“You can’t be half a gangster. Not anymore.”
The early 1920s are a fascinating time: the US was still reeling from World War I, but struggled with the question of whether to retain isolationist politics. Many women were in the throes of a religious revival that led, eventually, to women getting the right to vote. In 1920 itself, six black men were lynched in Duluth, Minnesota. Nativist politics underwent a revival of their own, particularly in response to anti-Irish sentiment. Oh, and in January of 1920, the Volstead Act began 13 years of Prohibition—the criminalization of the manufacture and trade of alcohol.
Boardwalk Empire (based on the book of the same name by Nelson Johnson) sets the familiar cast of gangsters in this relatively early era--early as far as organized crime is concerned. It’s halfway between Gangs of New York and Casino, and for the pilot, that means that every line, every gesture, feel like it has been ripped from a Scorsese film. Mr. S. himself said, in a promo clip for the show, that these are “gangster toddlers,” and that perfectly describes some of the moments of recognition I had during the pilot. Oh, look, it’s Al Capone when he’s still young, but just as hot-headed! Lucky Luciano, before everyone knew to call him Lucky! Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody is basically playing Leonardo DiCaprio!
If the pilot feels like a Scorsese film in miniature, that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise: Scorsese is an executive producer, and directed the first episode; his co-exec producer is Terrence Winters of The Sopranos fame. That’s an impressive pedigree, and Scorsese uses all his regular tricks, all of which I still love: great period music (more below), jumpy cuts between scenes, a preoccupation with masculinity and the role of women as wives and mothers, awesome clothes. Oh, and gangsters. Always with the gangsters.
Gangster Exhibit A, our hero, is Nucky Thompson. He’s played by Steve Buscemi. I love Steve Buscemi. He is a fabulous actor, and he is somehow perfect for this role, the way he is perfect for all the roles he plays. Nucky is Treasurer for Atlantic City, which is close enough to Canada to become a hotbed for the importation of that lovely whisky. He’s a corrupt, hard-headed liar: he’ll sell anything to the highest bidder—and he’s usually in the market for power more than money. The phrase that came to mind is “hooker with a heart of gold,” and he does have a soft spot for battered and/or pregnant women.
We meet Nucky and his wacky cast of Irish almost-gangsters on the night before Prohibition becomes official, as Nucky is already plotting an alliance with the Chicago boys and “New York Gangs” (read: Eye-talians) for the import and distribution of alcohol. Nucky is soon in over his head, and while he eventually manages to stay afloat (despite the efforts of both his enemies and his friends), Nucky’s basic good-heartedness, as well as his relative naiveté, are sure to provide the arc for the rest of the season, if not the show. Jimmy Darmody’s basic good-heartedness and desire to get ahead will also provide plot-fodder. And the lovely Kelly MacDonald, playing immigrant Margaret, will surely be put at risk even more than she has before. She’s also good-hearted.
(Random aside: The Italians are not really good-hearted. If I were Italian, I would possibly take mild offense at this. Remember Jack Nicholson’s speech at the beginning of The Departed? Yeah, the Irish mafia isn’t there yet, at all. They haven’t, in Frank Costello’s words, “taken it” yet. They don’t even know it’s there for the taking.)
(Second random aside: Have you noticed that Irish gangsters are now the “safe” bad guys for liberal shows and movies? They’re white, but just ethnic enough to not be WASPs. So they don’t offend anyone, and some Irish-Americans are probably just happy not to be lumped in with other white people.)
Back to the review: All of the interpersonal drama and criminal maneuverings, as well as the political awareness and intertextual baggage, are set against a beautifully realized set of Atlantic City. Ocean, storefronts, promenades, casinos, illegal distilleries--Boardwalk Empire will surely be nominated for a set-design Emmy, and it will deserve to win. Scorsese and Winters also establish a strong sense of more nebulous aspects of place: while I obviously viewed this show with American “ethnic” identity in the back of my mind at all times, I was struck by how Atlantic City really did feel diverse and polyglot, even if the glots are just different accents.
The post-WWI period, through the Depression and WWII, marked the beginnings of American ascendancy. BE picks up on this as well, although more subtly: none of the characters seem to feel like they are ascending anything, but at one point the soundtrack features a song Al Jolson stole from Puccini—and in the context of what happens on-screen during that song, there’s a definite New World vs. Old World vibe. It’s interesting.
It’s easy to make quick comparisons between the 1920s and modern America, as well as some radical differences. We’re definitely in the throes of another Protestant religious revival, but equal rights don’t really seem to be its main goal. Black men are no longer lynched in Duluth, but Korans are burned and the conservative media has no problem manufacturing a Ground Zero Mosque that is really a nearby community center. Nativist politics (of both the 19th century and early 20th century varieties) have been mentioned quite a bit recently—some journalists seem to feel that the Irish should be grateful that we were so violently forced to assimilate. (For a great response to that atrocious claim, read this.) And California’s current debate over whether to legalize marijuana is like the flip-side of Prohibition. Will BE fall into the trap of cheeky self-awareness, as Mad Men occasionally does? I hope not, but some comparisons, like the ones I just made, seem inevitable.
Hopefully, though, the plot and the characters will be the focus of the show. This pilot effectively introduced many of the characters, and established a few relationships that will eventually morph into plots. But it was mostly concerned with setting the stage: Atlantic City, the historical context, and even BE’s place in the canon of gangster films and TV shows. That’s what a pilot should do, I suppose, and BE did it well. I’ll certainly keep tuning in to see how it all plays out.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)