Technology with attitude

Boardwalk Empire Recap: Buscemi shines, HBO returns to glory in promising premiere


Tired of seeing former employee Matthew Weiner (writer for The Sopranos) closing the last three Emmy awards after winning drama’s top prize for another network, HBO created Boardwalk Empire – a deliberate attempt to end Mad Men’s three-year reign and regain its perch among the top of television.  This serialized award-bait has been billed as the next Sopranos, and with another of the iconic mafia series’ former scribes (Terence Winter) at the helm, it’s hard to argue that HBO won’t again capture the television zeitgeist.

The premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire is about dichotomy.  In 1920s Atlantic City, elected officials ring in the New Year and the start of prohibition with the popping of a cork.  As the national government’s alcohol ban takes effect, the local government’s plan to capitalize on the now illegal commodity is in full swing.  Pulling the strings is city treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who, along with the mayor and his brother the police chief, divides up the city, giving each official a ward to supervise as they profit from black market liquor sale and distribution.  It’s as organized as crime gets.

But within the first few minutes, the Martin Scorsese-directed pilot shatters expectations that this will be another run of the mill gangster tale.  The opening credits do not give an expected crime-filled montage set to big band swing, but instead simply present Nucky on the beach watching the ever-changing sea.  From the implied opening credits metaphor, Nucky and prohibition-era Atlantic City, like the sea, are a powerful force in flux.

Buscemi, a deserving character actor finally given a chance to lead, is not immediately intimidating like network mafia brother Tony Soprano.  However, Buscemi uses his shifty eyes and twisted mouth to portray a sketchy character who gives lie-filled speeches to the Women’s Temperance League praising prohibition in one scene and lays out the foundation for an illegal bootlegging operation in the next.  Still, Buscemi is slightly dialed down from his usual high-wired neurotic characters and there’s nothing in his demeanor that demands respect, causing the audience to question how Nucky rose to be the king of Atlantic City’s shadows.

As the series progresses, the central conflict among the many the pilot introduced will be Nucky adjusting to become the cutthroat menacing figure that his head gangster position requires.  While he proves again that politicians make the best gangsters (and vice versa), his apparent compassion for abused pregnant mother Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonalad) hints at an inability to be the ruthless figure his war veteran prodigy Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) already is.  Nucky ordered the death of Margaret’s abusive husband and treated business associates with flippant contempt, but was still not ready to go as far as Jimmy and his new buddy, Al Capone.

The premiere also highlights the cultural dichotomy of the times.  Shots of dancing, pomp and circumstance are interspersed with juxtaposing shots of violence (both alcohol-related and domestic) and the ornate life of Thompson is portrayed alongside the impoverished misery of those who require his services.  The series will undoubtedly expose the dirty underbelly of the roaring 20’s idolized in F. Scott Fitzgerald novels.

Boardwalk Empire is not immediately addicting like The Sopranos.  There was not a “ducks moment” in the pilot.  The A.V. Club review argues that the series may be so good that it loses the excitement of rooting for the underdog series.  Boardwalk Empire is built for success and critical adoration and will certainly get both, but the series will define itself in how it progresses.  With potential storylines involving the government attempting to bring down Nucky’s crime empire and Margaret discovering his true nature, Boardwalk Empire definitely has the potential to become one of HBO’s best original series.

Additional Thoughts

  • Parts of the premiere felt like HBO’s Greatest Hits. The series itself echoes The Sopranos with the gangster storyline and Buscemi (a Sopranos star in season 5), but there were also allusions (though probably not intentional) to Six Feet Under with an autopsied corpse under a funeral home, the use of an historical figure whose legend is built mostly on folklore, like Wild Bill Hiccock in Deadwood (also remnant of Deadwood: Molly Parker’s photograph and use of the word “cock-sucker”), elaborate period sets and costumes like Rome and, of course, the glimpse of the great Michael Kenneth Williams brings back memories of Omar in The Wire.
  • HBO is known for raunchiness and nudity, but seeing Steve Buscemi having sex is disturbing.
  • The “catch of the day” dockside display early in the episode perfectly set up the later return to the pier, where the catch was slightly less edible.
  • Did anyone else get an Eraserhead vibe when Buscemi was looking through the window at the incubator baby?

Note: Culture Mob will provide weekly recaps and analysis of Boardwalk Empire.