, one best accompanied with a bottle of your favorite tipple to match the thousand that washed up on the Jersey Shore during the show’s striking opening sequence. (This dream imagery had already been transmitted through Winter into the mind and mouth of Tony Soprano.) The slowness of the show was eventually understood to be one of its strengths, as seemingly disconnected and digressive story lines coalesced with freight-train momentum for each season’s climax. But the slowness was a virtue in and of itself — a way to slip into the impeccably constructed sets, the immaculate costumes, the languid sex scenes, the crimson splatter of the violence, and the magnetic faces and voices of its ensemble cast.

Indeed, few shows have used television’s sonic dimension to such memorable effect. Beyond the soundtrack — a seemingly never-ending parade of jazz, blues, standards, patriotic tunes, and ethnic standbys that helped bring the series’ melting pot of criminality to a simmer — the actors themselves are almost exclusively of I’d-listen-to-them-read-the-phone-book vocal caliber. Michael Shannon’s sepulchral bass as towering villain turned comic relief Nelson Van Alden. Stephen Root’s Foghorn Leghorn drawl as real-life political fixer Gaston Means. Jeffrey Wright’s professorial pronunciations as crooked black nationalist Dr. Valentin Narcisse. The old-country lilt of Kelly MacDonald as abused mother turned unlikely mob moll Margaret Schroeder, and Charlie Cox as her Irish Republican Army veteran lover Owen Sleater. Each of these performances, and many others, has much else to recommend them, but just listening to them was a pleasure, one too often ignored in discussions of TV entirely attuned to issues of influence, originality, or identity.

Some characters nevertheless stood out from the formidable pack. Bobby Cannavale more than earned his status as Vinyl’s leading man with his supporting performance as the villain who dominated season three, Gyp Rosetti. A divisive figure even within Boardwalk’s admiring circles, Rosetti developed minor personal slights into bloodbaths of operatic grandeur and gutter ferocity, nearly toppling Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson in the process. His ferocious, ultimately failed war for the throne gave the show several of its finest scenes, from his decision to go to war with Thompson after taking the man’s conciliatory “nothing personal” as a grievous insult (“What the fuck is life if it’s not personal?”); to his full-frontal nude scene, striding through a massacre covered in blood and collared by a belt with which he’d paid a prostitute to strangle him. There’s never been a better one-season Big Bad, on this or any other show.

Nor has there been a finer, sadder example of a wounded warrior than Richard Harrow. Introduced by writer Howard Korder during season one while waiting for a psychiatric evaluation at a veteran’s hospital, Harrow (an unrecognizable Jack Huston in his breakthrough performance) makes a knockout first impression with his broken-throated, Gollum-like croak, the unnerving uncanny-valley mask he uses to hide his severe facial disfigurement (a sniper himself, he was shot in the face), and with the black nihilism he cites as the reason he no longer reads novels. “It occurred to me: The basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. But they don’t.” I gasped when I first heard this line, dredged from my worst fears about life, love, and their collective lack of lasting meaning. Richard’s capacity for belief in humanity was blown out of him in the Great War, and much of his time on the show chronicled its slow restoration, though dozens of dead bodies dropped behind him on his way. This archetype — the man (usually) who is taught violence in service of an ideal, only to discover one is real and the other a cheap fiction — is a distinctly American one; The Wire’s Omar Little, Fargo’s Hanzee Dent, and Game of Thrones’ Sandor “The Hound” Clegane all share Richard’s table in their sad Valhalla. And though his final scenes were devastating, his greatest contribution to the series is in the teeth-grinding tension of the shoot-out sequence that completes the third season, as he blows his way through a small army of Rosetti men to rescue his late friend Jimmy’s son. The scene weds action to emotion as effectively and movingly as any I’ve ever seen, its resolution viewed through a blood-spattered window, an impenetrable barrier to normalcy for this tragic figure.

While we’re on the subject of tragedy, consider Gillian Darmody. Gretchen Mol’s showgirl, madam, and would-be power in her own right begins the show as the criminal equivalent of a stage mom to her beloved son Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), encouraging his ambition to move up and eventually supplant Nucky and the Commodore. Their closeness in age (she had him when she was just 13) lent their relationship an unpleasant incestuous edge, finally revealed in all it sordid glory during a flashback at the end of season two. Inadvertently responsible for her son’s enlistment in the Great War, his posttraumatic deadening of the soul, and his eventual death in the battle against Nucky, she continues to embroil herself with powerful men who use and discard her, from the Commodore to Luciano to Rosetti to, eventually, a seemingly kindhearted stranger who exploits her love in a completely unexpected and gutting way. Watching Mol writhe and scream beneath an overhead camera as the depth of the deception sinks in was, in its way, the series’ most brutal crime.

Except for one other — the one committed by its protagonist, Nucky Thompson, at the very start of his criminal career. Steve Buscemi was criticized over the course of the show’s run for, essentially, his failure to be the Big Man Anithero. He lacked the larger-than-life charisma of virtually any of his counterparts: James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister, you name it. But his underacting was deliberate and wise, a way to convey Thompson’s fundamental discomfort with the life he’d chosen to lead, one that slowly led him away from the glad-handing and backslapping of a party machine boss and local bigwig and into the tommy-gun-and-garrote world of gangsterism. Not a depressive person by nature, the way many comparable characters were, he kept biting off more and more territory and treasure because he genuinely believed material success would bring him happiness, Horatio Alger–style; the harder and dirtier he fought, the clearer it became that this would never be the case.

But this was something he likely knew all along, ever since he pimped the pubescent Gillian to his violent pedophile boss the Commodore in order to get back into the man’s good graces. This crime, alluded to repeatedly over the course of the show though rarely taking a central role, was brought forward to be the story line of the final season. In the end (and unlike, say, Breaking Bad, which pulled its punches in the final episode), the horror that befell Gillian was addressed unflinchingly, the damage that it did to three generations of her family was made unquestionable, and Nucky’s culpability in it all was established beyond a doubt. Power, it argues, is inherently exploitative, and it victimizes the already vulnerable with all the predictability of the tides. In the entire era of antihero drama, Boardwalk Empire ended with the most morally uncompromising finale of them all; only The Sopranos’ legendary cut to black is the equal of it.

This ferociously unsparing finale serves as a punctuation mark to the poetic mix of opulence and horror that preceded it. Beneath the glitz and glamour lurked a grotesque violation of an innocent child; nothing that happened would have been possible without it, in fact. And all this in service of the career of a man who, despite his moral compromises, would never earn a seat at the table from which Luciano and his ilk would rule American organized crime for decades to come. The suffering and the spectacle alike were all for nothing. That’s a message worth hearing, the pretty poison that fuels Boardwalk Empire like the bootleg booze that funded its gangs. It’s worth taking a second taste.