‘Boardwalk Empire’ creator Terence Winter on the series finale

“Boardwalk Empire” has come to an end. As I’ve done after each previous season – and as I also did at the start of this final one, just because of the big time jump and the decision to end the show – I spoke with the show’s creator Terence Winter about everything that went down, and how he arrived at the various fates for Nucky, Margaret, Chalky, and his other creations, in addition to how he intertwined them with the real-life stories of Lucky Luciano, Al Capone and company.

My finale review is here, and the Winter interview is coming up just as soon as I ask you an important question about Marlene Dietrich…

How does it feel to be only a few days away from the finale airing?

Terence Winter: Really bittersweet. It’s funny; there’s still “Boardwalk Empire”-related business that I have to do. Doing interviews, obviously, but little things for post, like approving synopses and doing the DVD commentary. So it hasn’t really settled in yet that it’s finished. At some point in the next week or so, it’s going to be, “Oh, right, there’s nothing else to do,” and then it’ll really settle in that it’s over. But I feel enormously proud, first and foremost, that we pulled off a show that we were all very excited about to begin with, and we delivered a series that I don’t know that I would do anything differently, if I had to do it all over again – I wouldn’t make any different choice creatively, and the team I’ve had with me from the beginning, every single one was a great choice. It was a great ride, and I’m going to miss the relationships more than anything. But we did exactly what we set out to do. I’m enormously proud of the series, and I’ll miss it, but I haven’t had time to properly mourn, and maybe I won’t. I’m moving right along with other stuff. Maybe a year from now, I’ll go, “Yeah, ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ That happened.”

Was there ever a point in your mind or Howard (Korder)s mind where Nucky was going to survive the series?

Terence Winter: Yeah. Going back and forth over the years, that was a possibility, but if you wanted to give it a percentage weight, it was always 80 percent that he would die somehow. At whose hands, we weren’t entirely sure until about a year ago, maybe sometime during season 4, we were positive how it would happen. I think we ran every possible permutation of an ending, including Nucky going into the sunset, which might in some ways have been worse: to just be that guy, having lost everything. The real Nucky, of course, lived a full life, but he was a shadow of his former self. Depending on your take on some things, that could be a fate worse than death in some cases. In this case, we felt it had to come full circle in terms of the Gillian/Jimmy/Tommy dynamic.

Do you recall exactly how you guys came to the decision in season 4 that this was how it would end?

Terence Winter: I don’t precisely, but the clearer that the Gillian story became, and that Harrow’s ending became, in terms of the legacy of sending Jimmy’s son off to live with Julia on the farm, and Gillian’s own tragic story – we knew it had to come back to that relationship. Tommy Darmody, growing up hearing stories about this guy Nucky and his father, and not really sure whether this guy Nucky was a good guy or a bad guy, and needing to see for himself seemed to us the most powerful version of it.

He was pretty young when he got packed off to the Midwest with Julia. What did he actually know about Nucky? And was his intention all along in Atlantic City to wind up working for this guy, or was it some cosmic stroke of fate?

Terence Winter: He came there specifically to get within Nucky’s orbit. The way in which it happened was a cosmic stroke of fate. I think he wasn’t sure. He’d heard stories about this man, and as he says on the boardwalk at the end, “I heard Mee-Maw talk about you, and I couldn’t tell if it was with love or with hate.” He needed to make up his own mind. I think he was surprised that Nucky wasn’t a monster, and he was a very complicated man, and maybe the things he heard weren’t true. And once he got within Nucky’s orbit, I think he was extremely conflicted about what to do. You think if he was hellbent on revenge, he’d have killed him the second he was there. But that’s not an easy thing to do, even for a guy who does that all the time, and certainly not for a 15-year-old kid. Even if you’re full of bravado and bluster, when you get into the zone of where that could happen, I don’t know if it’s that easy to pull out a gun and kill somebody. Particularly when that person’s treating you fairly decently. So I think there were a lot of conflicting emotions before that came crashing down.

What do you imagine happened to Julia? Tommy/Joe keeps saying he has no family, but he could just be referring to his biological parents.

Terence Winter: Tommy was raised on the farm with Julia and her Dad (until he passed away) as well as his aunt Emma, Harrow’s sister. During the course of his growing up, they grew distant as he sought to learn more of his “real family”, about which there was only sketchy information.

What were those cops doing on the boardwalk? Trailing Nucky for some reason?

Terence Winter: The cops on the boardwalk were actually from the Bureau of Internal revenue and had been tailing Nucky. (Once that became a successful strategy in bringing down Capone, the bureau began keeping tabs on other gangsters as well.) Of course the mislead is that they were the “two shooters, in public” who Luciano ordered to go after Narcisse.

Since we see Tommy being pulled away by cops, Nucky has destroyed three generations of this family, which is underlined by the flashback at the end.

