I started watching Boardwalk Empire without knowing much about the show. I knew that it starred Steve Buscemi, I knew that it was set during prohibition and I knew it took place in Atlantic City. Beyond those three items, I had no idea what the show was about. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with what the show had to offer. I did find the show to be a little slow at times but they balanced that out by creating a cast of fascinating characters and casting some outstanding actors to play them.
The show is a period piece set after World War 2 during the prohibitions alcohol wars. Spanning three different cities, Atlantic City, Chicago and New York, Boardwalk Empire is steeped in the corrupt politics that connected the cities. The show focused mainly on Atlantic City and the man who runs it, city treasurer “Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Played by Steve Buscemi, Nucky controls every aspect of Atlantic City from the upcoming mayoral election to the police force which is lead by his brother Eli Thompson (Shea Wigham). Seeming to start the season as a ladies’ man, Nucky eventually woos and settles down with Margaret Shroeder (Kelly MacDonald). Believing himself to be a savior of sorts, Nucky widows Mrs. Shroeder by having her wildly abusive husband murdered. Afterwards he provides for her, by giving her money and a job and eventually the two begin a romantic relationship. A non-drinker and a fairly straight edged woman, Margaret is forced to question, bend and even change her morals while with the corrupt man.
As the major players from New York, Chicago and Atlantic City search for ways to illegally obtain alcohol, a war breaks out between Nucky and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), the man who controls the streets of New York. Pulling soldiers from throughout his ranks, Nucky begins to work closely with Jimmy Darmody. Injured during the war, Darmody completes the tasks that Nucky “Doesn’t have the stomach for.” As Chicago attempts to help quell the impending prohibitions war, a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham) pulls himself out of the ranks. Not yet the notorious gangster, Boardwalk Empire portrays Capone during his learning curve. Still immature and childish, Capone’s realization that he needs to grow up to succeed in his line of work makes for one of the most interesting aspects of the first season.
The show boasts a number of brilliant performances but most of my favorites did not come from main characters. Buscemi plays the part of Nucky quite well but I still have trouble accepting him as a leading man. His performance is great but lacks the authority his character needs. I had three performances season long that I thought were outstanding. The first I’ve already mentioned, Al Capone. The writing and acting both serve to create a very interesting portrayal of the soon to be gangster. Another amazing performance comes from the man who plays Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), another injured soldier that Darmody met in the doctor’s office. Wearing a mask to cover the hole in his face, Richard helps Darmody with Nucky’s dirty work. Still attempting to adjust to the fact that the public now sees him as a disfigured monster, Richard is a heart-breakingly fascinating character struggling to hold onto his own humanity. The final performance that deserves mention is Michael Shannon as Agent Nelson Van Alden of the Federal Bureau of Internal Revenue. A no-nonsense man, Nelson’s only goal in life is to please his boss, his wife and God. Nelson is on a mission to take down Nucky and Nucky’s illegal distribution of alcohol. Taking on a brimstone and fire personality, Van Alden will stop at nothing to achieve his goals and keep all those around him pure.
Though at times the show’s plot can be slow, a wholly fascinating cast of characters keeps the audience fully entertained. Boardwalk Empire has a seemingly expansive area within which it can grow (and probably already has considering the second season has finished). With a solid script and a number of amazing performances, I give the first season of Boardwalk Empire an 8 out of 10. With an impressive pool of characters to continue developing, I expect great things from this series in the future.