Interview: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ creator Terence Winter post-mortems season one

Senior Television Writer
12.07.10 28 Comments

HBO/Abbot Genser

“Boardwalk Empire” wrapped up its first season on Monday night in fine fashion. (You can read my review here.) The show never lived up to the image I had built in my head before the series started – Scorsese! Winter! Buscemi! Omar! Prohibition! – but frankly, I’m not sure anything could have, given the assembled talent, the setting, etc.

But if “Boardwalk Empire” had to settle for having a damn strong first season rather than instantly inserting itself into a discussion of all-time great dramas, no harm in that. (“Mad Men,” from Terence Winter’s old “Sopranos” colleague Matt Weiner, didn’t really get into that discussion until its second season, and even “The Wire” wasn’t considered Best Show Ever after its first year.

The morning after the finale, I got on the phone with Winter for an interview to bookend the one we did before the start of the series, in which we discussed the journeys of Nucky, Jimmy and Margaret, the challenge of having fictional characters interact with real ones, plans for season two and more.

You know that I’m a nerd for structure. On “The Sopranos,” David (Chase) established a specific pattern for how his seasons were organized. Were there any things you learned from that, or anything you specifically tried to move away from?

I think it was subconscious. I didn’t really set out to replicate the structure of “The Sopranos.” I think traditionally in “Sopranos,” a lot of things were resolved in episode 11 and episode 12 was quiet time. Inadvertently, I set up a lot of problems in episode 11 that were resolved in episode 12. But that’s really how the season laid itself out.

When we talked before the season, you said the over-arching story would be Nucky learning to accept what Jimmy said about how he can’t be half a gangster anymore. At what point would you say he came to accept that?

I think once his brother got shot in episode 8, I think that was a big turning point. It started to slowly dawn on him. One of his ward bosses got robbed in episode 6. He said, “This has never happened before.” Little things where It slowly became clearer and clearer that the world was changing and he had to change along with it in a very dramatic way. I think when his brother was shot, I think that’s when it really happened. At the end of the episode, Eli says, “It’s a new world.” And at that point, Nucky had already asked Jimmy to come home, and he’s fullys committed to the idea that he has to step up his game in the gangster department. Certainly, by the end of episode 10 when he stands there witnessing Jimmy kill one of the D’Alessios and watches Chalky strangle the other one, he’s fully committed to being there. He’s made the transition, not just psychologically, but where he’s actually participating.

Although he doesn’t seem very happy to be there in that scene.

it didn’t work out the way he planned it. He didn’t envision a Mexican standoff situation. The idea was to get all the D’Alessio brothers, and it went south when Chalky found out these are the guys who hung his brother. So I think he was a little pissed off at that. But ultimately he rose to the occasion.

So it wasn’t just a case of “I don’t want to be here while Jimmy is putting bullets in guys’ heads”?

No, I don’t think that was the case. Again, I don’t think that played out the way he’d have preferred. You can see that look between them, Jimmy has this almost half-shrug, like, “What do you want me to do?” I think Nucky knows you’ve gotta roll with it, unfortunately. If you’re going to roll with sociopaths, you’re going to witness some odd behavior.

Well, we’ll get back to Jimmy in a minute, but I want to talk about where you leave Nucky and Margaret. In the earlier scene, they talk about how they have this specific pattern, where she pushes him away, then comes back, etc. Now that she’s back, are the terms of their relationship going to be any different than they were before?

I think everything is out in the open with these two now. Neither one of them can pretend that they’re not completely linked at the hip in Hans’s murder, in what Nucky does for a living, how he does it. Margaret can’t pretend that she’s not aware of that. It’s a very vocal agreement between the two of them that they are going to essentially band together and proceed in that way. All the cards are on the table now for them. There’s this agreement between the two of them: they’re partners in crime, figuratively and literally, and they march on into the future in that way.

For a show with so many bad things and bad people in it, it’s a very sweet relationship by the end there, almost.

That’s the luxury of doing a series where you can really, week-to-week, paint these people with all their colors. Nobody is any one thing, good or bad. Even Al Capone, we’ve had moments of tenderness with this guy, and he’s the ultimate bad guy. Nucky is a very complicated person, as is Margaret. We have the luxury of seeing what makes them tick, why they are the way they are. You are going to get these moments where unless you have ice water in your veins, you have to feel compassion for these people. And when you get them played by amazing actors as Steve and Kelly, it’s almost impossible to not feel something. For those reasons, you end up walking away very conflicted about how you’re feeling about those people.

Where we come to at the end, with Jimmy and the Commodore and Eli – was that something you had planned out from the start or something you came to as the season was going along?