Terence Winter: Yeah. That is the pivotal moment for Nucky. That is the moment where his entire future changed, that one act of betraying Gillian. I watched that scene – and we wrote it, obviously, so I know what’s happening, and I created this universe -and I want to yell at the screen, “Don’t do it! God, don’t do it.” It’s the line in the sand in which he crosses, and everything goes to hell after that, including, as you say, three generations of that family, and Nucky’s own life.

We’ve known the Gillian and Nucky backstory since it was discussed in an earlier season. How important was it for you to actually dramatize this and show the sin over the course of the season with these flashbacks?

Terence Winter: Because it was the pivotal event, I felt talking about it wasn’t enough. It’s so much more impactful to see the young Gillian. And we got so lucky with our amazing actors who we cast, our young Nucky. Showing rather than telling is always more powerful, and I thought, you get a lot clearer picture of what his dilemma was and what his circumstances were when you see it played out in reality. That was absolutely, for us, the right choice.

Some people have said you may have tinkered with the chronology of the show a little bit. When we saw Mabel’s tombstone, it said she would have been only 12 years old in 1897.

Terence Winter: Yeah, that’s a mistake. Somebody made a mistake on the tombstone. (laughs) You can never trust these gravedigging guys, and the carvers obviously had a wrong date on the tombstone.

Years ago, we saw a photo of Mabel, and it was Molly Paker. Was there ever a plan to show her in flashbacks at some point?

Terence Winter: There was in season 1. The original plan was we were going to show the flashback, when Nucky was explaining to Margaret how the baby died and then Mabel’s subsequent suicide, we were going to show that in flashbacks and use Molly in those flashbacks. We ultimately decided we didn’t feel like we needed it. When we saw the scene between Steve and Kelly, it was so powerful, I didn’t want to cut away from Steve. We never even shot Molly Parker. I didn’t want to cut away from Steve and Kelly, I felt the flashback would lessen the emotion of that moment. So we just never got to it.

But in terms of chronology, since the tombstone also said Mabel died in 1913, the idea is that they spend the next 16 years trying to conceive, and when she finally does and the baby dies, that sets her over the edge?

Terence Winter: Yes. She very possibly had several more miscarriages.

Going back a few episodes, how did you come to Chalky’s sacrifice as the conclusion of his feud with Narcisse?

Terence Winter: We always strive to do something less expected. We felt the blaze of glory ending, shoot-em-up thing, can frankly get boring. It all came down to the emotion of what sent him off there in the first place was love for his own daughter and then Daughter Maitland. It’s always about making the situation as complicated as it could possibly be, so when he confronts Narcisse, what could complicate that in the highest possible way? Of course, throw Daughter Maitland into that mix, and that’s the bigger choice for Chalky: whether or not to give up his own life to save hers, or at least give her a life. It just was, for us, a more emotional, powerful way to go, and a stronger position to put Chalky in, dramatically.

In jumping ahead seven years and doing a briefer season, you didn’t have time to address Narcisse’s relationship with the FBI. What are your thoughts on what happened between when we last saw him with Hoover and now?

Terence Winter: The impetus for that relationship was Marcus Garvey and that whole movement. As that waned in popularity and strength through the late ’20s into the early ’30s, his relationship probably continued, but he probably became less and less important of an ally. He probably continued that relationship and gave them information over the course of the years, but the original intention for the FBI was to get information on black nationalists, and that became less interesting to the FBI as the decade wore on.

So if you hadn’t decided to end the show and we had done a season set in, say, 1926 or ’27, we might have seen more of that arrangement?

Terence Winter: Yeah, possibly.

Earlier in that episode where Chalky dies, Van Alden gets killed while his hands are wrapped around Al Capone’s throat – which, if you were once a Treasury agent, is about the best way to go out.

Terence Winter: Yeah, that is going out with your boots on. Probably not getting shot by another Treasury agent, but if anybody had it coming, certainly Van Alden did. He’s been on the other side of that coin, drowning his partner and shooting that other guy in the leg. That was Van Alden’s moment where he finally decided if he was going out, he was going to go out reverting back to who he really is. He says who he is, he’s not holding back, and had he had a couple of more minutes there, he might’ve killed Capone. And Mike D’Angelo couldn’t have that, so that’s how it went down. Again, for us, the most heightened, surprising version of a way to take a guy out. That was, I think, very shocking, and yet ultimately very satisfying.

Both there and with the death of Maranzano, you didn’t change history, but you did insert your fictional characters into the story of real characters’ downfall. Capone goes to prison because Van Alden scared him into handing the ledgers to D’Angelo, and Eli is one of the people stabbing Maranzano to death. Where did you feel comfortable drawing that line between fact and fiction?

