Boardwalk Empire: Season One created by Terence Winter (Home Box Office, Leverage Management, Closest to the Hole Productions)
Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, and Kelly Macdonald.
In Praise of the Anti-Hero
Not to say that the anti-hero is a recent development in storytelling, but it seems like the last ten years have seen a rise in the flawed protagonist. Whether Dexter Morgan in Dexter, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Don Draper in Mad Men, many current shows extol depravity and require the viewer to root for the “bad guy”. Boardwalk Empire’s Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is another character to add to this list. Boardwalk Empire: Season One tells the tale of prohibition-era Atlantic City and the politician who rules the city with equal parts virtue and vice.
A Portrait of an Anti-Hero
Nucky Thompson, the principle character in Boardwalk Empire, is a corrupt and powerful treasurer that controls Atlantic City. With prohibition cutting off the alcohol that fuels the New Jersey city, Nucky establishes a bootlegging ring to quench the thirst of his constituents. In one of his first liquor deals, Nucky partners with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), a New York kingpin and leader of the Jewish mafia. However, Nucky’s driver, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and Chicago gangster, Al Capone (Stephen Graham), foil the deal, murdering the rum runners and commandeering the liquor to the city of Chicago.
With this act of betrayal, Season One tells the story of the brewing tensions between Atlantic City and New York as Nucky Thompson and Arnold Rothstein seek to control the bootlegging market.
While Nucky fights gangsters in the alley and engages in political discourse on Main Street, he takes a liking to Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a woman widowed as a direct result of the corrupt acts of Nucky. This romantic sub-thread runs alongside the gangsterism the series offering the soft side of a tough character.
How Much Sin Can You Live With?
The construction of the character, both through excellent writing and impeccable acting by Steve Buscemi, provides a portrait of a person who recognizes the difficulties of life. A product of a difficult home and well-versed in the moral ambiguity of political office, Nucky walks the tightrope between brash immorality and his strict Catholic upbringing. Strikingly, he mentions in a conversation on his actions,
“We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with” (Episode 12).
No matter our personal convictions on the definition of sin, Nucky’s proclamation rings true to a certain level. Many of us have betrayed a friend; many of us have cheated, lied, and stolen. For every one of us, our moral compass is skewed by these gray areas. To give a modern parallel, the pirating of movies is ok for one and an immoral evil for another. In the 1920s and today, ingesting alcohol offers no significance for some and perilous significance for others. The question then becomes how much sin can you live with?
It seems like the rise of the anti-hero in popular narratives suggests that we deal with moral gray areas in life. We have to fire people and we feel bad about it. We drive past the beggar asking for a dollar. We make promises; we break them. Perhaps we are drawn to characters like Nucky Thompson because, in the real world, our actions to a certain extent reflect his.
Boardwalk Empire: Season One is a fantastic beginning to a hopefully long-running and stunning series. If you love the anti-hero, HBO shows, or prohibition-era dramas, I highly recommend Boardwalk Empire.
Verdict: 5 out of 5