A little of both. I think I knew that the Commodore wasn’t going to die. I knew he’d be poisoned and he was going to come back to be a nemesis for Nucky in season two. Who and exactly how were going to join him in that way, we figured out throughout the season.

Well, Eli in the early episodes is very resentful of Jimmy and feels Nucky treats him better than he treats his own brother, and now they’ve teamed up.

When Nucky dispatches Eli in episode 11, in his short-sightedness he doesn’t realize is how bad he hurt this guy. So by the time he’s reappointed, Eli’s already crossed over to the other side. If that includes Jimmy, he’s putting his bet on the Commodore. This is somebody he’d be willing to work with. He’s that angry at his brother that he’s willing to let bygones be byones. Or maybe not. Depending on how season two plays out, that may not be the smoothest partnership either.

There was a lot of speculation last week, and I appear to have gotten it wrong: was the maid acting entirely alone in poisoning the Commodore, or was Gillian involved in some way?

Maid was acting entirely alone. It is exactly what she said: she couldn’t take any more of his abuse. Gillian, that was kind of a mislead, she never said anything when he said he found the poison, we just went out on her look. A lot of people assumed it was her, but that was never our intention.

So where do you find Jimmy in regards to Nucky and Jimmy in regards to Angela as we end this season?

Jimmy is a guy who’s desperately searching for normalcy also, like in the title (of the episode). This is a guy who wants to create a family and create a home and do anything he can to keep that fantasy going. I think he and Angela have this uneasy truce. Much like Nucky and Margaret, they have agreed to go into the future together. But then we have the later scene where she’s cut her hair off, the hair he just said he used to dream about, and think he could feel against his skin during the war, that’s her way of saying, “You can have me but you can’t really have me. I’m here but I’m not here.’ I think he gets that. He’s accepting of it, but it’s very painful to him, and he’s living with it.

Nucky, it’s the same thing. At the very end, we’re not really sure where Jimmy is. He’s hearing the pitch from the Commodore and Eli. When he’s walking along the beach there, it’s a very pivotal moment for him, wondering exactly what the future holds. He’s basically got to choose between two fathers now.

You resolved the feud with Rothstein and the D’Alessios halfway through the episode, and then there was a lot of material setting things in motion for season two. Your excitement for the stories you’re going to tell next season seemed almost palpable in those closing scenes. How much have you thought about what stories you’re going to tell there?

We’re already into the writing process for season two. At the time, I had a pretty good idea of where we were headed, but now we’re actually into the architecture of it all. we’re in the midst of writing our first five episodes at this point.

In dealing with the real-life characters like Capone, you had scenes this year where Lucky or Lansky’s lives would be in jeopardy from the fictional characters. Did you have to establish any kind of rules for how you would handle that sort of thing?

The main rule is that we’re not going to completely rewrite history. It’s not going to be the climax of “Inglourious Basterds,” with what happens to Hitler. I won’t cross the line like that. I don’t think it’s taking a great deal of license to say that these guys were in jeopardy a lot. Certainly, you can put them in those situations. It’s a challenge. Unfortunately, part of the reality we’re working with is that these guys can’t get killed – at least not for a long time for some of them, and everyone’s going to see it coming. It’s sort of like Wild Bill Hickok. The rules are, again, not rewrite history in a big way, but still, I think if it’s true to the spirit of who these guys are as gangsters, we can do it. They dealt with Nucky in real life, they were in Atlantic City, it was a major hub of activity for importing alcohol, they did know each other. Anything in terms of what those private relationships might be like, I think it’s fair game as long as it’s true to the spirit of who they are and what they’re doing.

And the bit with Lansky and Lucky in the final montage, that’s establishing that they’re setting out on their own a little bit?

Yeah. It’s sort of a little foreshadowing of the future. These guys are starting their rise as gangsters. They’re in business for themselves. They certainly worked for and with Rothstein, but there were other people as well that they were beholden to in New York, and they were also starting to form their own gang.

Every first season of a show is a learning process, where you figure out what material works best for the actors, what stories work. What are some of the things you learned from the first season in terms of the strengths of the show, maybe things you should stay away from, characters you’d like to give more to, etc?

We’d definitely like to give more to Michael Kenneth Williams. Chalky was going to be a character we would only meet a little bit this season. That played out exactly as I intended, but he’s just so great, I can’t wait for his story to expand – and it will next season, quite a bit. But I kind of knew I’d feel that way as it was happening, but that character’s arc was by design. It was almost more the appetizer than the entree, but now we’ll have a lot more of him. It’s interesting. My reaction and the reaction of people watching the show has been, “I’d love to see more Rothstein, more Capone, more this more that…” Those kind of comments make me feel good about the choices we made in terms of not giving too much. In show business you always want to leave them wanting more. If people walk away going, “I want more of this,” then hopefully we’ve done our jobs right. I was really happy with how the season laid out structurally. There were a lot of balls in the air, a lot of architecture. The big challenge too is that because we have characters who live in other cities is to have them organically interact with our characters who live elsewhere.

