By David Amoruso
Boardwalk Empire came to an end last Sunday, after five seasons of showing the rise and fall of Atlantic City politician-turned-racketeer Nucky Thompson. An end that didn’t come fast enough, yet when it finally came felt like its makers had filmed it while incessantly hitting the skip button on their remote.
When Boardwalk Empire first aired back in 2010, it was hailed as another groundbreaking television series from the stable of HBO. The first episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and, with a cost of $18 million, was the most expensive pilot episode produced in television history.
The man behind Boardwalk Empire is Terence Winter, acclaimed writer of The Sopranos. He based his series on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson.
Viewers were treated to elaborate decors and costumes bringing us back to the Roaring Twenties, when the First World War had ended and prohibition hit the United States. Though critics were universal in their praise for the series, this author felt it followed a very familiar path. And did so very slowly and redundantly.
In the first season we are introduced to Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the successful politician who has a hunger for more power and riches, portrayed by actor Steve Buscemi who did an excellent job at painting a character with two very different sides while at the same time uniting them. It’s Buscemi’s performance that keeps us intrigued. The story and plot, however, fail to do so.
When Thompson kills off his pupil at the end of season two, it brings closure to the main plot of the series. A plot that has been side-tracked by various sub-stories and secondary characters whose reason for being in the series is questionable.
Chief among the characters who seem to have played far too big a role without providing any extra value to the storyline is agent Nelson van Alden, played by Michael Shannon. I will be the first, among many, to say that Shannon did a great job at portraying a character that is creepy in every single scene he is in, but after five seasons of creeping us the fuck out, it has to be asked: What else was he good for?
After starting out as an unscrupulous anti-bootlegging agent he quickly made the move to murder and corruption, eventually becoming a fulltime criminal for Al Capone. His ‘career’ took him, and us, on a journey through the 1920s and 1930s, and the era’s New Jersey and Chicago. He was present or an integral part in various Chicago gangland murders, including the killing of Capone’s brother.
Writing it like that, it seems like Van Alden was a pretty big influence in the series. The only problem is, he wasn’t. He had been at many places, met a lot of guys, but in the end his ‘character’ was as one-dimensional as it was creepy. He could’ve been replaced by a fly sitting on the wall or flying through the air, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story.
It would've made a huge difference for the viewer as we would’ve been spared countless of storylines involving his character that added nothing. If anything, that is my main ‘beef’ with Boardwalk Empire. Its overuse of characters and plots that had no value.
One of the series’ main attractions was that it would show us how a young Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Al Capone began their rise to the top of organized crime in America. But instead of bringing these men to life and doing their best to think of plots to revolve around their lives of crime, Boardwalk Empire’s writers decided to focus on Margaret’s relationship with Nucky (spoiler: it followed almost the exact same path as the relationship between Tony Soprano and Carmela), Van Alden’s whacky adventures, a Freudian mother and son relationship, and many other plots that did not help move the story forward.
Well, you may say, that’s because they were using those non-gangland plotlines to build and sculpture the character of Nucky Thompson, among many others. You may say that, but then why were all these changes so typical? Politician Thompson becoming a gangster? We’ve seen it before. And done better at that. We’ve also seen the reluctant gangster type trying to go legit, something Thompson was trying near the end. But a Michael Corleone he is not. It’s the same old story. Terence Winter can dress it up with 1920s music, clothing, gadgets, and culture all he wants, but he fails to tell his tale in an original manner.
So, instead, we were treated to redundant scenes and plots that went on for ages. Were these scenes filmed in a marvelous way? Yes, they were, but I’ll take a good story over great camerawork, expensive sets, and costumes any day of the week.
The only season that did the Roaring Twenties justice was season three, with the brilliant Bobby Cannavale as New York mobster Gyp Rosetti who goes to war with Thompson and any other person who stands in his way. Season three was action-packed and had characters with clear motives fighting for survival. Finally, these gangsters had our blood pumping.
Unfortunately, this was only to last one season. After Gyp was killed off, Boardwalk Empire went back to quietly building up to…something. There was more Van Alden, Margaret had a new job, Nucky had some new mistresses that all taught him something new about himself (Tony Soprano knows all about that too), and Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Al Capone were slowly growing into men.
Let me be clear about something, though. It is not that I desperately wanted to see the stories of Luciano, Lansky, and Capone told more expansively. I just wanted stories to be told in a refreshing, original way. I wanted stories to be told well. And I think the creators of Boardwalk Empire knew they had dropped the ball on that one as well.
Because if the gangland stories served merely as a backdrop to the stories of Van Alden, Margaret, and others, then why spend this final season so extensively ticking off all the major gangland hits and historical meetings?
Season five skipped ten years into the future since season four. The year was now 1931 and every mob buff knows they are in for a treat. This is the year Boardwalk Empire was building up to. We knew it. Despite all the household bullshit between Nucky and Margaret, we knew it would all cumulate to the big showdown between Sal Maranzano and Lucky Luciano.
As we sat down to watch this turbulent period unfold, it felt like someone was pushing the skip button on the remote. Mob bosses were violently shot down, Lucky Luciano held some important meetings in which he cemented the new order of things in the American underworld, and we got to know Bugsy Siegel a little bit better. In Chicago, apparent coke fiend Al Capone was on his way to prison for tax evasion. All of this was shown in such a speedy manner that it felt as though I myself had used cocaine (note to readers: I’ve never used cocaine.) Why did they skip through this important year like a knife through butter?
Well, because we spent a lot of time flashing back to Nucky Thompson’s youth, getting to know how he became who he became. Apparently, all the other plotlines had so far failed to explain that to us. And if they had not failed, then why tell the story again from a different angle? Meanwhile, we are missing out on the great Mafia war of the 1930s.
Boardwalk Empire shows us that it doesn’t matter how many (in)famous historic names you drop or how much money you throw at production. A great show is about good storytelling first and foremost and if a series lacks that, it fails and falls. Just like Nucky Thompson.
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy reading:
Copyright © www.gangstersinc.nl