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Boardwalk Empire series premiere recap: Clams, Casinos

Martin Scorsese’s new HBO series reminds us that Prohibition was (sometimes quite literally) murder.

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Boardwalk Empire
Abbot Genser/HBO

Boardwalk Empire

TV Show
Current Status:
On Hiatus
run date:
Steve Buscemi

Now that Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire has joined Mad Men on my Sunday night roster, I suspect all my weekends will conclude with an emphasis on drinking, dressing up, and pretending to live in a different time. In the HBO mobster series’ premiere, we meet up with our main man Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a semi-fictional semi-gangster based on Atlantic City political boss Nucky Johnson. Right away Nucky seems like an unlikely bad guy — he’s considerate, generous, and can’t break down a bathroom door even with the help of his fawning manservant Eddie.

“You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore,” warns his 22-year-old protege Jimmy Darmedy (Michael Pitt a.k.a. Leonardo DiCaprio lite). You want to say “Child, please!” to Jimmy, but he seems to have seen it all, having just returned from fighting, catching some shrapnel, and killing — a lot — in the first world war. We also meet real-life gangsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Al Capone (Stephen Graham), plus Dabney Coleman as a commodore with a huge bear in his office. I have my fingers crossed that one day, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin will pop out of that bear. But this is only the premiere.

Prohibition kicks off with a grand, New Year’s Eve-style countdown. Surely thousands of people along the boardwalk at large are upset that liquor will be outlawed, but none of those people are present (as of yet) in this Boardwalk Empire. Nucky and his gang will make a lot of money from Prohibition — he assures his men he’s in the midst of “concluding arrangements that will keep Atlantic City as wet as a mermaid’s twat.” That is wet. The booze flows freely, lovers blow smoke directly into each other’s drunken gazes, Nucky and his showgirl girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) growl at each other like animals (not cowboys — stop saying that!), and a giant bottle of whiskey is merrily carted away in a casket. John Barleycorn, R.I.P.

The party can’t last, and it’s telling that one of the last shots we see of the festivities at Babette’s supper club is of Jimmy getting frustrated because those damn black balloons are making it very difficult to light his cigarette. The general air of excess fades throughout the episode. On party night, a man and woman push around their own stash of booze in an unguarded baby carriage. Later, when Hans Schroeder drops a wad of cash at the roulette tables, we see everyone in the room scramble madly to snatch up a bill for themselves. Because they’re greedy. Jealous, too. That’s the way people are, Nuck.

The next afternoon, having witnessed firsthand Nucky’s compassion for humanity via a heart-wrenching tall tale of his childhood during a Women’s Temperance meeting, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) waits around for Nucky — who prefers to sleep until 4 p.m. — to ask him for a job for her husband. Hans is a real winner — he occasionally works as a baker’s helper, but spends the off-seasons boozing, gambling, and beating his wife. Instead of finding employment for that jackass, Nucky hands Margaret one of his many envelopes of cash, and she’s so grateful that she offers to name her child after him. “Enoch?” he cringes. “You couldn’t possibly be so cruel.”

Next: Formaldehyde as mixer? Not acceptable!