Martin Scorsese's new HBO series reminds us that Prohibition was (sometimes quite literally) murder.
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!
Nucky longs for his wife Alma Garret Mabel, who watches over him from a much-zoomed-in-on photograph. He tells Margaret he lost his wife to consumption, but we sense there could be a richer backstory there. Why was Nucky gazing for so long into the storefront of the incubator shop? Of course, this could have just been foreshadowing for the loss of Margaret’s baby at the end of the episode….
“Messieurs” Rothstein and Luciano want in on the bootleg business. Rothstein needs booze to throw a wedding, and Nucky had just made a deal with his shipping contact McCoy, so he up-charges Rothstein by 25,000 clams (Atlantic City’s official currency circa 1920) and hopes for the best. But oops — Rothstein knows how to win at the tables. He’s up $90,000 before Nucky and his men finally cut him off.
Jimmy won’t be happy playing “Man Friday” to “that sap” Patty Ryan, who’s set to take over as Chief Clerk of the Fourth Ward in three weeks. Jimmy gets no respect from Nucky’s gang, he thinks, and the guy at the bootleg distillery under the funeral home considers him such a joke that he serves him a gulp of homemade booze spiked with formaldehyde. So Jimmy compromises his allegiance to Nucky after being lured away by special agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon a.k.a. Ray Liotta lite) of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. They light his cigarette for him and everything, then lay into his guilt about being a very bad man. What could be better?
Jimmy tips off the feds about the local distillery — and once they’re off his back, he’s free to pick up his new BFF Al Capone from a rousing midget fight and drive over to the Blueberry Capital of the World to hijack the liquor shipment previously arranged by Nucky. This means war. Literally — the intercuts between what were essentially two separate liquor raids in the woods made the whole scene seem like a war. Very well done, but I preferred the second, slower murder montage, following Nucky’s pensive gaze into a Palmistry storefront. “What does the future hold for you?” Nucky only needs 25 cents to find out. But he moves on. Certain men go about their normal daily routines. Colosimo returns to his ornate establishment in Chicago. Schroeder puts on his hat and walks down the street. Nucky has a shave and looks into the mirror for a dramatic Home Alone moment. And then….
Next: Starts with ‘M,’ rhymes with ‘girder.’
MURDER. Colosimo gets shot in the back of his head, still wondering why Nucky wouldn’t throw in some lobster with all of those clams. Hans Schroeder gets thrown into the ocean, Big Pussy-style. Guess he didn’t pull the get-out-of-jail-free card! Boardwalk Empire may be the only context in which it’s okay to make that particular Monopoly joke. But probably not. A flower is gently tucked into Nucky’s lapel, and the men throw Schroeder’s hat into the ocean so it can be with him always. Without his accessories, a man is nothing.
Oh, and Omar from The Wire (Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays bootlegger Chalky White) wants Nucky to know that he ain’t got all day. This is probably false — like Omar, he could sit around and watch for weeks to see where they drop the money off and stuff.
Other details I liked:
–Gratuitous bush shot on a female corpse. How else will I know I’m watching HBO?
–The way the kids hung onto Jimmy’s car when he dropped Margaret off in her neighborhood, and the way he carelessly brushed them off like pesky leaves on a windshield. Reminded me of Annie. So many things reminded me of Annie, actually, but I’ll spare you. For now.
–What could be construed as Sopranos throwbacks — Nucky standing alone looking out to sea, the dumping of Hans into the water, a heavy focus on fish. (And pasta!)
–COSTUMES. Such amazing costumes. I’m sure all Boardwalk Empire viewers — particularly enthusiasts of Martin Scorsese and gangsters — joined me in considering this episode an excellent warm-up for Monday’s season premiere of Dancing With the Stars.
What were your favorite details of Boardwalk Empire debut? Try your best to not go all Nucky on me and say “I already got what I wanted, what the f— would we talk about?”