Terence Winter: As you said, it’s not altering history. It’s being true to the facts while still being able to weave our fictional characters within. That’s the great thing about historical fiction. You’ve got this blend of real-life characters mixing with your fictional ones. For me, the rule was always as long as you don’t change the basic facts of history, then you’re okay. In terms of Capone going to Atlantic City, the fact is, Al Capone did spend time in Atlantic City, and he did know the real Nucky Johnson, just as Lucky Luciano did. So it’s possible Al Capone had a friend there named Jimmy Darmody, and as long as it doesn’t alter the trajectory of Capone’s life, fine. When I read about Dean O’Bannion’s murder at the flower shop, it said there was another man working in the back of the shop when it happened. I said, “Great, let’s make that Van Alden. Let’s work the story around that, and figure out how Van Alden works into the story.” I wouldn’t take Al Capone and send him to China, because I know that would never happen, but he did spend time in Atlantic City, so I have license creatively to do things like that.

In terms of other people who died, Mickey caught a bullet in last week’s episode, which has me wondering who got to cash in on that life insurance policy.

Terence Winter: That company was owned by Arnold Rothstein. I don’t think it exists anymore. In my mind, that was defunct within a year after Rothstein died, so I don’t think anyone’s cashing in on anything.

Mickey had long been the cockroach of the show who survived everything, and he could have skated out of this. How did you decide that that was the moment for his luck to run out?

Terence Winter: People always said, “God, that guy is so annoying,” but almost by default, he became one of our more beloved characters over the years. People used to complain to me about Mickey all the time, “How is this guy still alive?” And we always took great pleasure in the idea that Mickey was that guy, he was the guy who skated by and just walked through the raindrops. But we all run out of road, as Oscar said, and Mickey did, through his selfish nature. Nucky just told him he could have the club, and when Luciano took everything, Mickey couldn’t shut up. Where better to shoot a guy like this than in the throat?

One of the fictional characters who gets a somewhat happy ending is Margaret. She doesn’t get a new future with Nucky, if that’s even what she wanted, but now she gets to play the stock market with Joe Kennedy. How did you decide on that as her endpoint?

Terence Winter: It was the result of hours and hours of conversation around that table in the writers room. It’s funny, you say she’s one of the few characters who has a somewhat happy ending, but think of the last 11 years of this woman’s life. They’ve been fraught with all kinds of turmoil, including the death of her first husband, the polio inflicted on her child, any number of horrific events. So, yes, she is coming out the other end of it alive and well-off financially, but certainly, the psychological scars must run deep. That’s just the way it plotted out for us. We weren’t looking at the board going, “Who’s going to die, who’s going to live? We’ve gotta kill this person! Well, if we kill him, we’ve gotta leave this person alive.” It was really just the way the story plotted out for us. There wasn’t a specific effort to keep Margaret alive or unscathed; that’s just the way the story played out.

Watching Nucky and Margaret dance in the Eldorado before the realtor comes in to ruin the moment, I wondered whether Luciano would have actually let Nucky live to have some kind of future with Margaret and the kids. Would he have allowed that?

Terence Winter: I think if he kept out of his eyeline, probably he would’ve been okay. At that point, Luciano already humiliated him and took everything he had. Like I said earlier, letting Nucky live with the humiliation of knowing he gave it all up to Luciano – a guy he considered a punk kid may in some ways for so long – may have been a greater punishment than killing him. Very possibly, Nucky could have lived a long life in Manhattan, so long as he stayed away from Luciano.

Luciano and Lansky will go on to have these enormously powerful and wide-ranging careers in organized crime, which is a far way from what they were up to when we met them. How did you try to plot Lucky’s rise in the midst of everything else that was going on?

Terence Winter: Just being true to the facts, and where we were in the timeline. We saw the very early meetings – as we introduced Lansky into the series – the very early machinations of these guys, Meyer, Lucky, Benny Siegel as a kid. We started to see how they came up in the ranks under the thumb of Masseria, how they got stronger on their own. Each year we came back, they were further down the line and further up the food chain. So it was just up to being true to the reality of where they were at the time. When we came back in season 5, 1931 was the year it all changed for them, Luciano being instrumental in taking out Masseria, and of course Maranzano himself.

One of the things you wound up skipping over with the 7-year time jump was the Atlantic City Conference, which was maybe Nucky Johnson’s biggest contribution to the rise of organized crime in America, and had a lot of memorable interaction between Nucky and Capone, among other events. Was that something you had ever planned to dramatize on the show, or was it not worth the bother in the attempt to get to 1931?

Terence Winter: We felt like we did a version of that in season 3 when Nucky calls everybody together after the explosion with Billie Kent. Nucky essentially does a version of that where he calls Rothstein, Luciano, Lansky, the Irish gangsters from Brooklyn, Waxy Gordon, etc., together to basically propose what ultimately became the reality. We felt like we’ve talked about it, we’ve seen a version of it, we see it in the finale with the first Commission meeting. It didn’t feel like it was that important for us to dramatize.

