I have been in the midst of watching Boardwalk Empire. As is my normal custom, I didn’t start until well after everyone else has consumed it. Spoilers are obviously ahead and in full disclosuure, I must also say (and this probably gives you an idea of what I think ahead of time) I did not finish the series and have no intention of doing so. I got through season four but couldn’t make it any further.
I love history, always have. Gangster history is no exception. It’s such an odd and interesting era in America’s culture. It is possibly one of the best examples of how to build a black market, was a time of lawlessness rarely seen, as well as a moment when law was so blatantly disregarded that the line between common sense and corruption became blurred.
And the legends, oh the legends. Our country is so young, there are just certain events that seem to take on this mythical status. A lot of people point to the Wild West for our demigods and myths, but the Roaring Twenties was another time when certain figures rose to legendary status. Seeing figures like Meier Lansky, Lucky Luciaono, and Al Capone was quite a joy.
In fact, if I’m being honest, that’s what the show should have been about. I understand that Nucky Johnson (Thompson in the show) was a real life gangster and a big deal, even though he’s not as well known as many of the other figures. In fact, the only reason I know this is because I had to look it up. I didn’t actually realize the show was going to include such historical figures. Until Luciano showed up, I thought Nucky Thompson was completely fictional and the world that was being set up was a reflection of that. I do owe the show that and more, I am remiss to say that, while I knew many of the figures, I had no idea who Arnold Rothstein was or the foundational role he played in the American Mob.
But the execution in the show leaves much to be desired. I love Steve Buscemi as Nucky, and there are moments when a lot of his other surrounding characters are interesting, but the show always seemed to shine brightest when involving his foils, Lansky, Luciano, Rothstein, Capone, even Torrio. You really get a sense for what is coming, what is being built. You are watching as crime becomes organized, watching legends be born as men become godfathers and kingpins.
The issue the show continues to repeat is that, in this world of legends, those characters who are nonexistent in history find very little role to play. It often times seems to get bored with key characters and no long has anything for them to do. But because they are key, the show seeks to keep them in the loop. Margaret seems to be one of the bigger issues, but even Chalky, Eli, Gillian, Harrow, and Jimmy seem often time rudderless. Their arcs are uneven, sometimes repetitive, and often times uninteresting. Many time, they even seem to act against their own nature to drive the story in a certain direction. I did not care when Jimmy died, only disappointed that the show expected me to care. The show jumps around to such disconnected story arcs that it oftentimes fails to flesh people out, at least until they are about to die when they will almost always get a tender moment or episode at the last moment to try and make it feel impactful when their face gets removed.
For example, Nelson. Why in the hell is he even in this show? He bungles through everything, starting out as a ridiculously religious, flagellating Prohibition Officer who kills his corrupt partner, then to a man on the run who stumbles into organized crime, before becoming an enforcer for the Capones? Really? As far as I can tell, his ends his run by getting his face blown off while trying to kill Al Capone. Watching that clip sort of nailed down for me that I didn’t need to take this further.
One of the very last scenes in the fourth season (which I hated) was Harrow dying under the dock. He hallucinates approaching his sister’s farm, seeing his new wife, father in law, and adopted son. His face is complete and unscarred for the first time and he dies with a smile on it. That is heartbreaking, and fitting for Harrow’s story arc, but comes after one of the most horrible scenes in the entire show. Harrow is dying because he was shot in Chalky’s club, after accidentally killing Chalky’s daughter in an attempt to kill Narcisse. There are two, horrible things here. First, the last thing Harrow does in the entire show is kill an innocent person. I hated that as a sendoff. But also, why the fuck did we kill Mabel??? Don’t get me wrong, Chalky’s reaction was perhaps the one of the best pieces of acting he does in the show, but shit, Mabel? It just wreaked of HBO’s desire to shock the audience.
A few things I will call out as excellent. I have already said I love the big, major historical figures, but there are some fictional ones that are very well done. Valentin Narcisse was based upon Casper Holstein, who was a Harlem gangster and politician in the same era. I have only seen Jeffery Wright in a few things, but I loved his role here. Boardwalk made race a big focal point of its storytelling, so to have black man who was so condescending and hateful of anyone not black (or not black enough), while talking about the decay of his people (while also selling them heroin) was fascinating. And his writing, the use of words, and his voice, just all sum him up into a complex, lethal character.
But my favorite absolute character I think I have seen in this show, and many others, is Gyp Rosetti. I think Bobby Canavale is mostly a character actor, usually playing these types of tough guys, but man did he nail it in this. Part of what I hated to see throughout the series was how it lost a lot of its fun. Nucky gets more and more dour, and most of the other characters just plain start that way (Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy…). But Gyp is just the right combination of vicious insanity, sexual depravity, horrible insecurity, and humor that he is one of the singular reasons the third season is my favorite. Canavale owns the role and delivers the best Sicilian sociopath since Joe Pesci made it a thing. From his opening murder to colorfully insulting the most dangerous people in the world, either arguing with God or choking himself with a belt while…you know, this was a character that was vibrant and interesting in any and every scene he made an appearance and truly drove the storytelling that occurred in this arc.
I ended the fourth season exasperated. I wanted this to be good, and it has so many great moments that it always felt on the verge of becoming what I wanted. Yet, and this was what made me finally give up, it never dives deeply into the quality I would expect from such a show. It was ambitious, but fails to hit the mark often enough to enjoy thoroughly. Its greatest sin is in its inconsistency. With its writing, its characters, its conflict, just about everything. It’s possibly worth diving into, but only if you’ve already knocked out some of the heavy hitters like The American, House of Cards, or Justified.