After each season of “Boardwalk Empire” ends, it seems, I wind up on the phone with series creator Terence Winter to ask why Character A died, why Character B lived, and whether Character C will continue to be on the show. Time to play that game once again about the show’s terrific fourth season. I reviewed the finale, and also spoke with the performer who played the finale’s most notable casualty, and I have a lot of explanations from Winter coming up just as soon as I hunt you down and drag you to Wisconsin…
We have to obviously start with Richard’s death. Given how efficiently deadly you showed him to be in last season’s finale, did a part of you start to realize, “Wait, if we keep him around, he can basically solve every problem all the time?”
Terence Winter: (laughs) Yeah, more or less. But we also knew that there’s only so many times that you can do that. As Oscar tells to Chalky, eventually we all run out of road, and we knew at some point, Richard was going to run out of road. Psychological events, having gone back to the well, into that downward spiral of killing people is what led him starting off the season as a killer for hire, going back to Wisconsin. It took such a tremendous psychological toll on him, that coupled with the hand injury, coupled with really sincerely feeling like he can’t do this anymore, added up to the fact that he literally couldn’t do it anymore and was not the same guy he was a year earlier. It all ended up making sense for us. It wasn’t really like how do we consciously diminish this killing machine. It was sort of organic too the growth of the character.
Going into the finale, the assumption on most viewers’ part was that if someone was dying, it was going to be one of Chalky and Dr. Narcisse. Both on this show and on “Sopranos,” you’ve been in this kind of situation where characters are in a beef and one of them has to die, yet you came out of this season with both of them alive. How did you come to that as the resolution?
Terence Winter: Part of it was there was more story to tell. Part of it was I’m very conscious of the fact that the audience starts to understand the rhythms of the storytelling. I didn’t want them to think, “Oh, here’s the big bad, and then in episode 12 he gets killed.” It was that way on “The Sopranos.” There was a very conscious decision to kill Ralph Cifaretto in the ninth episode of the season because we knew everyone would have expected it to happen in the 12th episode. Part of this job is to always surprise people and be as entertaining as possible. The surprise was that it’ll play out in a different way. I’m sure the Vegas odds were on either Eli or Narcisse to get it it, but none of those things happened. I think people will probably be very surprised it’s Richard.
I think some people will probably be disappointed as well, but you’ve been through that once before when you killed Jimmy.
Terence Winter: Yeah. This is different. I feel like Richard’s character really did come full circle. I feel like that was very satisfying, at least for us, creatively, artistically – as a viewer, I think I would feel satisfied with that storyline. Jimmy, I think people felt cheated, they wanted more, they really enjoyed him, and it was, “Wow, that was such a cool character, I wish I could’ve seen more of that guy.” And maybe I’m wrong, they’ll feel that with Richard, too. But for us, we couldn’t have Richard say, “Oh, I’m not going to kill anybody again” and then take him out of mothballs every season and kill everybody and solve all the problems. “Oh, that’s it, I’m really done now! I’m going to go off again!” There’s only so many times you can go to that well.
I’m curious about the creation of Dr. Narcisse and how the feud with Chalky allowed you to really get at the state of black culture at the time.