Boardwalk Empire: "New York Sour," or Nucky Thompson is Back in Action by Donald McCarthy

Right on time, salon.com had an article today on whether or not Boardwalk Empire is trashy or not and, oddly, seemed to come to the conclusion that it should be trashy (they call it pulpy but, incorrectly, appear to believe pulpy means the same as trashy). Articles such as that one crop up every September before Boardwalk Empire begins yet another season as many see the drama as an oddity, the somewhat ugly stepbrother of The Sopranos. Let me say up front, Boardwalk Empire is not as good as The Sopranos. However, no other show is (no, not Mad Men although I can hear arguments for The Wire) so that’s a tough standard to hold Boardwalk Empire to.

In fairness, Boardwalk Empire does invite such comparisons as it takes place in New Jersey, concerns the mafia, and is written by Terence Winter, David Chase’s right hand man on The Sopranos. By the second season of Boardwalk, it becomes clear that the show is interested in different themes than The Sopranos and what it does have in common with The Sopranos is usually approached in different ways. For instance, Boardwalk is a lot more narrative oriented while The Sopranos had no problem leaving loose ends hanging around. While Boardwalk likes to do short stories in its episodes, more often than not these anecdotes end up tying into the overall plot and if they don’t then the subplot is completely wrapped up by episode’s end.

When I see articles wondering what’s up with Boardwalk Empire I always shake my head because the show’s tone has been the same for as long as it’s been on. It’s improved quite a bit since the first season but the arcs and themes remain consistent. The biggest change the show has gone under was the death of Jimmy Darmody, an event that still hangs over proceedings (if you want to make a Sopranos link then view this as similar to the death of Big Pussy) but even that development came honestly and believably from the narrative.

As you can probably tell by this point, I’m an unapologetic fan of Boardwalk Empire so know that these reviews are coming from a guy who is a big fan and has been looking forward to the show’s return since it ended last December. Other critics tend to go from neutral (Maureen Ryan) to casual fans (Alan Sepinwall) to big fans (Noel Murray). Count me in the latter group.

Now let’s talk about tonight’s premiere, although we’ll proceed cautiously since so much is set up. Previous seasons of Boardwalk Empire have begun slow, taking the time to build up a story (other than an opening scene which is usually shocking- the KKK attacking in season two and Gyp Rosetti flipping out on a poor civilian in season three). It’s a very novelistic approach. Tonight’s episode is no different than previous openers. We start with Richard Harrow coldly executing two gentlemen in the snow for reasons still vague. After this, we get a lot of set up, although set up well done, of course. Chalky White’s new club, the Onyx Club, is seeing its grand opening, Nucky is setting aside differences with New York after last season’s upending, Gillian is trying to get her son returned to her, Eli is attempting to keep his son on the straight and narrow, and two Treasury Agents have an unusual encounter in the night. Let’s talk about the latter first as it was the most interesting and startling to me. Agent Sawicki was in last season as a corrupt lawman but this year he brings along a new face, Warren Knox, a young, not particularly bright man. Or so he seems.

Going off information he found out while at Mickey Doyle’s (insert high pitched laugh here), Knox sets up Sawicki to die by one of Doyle’s men before Knox promptly kills off Doyle’s man, and casually so I might add. Knox’s transformation in his last thirty seconds on screen makes me wonder if he’s going to be a large threat for Nucky this season even though the previews for the show have been playing up the arrival of Jeffrey Wright.

To my surprise, Wright doesn’t arrive in this episode although the board is already being set for him. Chalky White, leader of the African American community in Atlantic City, is now almost equals with Nucky and Eli which says a lot considering how contentious a lot of their previous outings were. There’s no question this season is going to explore the racial dynamics of Atlantic City, something it’s touched on in the past but never fully embraced. This is a great decision not just because the racial relations are a fascinating subject, but also because it means we’re going to see more of the wonderful Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White, a character the show has often been accused of underusing.

The episode makes the racial theme clear when Chalky’s second in command, Dunn, gets seduced by a white woman only to find out that her husband plans to watch them have sex while masturbating and throwing racial slurs around. It’s a vulgar scene and I wondered at first if it was necessary, but Dunn’s killing of the husband, who is (was) involved in the Onyx Club already appears to be setting plot points in motion as the wife escaped and Chalky is becoming fed up with Dunn.

Curiously, Nucky is not touched upon as much as usual. We get an inkling that he’s planning to do something in Florida but other than that it appears he’s been living a steady, if lonely, life since the end of season three. He has no Margaret, no Jimmy, none of the kids he helped raise with Margaret, and a tense relationship with his only brother Eli. Will Nucky expand his circle? So far, no, but he has a newfound respect for his aide, Eddie, who took a shot for him last season. They have a stronger bond and I suspect that will somehow play out this season. Time will tell.

The problem with analyzing Boardwalk Empire is that there’s so much set up I’m not sure what will end up being important. This problem tends to alleviate week by week as the show slowly deepens its new plots and points out where they might be going. After two stellar seasons, I’m more than ready to give Terence Winter the time to build his story.


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.