‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Pilot’: The day the drinking died

Senior Television Writer
09.19.10 91 Comments

HBO/Craig Blankenhorn

“Boardwalk Empire” had its extra-length debut tonight. I wrote a general review of the series earlier this week, and I’ll have specific thoughts on the pilot coming up just as soon as I take off my homburg…

“First rule of politics, kiddo: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” -Nucky

Though my affection for “Boardwalk Empire” only grew over the course of the six episodes I got to see, I think this is a pretty spectacular pilot, particularly in all the Scorsese flourishes (like the freeze-frame on the masked face leading into the temperance woman yelling, “Coward! Monster! Vicious brute!”). But I want to start out with the one part of the pilot that I don’t think works very well, and which has been a point of discussion with every single person (mostly critics) I know who saw it in advance.

Specifically, even after the scene where Agent Van Alden and his partner are in the phone booths talking about who all of Nucky’s dinner guests are and what they want, and after the scene where Nucky and Arnold Rothstein negotiate the Canadian Club deal, it’s still not entirely clear who’s allied with whom, then who’s screwing with whom later, why Big Jim Colosimo gets killed, etc.

To an extent, I don’t know that this could be helped. It’s an enormous cast, and a whole new world, to introduce in 75 minutes, and Terry Winter had to concern himself with setting up storylines for the entire season. But it’s still a confusing sequence of events, and one where I needed a second viewing of the pilot, and then some extracurricular Google’ing, to fully appreciate it.

The broad strokes:

• Rothstein and Lucky Luciano are running things in New York. They want to buy Nucky’s latest shipment of Canadian Club.

• Rothstein then cheats his way to a huge night at one of Nucky’s casinos, to the point where Nucky is actually paying Rothstein for the privilege of taking all that whiskey off his hands.

• Johnny Torrio, formerly of New York, is now working in Chicago under Big Jim, and young Al Capone (whose introduction is one of my favorite moments in the pilot, and one that I hope wasn’t spoiled for you by pre-show promotion) works as Torrio’s driver. Big Jim doesn’t want to get into bootlegging, and insists that his people stick to the prostitution business.

• Jimmy Darmody, frustrated at his lack of advancement in Nucky’s operation, approaches the similarly frustrated Capone and they decide to rob the Canadian Club after Rothstein’s people have taken possession of it, at which point Capone will take it back to Chicago and sell it to Torrio.

• Torrio, eager to get into bootlegging, arranges to take out Big Jim and take his place.

• And because Rothstein assumes the theft was an inside job by Nuck’s people, Nucky’s now on the hook to him for both the liquor (on top of what Nucky already paid to acquire it) and the gambling money.

All of that is in there, including the bit about Big Jim not wanting to sell liquor, but it’s only mentioned briefly by Capone while he chats with Jimmy outside the big meeting. Miss that line of dialogue, and you’ve pulled the main thread on the whole thing.

But even if that one section is fuzzy, so much of the “Boardwalk” pilot is crystal clear. It’s fantastic to look at, whether in the tracking shot as Nucky makes his way down the boardwalk, or Big Jim’s assassination itself(*). It has Winter’s sense of humor, which at times is very dark, and at times can be quite silly. (For the latter, there was the whole sequence with Nucky’s sex with Lucy being interrupted by manservant Eddie, and then Nucky and Eddie trying to break down the bathroom door.) And the cast is just incredible.

(*) As I mentioned in the review, that sequence is the kind of thing that only Scorsese or Coppola can get away with. In a part of our interview that I saved for after this episode, I asked Winter about doing such a classical mob movie moment like that as the climax to his pilot, and he said:

Well it”s sort of classic but it”s a life imitating art imitating life sort of thing, because Big Jim loved classical music, that”s true. In his restaurant, all the walls had opera stars. He was a friend of Enrico Caruso.  So it sort of lent itself to that death. So did mob movies steal from that original thing, because there was this mob boss who loved opera? It may have come from real life anyway, but then it”s became a staple of what we think of as a mob movie – as soon as the opera music starts, you know somebody”s going to get killed. But the story was real.  So that was actually an honest depiction of how he died. And the fact that it feels mob movie-like and operatic is just by happenstance. But that was the real thing.

