Boardwalk Empire has ratings competition and stiff competition at that: The Walking Dead. Both shows air at 9 PM on Sundays: Boardwalk Empire on HBO and The Walking Dead on AMC. I watch The Walking Dead and do enjoy it but Boardwalk Empire is clearly the superior show (at least from where I’m sitting). Yet The Walking Dead gets almost three times the number of viewers that Boardwalk gets. Why?
Visually, The Walking Dead has a lot going for it. It often takes place outside and in unusual locations. There are zombies with outstanding makeup effects. There are stellar action sequences, usually one in each episode. It’s a high quality production, no doubt about it. So why then do I tune into Boardwalk Empire first?
Because of the characters. The worst Boardwalk Empire character (probably Chalky White and that’s no reflection on the actor but instead because he’s barely in the show) is better developed than the best character on The Walking Dead. Boardwalk Empire is a psychological show, just as The Sopranos was before it. While the show is interested in cool action sequences, it’s foremost interested in exploring the characters which gives the show a sense of depth that The Walking Dead doesn’t have and I don’t think ever will.
I was thinking about this a little as I watched “The Milkmaid’s Lot” because it’s one of the best episodes for actor Steve Buscemi since he gets to really let us into Nucky’s head and look at the character in a way that we haven’t so far during the show’s run. I’ve written in the past that Nucky is a very unusual protagonist for a television show since he’s a character that keeps everything on the inside, something that is tough to pull off in a visual medium unless you’re using voiceovers which usually end up being godawful (Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy).
Since Nucky is feeling the aftereffects of the explosion that ended last week’s episode, he is in a strange state, a state that ends up with him being a lot more vocal than normal which gives us a nice look at his usually hidden thoughts. The constant ringing in his ears makes him more aggravated than usual (and is there a more aggravated character on TV than Nucky- he seems to never be in a good mood even when everything is going well for him) and the PTSD effects cause him to have states of confusion, such as when he confuses his wife with his now dead mistress (always inconvenient). However, there are two moments that are most telling. The first is when he arrives at Emily’s birthday party, a party that he demanded happen but in his confused state he forgets about it and wants to know why he wasn’t told. Outside of the important fact that this furthers the rift between him and Margaret, it shows that Nucky does deeply care for Margaret’s kids and wants them to have a happy childhood, something that the show has inferred that Nucky did not have. He’s passionate about Emily having a party that she can remember and he immediately tries to take over. Okay, yeah, it ends up failing miserably, but this kind of passion is not something we normally see from Nucky. Oh, and speaking of passion…
Nucky’s second key moment comes at the end, when he confronts the other nearby mobsters about Gyp Rosetti, saying that they need to have him and his Italian Boss back in New York killed. The ringing in his ears goes on as he speaks and he has moments where he begins to lose it… but he holds on and delivers a solid speech (to little avail, alas). We knew that Nucky loved his mistress and we knew her death would affect him, but the anger in Nucky comes out in a way we’ve not seen before: he uses it to drive himself forward instead of allowing it to be a solely destructive force. Is his anger what has been driving him from the very start of the show? Is that why he’s seemingly permanently annoyed?
In the first episode of the show, Jimmy Darmody told Nucky that he can’t be half a gangster and half a businessman- he needed to choose. It’s clear that Nucky is going down the gangster route. I wonder now if he’s doing it for money, as he is wont to claim, or if it’s because he now has an avenue to take out his frustrations on. This kind of character exploration is what keeps me coming back week after week.
Line of the Night: This exchange between the sheriff and Gyp Rosetti- “It’s good to see you again.” “Oh, yeah? What’s so good about it?”
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.