With Steve and with Michael Pitt, you’re dealing with two very talented actors, but were there aspects of their characters that you realized they played better than others?

It’s hard to answer that question. Certainly, Jimmy’s character changed so much over the course of the season. I don’t think so. Honestly, I was really happy with how they handled everything. Michael had a great soft quality to him, he was wonderful when he was telling that story to Pearl about his mom, he really handles everything well. And Steve, It goes without saying, everything he does is gold for me. In the finale, telling that story to Kelly was heartbreaking, he was great at the press conference, meeting with Eli. I think everything he does is great.

I want to talk about Agent Van Alden, because his actions in the last few episodes – and particularly him drowning his partner Sebso in the river – drew some pretty strong, mixed responses. Where did you want to take that character in these final episodes?

He went into a downward spiral in episode 10. He knows Sebso’s guilty, but Sebso’s let off the hook for the murder of the witness, Van Alden is accused of bungling it, Margaret rejects him forcefully, and he slowly starts to unravel. He walks into that speakeasy and you’re not sure if he’s going to break the place up or drink. And he has a drink. When we pick him up in episode 11, he sort of makes his recovery, tries to get a grip on himself but then loses it when he has Sebso in the river. I think he just came unhinged, and I think Michael played it beautifully. He’s out of his mind, literally out of his mind. I don’t think he realized what he’s doing. I know there were people, yourself included, who were very incredulous that a guy could murder somebody in full view of 40 people. I completely disagree. I think in 1920, a group of African-Americans dealing with a psychotic federal agent with a gun – who are they going to complain to, another white cop? We’ve got cops beating another guy to death who don’t go to jail. Even today, I think a lot of African-Americans are very reluctant to go to the police, let alone 90 years ago. Who knows what Van Alden told his supervisor about what happened? But his supervisor has told him it’s all about numbers, and he comes back with that still and the supervisor backs off. I don’t think it’s incredible that he could have come up with a plausible story about how Sebso could have had a heart attack, and maybe even a heart attack in the middle of a baptism. That could have been his story. It’s not at all unbelievable to me. You just have to fill in the blanks of how might a federal agent lie his way out of this – particularly one who’s as zealous as Van Alden, and ultimately has just made a huge score which made his boss look good.

Has he pulled back from that in the finale and going forward, that absolute mania that he displayed in the river?

I think a little of that river was his own baptism, too. I think that was sort of a cleansing. Killing Sebso was expelling a lot of the demons that had built up with him as well. Yeah, he probably had pulled back to the point where he realized he had to leave this, and, then of course, just when he thinks he’s out…

Ah, “The Godfather.” It always comes back to “The Godfather.”


How happy are you when you’re writing those cross-cut scenes like Nucky at the press conference while the D’Alessios are being murdered?

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it. You get to play in that playground, to do our version of that thing. It’s almost become a staple of the mob genre, which I guess is great for us. I had great fun writing it, and Timmy (Van Patten) just knocked it out of the park, as I knew he would. I think it cut together very well. The choice of music was terrific, with the drumbeat. It’s great fun. It’s why we do this.

Was Capone taking the apple in the script, or just a piece of business they came up with on the set.

It was in the script. In fact, I wrote that he takes an apple out, doesn’t like it, puts it back and takes a different apple. I guess they dropped that because it went on too long.

One of the characters people responded to very strongly in these final episodes was Richard Harrow. Is Jack Huston going to be back next year?

Yes. He’s terrific. I couldn’t have been happier with our decision to cast Jack, and the reaction to that character really hit a chord with people. There’s something so moving about him and sweet and sinister. He’s just amazing. He came in with that performance. That was the performance he did in his audition for us, and he was just amazing. Allen Coulter and I cast him in episode 7 off of a videotape. Allen was practically jumping up and down in the room watching it going, “Oh my god! This is him! This is the guy!” And I completely agreed, and Jack’s been amazing. Just a terrific actor.

Are you comfortable telling me when season two picks up, roughly?

A few months into the future. A few months into 1921

And finally, I have to ask where the impulse came from to put Lucy and Van Alden together.

It’s not the most obvious couple you would think to throw together. But we asked ourselves, in terms of if Van Alden was bottoming out, what are some of the worst things he could do? With Lucy out and about and untethered in Atlantic City, having them end up in bed together was as bottoming out as I could think for the guy. If you put a repressed, sexless guy together with a woman who’s pure sex, he’s just going to come off the rails. It was the next logical step.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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