You said before that there wasn’t anything you’d have done differently, but were there any story loops you couldn’t close that you wish you had found a way to do so, whether in this final season or earlier?

Terence Winter: Certainly, Rothstein’s death. We wrestled long and hard about whether there was a way, could we cheat the historical timeline? I played around with the timeline of events within a few months in certain cases. Big Jim Colossimo’s death actually happened in May of 1920, in our show it was depicted in January. But the broad strokes were that Capone and Torio killed him so they could take over, and that’s what we showed. Rothstein’s death happened in 1928, and if Rothstein was still alive in 1931, Luciano and Lansky wouldn’t be able to rise; his death gave them license to rise that much more quickly. We talked about maybe doing it in flashback, but we had the flashback to Nucky’s childhood and didn’t want to clutter the structure too much. It just didn’t feel like we could get it in. We really, up until the last few episodes, were wrestling with the idea of could we do a flashback. It just felt clunky and like we’d wedge it in. We said we have to be true to the story, and if we’re in 1931, we’re in 1931, and Rothstein’s dead. As in life, it moves on, and people just go on with their lives.

One of the most powerful moments in the finale is when Capone tells his son about going to prison, and it calls back to that scene from a few years ago where he tried to teach him how to box. That was a great scene, but one that the audience may or may not remember after all this time; was there any hesitation on leaning a big finale moment over this small one from several seasons earlier?

Terence Winter: Whether or not you know the reference visually, I think it works either way. It’s a really powerful moment for me. Al Capone is just full of this bluster, and acts like he doesn’t care, but he’s about to pay in the biggest possible way for his sins. We’ve always depicted that relationship, and how much he loved his son, and even though he was this larger-than-life crime boss, he did have a family. That’s one of the blessings of doing a show like this. I don’t know of any depiction of Al Capone that deals with his family in any meaningful way. It was really satisfying for us to go home with this guy and see what made him tick. To bring it full circle to that moment was really wonderful, and that scene for me is just heartbreaking.

There is no main title sequence in the finale, and instead you start off with that visual joke of Nucky’s clothes on the beach and he’s in the water.

Terence Winter: That was a late development. I’m pretty sure it was Tim Van Patten’s idea. It was the day we were shooting the scene of Capone turning himself into the police, it was Stephen Graham’s last day of shooting, and during the lunch break, Tim pitched us that opening, and also the idea of Nucky not being seen in the episode until that scene in the Eldorado, which is about 20 minutes in. Originally, Nucky was in the scene at the brokerage firm with Margaret and Joe Kennedy. And to come out of an episode where he lost everything and come back with him sweating over a stock deal, it felt frivolous; it just didn’t feel real. So the decision was made to show him walking out to the ocean, sort of a nod to the opening credits with his shoes in the sand, now they’re empty. And because we don’t see him, you wonder, “Did he kill himself? Is he dead?” Which would have been completely plausible given the events of episode 7. But he didn’t, even though we don’t see him until the Eldorado, which I thought worked really well. And as is always the case, the continual debate and manipulation, up until the last minute, while we’re shooting, ultimately made for the most powerful version of the show. That was certainly the case here.

Where did the scene where Nucky watches a primitive television come from?

Terence Winter: This was another scene borne of conversations between me, Howard and Tim Van Patten. We were looking for something to illustrate how much the world around Nucky was changing, that he was truly a man of the past, and that the young guys like Luciano were the future. This being the age of Art Deco and Flash Gordon, there was no technology more cutting edge than television, the perfect device to connect Nucky to a future that he of course would not be part of.

There’s a very telling exchange between the Commodore and young Nucky on the hotel porch, where the Commodore wonders exactly who Nucky is. You created this version of the character and told his story for five seasons. Who do you think Nucky is?

Terence Winter: I think he’s a man who, like most of us, is desperate to make something of himself, leave a legacy behind, get ahead, and define himself. Have a legacy. It’s terrifying to me, certainly, one of the great things about being a writer in this business for me, is you can leave your work behind and people can see it. The idea of being erased from history is scary to me. This idea came to me from visiting Atlantic City in the early days of the series, before we shot anything, we just stopped people randomly who were natives and asked if they knew who Nucky Johnson was, and not one of them did. Once the series aired, they all say they knew, but before the series was on, no one knew this guy. I thought, “God, what a horrible – he was the most important guy in that city, between the years around 1912 and 1940, he ran that city, and here we are and no one knows who he is.” It made me uncomfortable and gave me a chill. “God, if you had told him that in less than 100 years, no one will know your name. There’s not a plaque, not a statue, there’s nothing.” That started the idea of “Who are you? What do you want to be? What do you want to leave behind?” That’s basically who Nucky is at his core.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com