For much of the pilot, Steve Buscemi’s job is to play the calm, commanding center of this post-Volstead Act maelstrom, and he does a fine job of that. But there are other moments where he turns introspective looking at the baby incubators(**) and perhaps thinks of a more innocent and less violent time in his life, and then there are others where he loses his temper dealing with the likes of Jimmy and Lucy and Margaret Schroeder’s abusive, alcoholic husband. It’s not a surprise that he can play all those notes so well, but to do it while carrying so much of the expositional load for this long and complicated pilot? That’s damn good.

(**) That was a real Atlantic City storefront that was part tourist attraction, part hospital.

Michael Shannon gives me the creeps every time I hear Agent Van Alden say the phrase “It’s a godly pursuit,” and Michael Pitt (with whom I wasn’t very familiar) does a great job at establishing Jimmy as both impatient with the state of his Atlantic City career and haunted by what he did in Europe.

Nucky wanted Jimmy to be a politician. Now Jimmy wants Nucky to embrace the fact that they’ve become gangsters. Which one is right?

Well, we know what a boon Prohibition was to the spread of organized crime – a spread Nucky helps start during this episode – and we see in the Prohibition’s Eve party that few in the country actually expect the Volstead Act to be much more than an inconvenience. Mrs. Schroeder’s husband, who beats her into a miscarriage in response to Nucky’s public humiliation of him, is a sign of why the temperance movement pushed for alcohol to be banned. But dangerous men are dangerous with or without alcohol (see teetotaler Arnold Rothstein), and alcohol is still plentiful after Prohibition goes into effect. In Nucky’s world, everyone’s a liar, and a hypocrite, and a thief. It’s all a matter of degree, and of being smart enough to take money from the man next to you.

It’s a crazy world, and a hell of a start to this series, even if there are some expositional bumps along the way.

Some other thoughts:

• While Winter told me that he wants to show all the ways that life in 1920 was similar to life today, one way that’s clearly different is that 90 years ago, the whole “and that little boy grew up to be” rhetorical device was still fresh.

• Note that Nucky’s late wife is played (at least in that photo) by Molly Parker from “Deadwood.” Per Winter, “It was a joint decision between me, Tim (Van Patten) & Marty — we had all been fans of Molly’s work and Tim worked with her several times.”  

• Another lovely piece of work by Scorsese and the editors: the sequence of Jimmy’s son’s playing with his soldier figurines intercut with the Prohibition agents going through their military-style training.  

• Blink and you might have missed Michael Kenneth Williams’ first appearance as Chalky White, who was waiting impatiently to see Nucky. But fret not, “Wire” fans: it may take a few weeks, but Omar coming.

• I got to tour the boardwalk set (built on a parking lot along the East River in Brooklyn) last fall, and it’s pretty impressive in person. Even more impressive, though, is seeing how seamlessly the digital FX interacts with the physical sets. None of the real buildings go more than one or two stories up in the air, yet the CGI parts of the Ritz-Carlton hotel where Nucky lives fit perfectly along with the physical entrance. Also, in real life, the Chrysler Building and a few other Manhattan skyscrapers are pretty prominent in the skyline, but all have been digitally erased here.

• Considering how strong and natural the rest of the cast is, I can’t help cringing a bit at the hammy performance by the guy who plays Mickey Doyle, the giggly bootlegger who works out of the funeral parlor. It’s not quite like that “Happy Days” episode where Richie pretended to be a mobster, but it’s not far off. (And that boy grew up to be… an Oscar-winning director.)

• Even though I knew Dabney Coleman was in the cast of this show, I have to admit I had no idea he was playing Nucky’s mentor, the Commodore, until at least two or three episodes in. He doesn’t look appreciably older from the last few shows he did, but he carries himself very differently, and his voice is much fainter and less blue-collar than I’m used to.

So what did everybody else think?

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