‘Boardwalk Empire’ creator Terence Winter talks season 4

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.

Terence Winter: Once we knew Chalky had the club, it started from there. We said, “Well, where’s he going to get the acts to perform there?” And we figured they would share acts with the Cotton Club, and we started to read about the Harlem renaissance, and what was that world like? Then we wondered what if the guy who’s in charge of that stuff is a gangster who’s Chalky’s New York counterpart. Then we just came up with Narcisse. We wanted him to be the antithesis of Chalky. Chalky is very American, very much a guy who is up from his bootstraps, not very educated. Narcisse is the opposite. He’s from the islands, he’s an immigrant. His power is manipulation and words, his vocabulary, and he’s a very different guy. We thought that would be a really cool nemesis. We also read a lot about Marcus Garvey, and what was happening in Harlem in the 20s as well. So he could be a complete hypocrite: on the one hand espousing racial pride and uplifting the race, and on the other hand, he’s a criminal. And then coincidentally, in our reading, we stumbled on a guy named Casper Holstein, who was also an immigrant from the islands, head of the Harlem numbers racket, also loosely affiliated with the Garvey movement, in that he was a fan. And we said, “Wow, that completely bolstered our idea of Narcisse. This does have a basis in reality. There was a guy sort of like that.” But it’s not fair to say he’s based on him, but once we saw that he existed, we knew we were on the right track.

Between dealing with the Chalky/Narcisse feud, telling this big Eli story and going to Chicago a lot, Nucky took a bit of a step back this year. He’s always been the clear lead, or first among equals, and this year you seemed comfortable letting him exist on the level of others in terms of screen time and story arc.

Terence Winter: We really wanted to spend a lot of time in Chalky’s world, and it was really going to be the Chalky/Narcisse story, and Nucky certainly would be at the center of that. There’s only so much real estate to go around, and we didn’t feel like, “Nucky’s the star of the show, and Steve has to be at the center of it.” We thought whatever is the best and most entertaining story, if we end up spending more time away from Nucky, and have him on the periphery of those stories, we were totally comfortable doing that. You have the reintroduction of Kelly (Macdonald)’s character.A more traditional version of that scenario would be, “Hey, Kelly MacDonald’s under contract. This is ridiculous. We have to have her in every episode.” It just had to make sense for the story. Once we laid out the stories we wanted to tell, it wasn’t necessary that Nucky had to be smack in the middle of Chalky and Narcisse. He was, but we didn’t have to concoct reasons for him to be in all those scenes, or for him to go to Chicago to set that up. The Chicago storyline particularly was really its own universe, and that we felt we had earned as well. We know enough about those characters, have spent enough time with Capone and Torrio and Van Alden that we didn’t have to contoct a tether to Atlantic City and Nucky. We had Ralph Capone going back and forth, and the Eli thing at the end, but for the most part, that existed on its own and I didn’t feel like anybody had a problem with that. No one was wondering, “When is Nucky going to show up there.”

So Margaret was entirely a story-driven decision, or did Kelly need to take a step back for the season?

Terence Winter: She had a baby, so there was a little bit of that. But for the most part, it was the story stuff. She was so definitively away from Nucky, we knew whatever event that would get them back together had to be big enough, and not contrived, to draw them back into the same world. It can’t just be that Margaret needs money; it had to be a pivotal moment. We realized once we knew Eddie was going to go, that was the moment Nucky would reach out to Margaret. She’s someone that knows Eddie, that knows Nucky, and she’s someone that he would reach out to for comfort, whether or not he got it. And I think waiting until episode 6 really worked out well. I didn’t necessarily need to keep checking in with Margaret all season. It felt more fun to take that journey along with Nucky, and for the first time, we see her when he sees her, and she looks different, she has a job. And at that point, I said, “Now we can jump into her world.”

It felt a little bit like the way you used Van Alden last season, where it’s basically an entire arc setting her up for what she’s actually going to do in the following season.

Yeah, little bit

Talking about Chicago, Eli and Van Alden had several notable interactions at the start of the series. Does Eli remember the guy who is picking him up there?

Terence Winter: I don’t think you ever forget Michael Shannon. I think that’s a face you don’t forget. I’m sure that was a very long conversation after Eli got in that car. I think he knew exactly who that is.

With Gillian, you set up this long con with Ron Livingston’s character. Where did that come from? And I know I seem to ask you this every year, but will Gretchen Mol still be on the show?

Terence Winter: There were two separate cases I had read about, both of which took place around the turn of the last century – that exact type of long con. In one case, it was a female detective who duped the male version of Gillian into falling in love with her and got a confession out of him. “There’s something I sense you’re not telling me. I can’t move forward in this relationship until you’re forthright with me,” that sort of thing. It was all designed to elicit a confession. The other case involved two roommates where a guy told his roommate that he had inadvertently killed somebody, and he knew the other had killed someone for real, and he said, “Wait, you can actually get away with this.” I thought that would be a neat way to get Gillian to confess. And also it was a way for peeling back the layers of who Gillian is as a person. It gave us a real opportunity explore who she is, and her backstory, and also get people to really start to care about her a little. This is a character going into the season that people despised. I think a lot of people have expressed that they now feel sorry for her. She’s also a very pivotal character. You can almost zero in on Gillian as the beginning of Nucky’s downward spiral. The fact that he’s the guy that delivered her to the Commodore when she was a kid; crossing that line for Nucky was what started his descent into what he is today. I think Gillian is really the lynchpin for him psychologically and in other ways, in terms of telling his entire story. That single event had ramifications and a ripple effect that continue to this day on the series. And, yes, Gillian will be back.

Given the way you’ve told stories over the previous seasons, do you feel you’ve developed a level of trust with the audience that they can look at something like Willie’s adventures in college and feel confident that it’s going somewhere vital, which it did?

Terence Winter: I hope so. We’re well aware of the themes being portrayed on the show. We don’t have a history of putting haphazard things on the show for no reason. These words don’t fall on the page by accident; we don’t decide to do things by accident. Part of the difficulty with the weekly recap thing is that people are forgetting that an episode is part of a bigger piece. Occasionally, I’ll read, “Well, that story went nowhere.” Well, why don’t you tune in next week? Maybe it’ll pay off! I think we do a pretty good job of having everything tie in. To me, that’s the most satisfying storytelling. I think the people who are thinking about this are going to see what’s happening. Hopefully, it’ll be satisfying.

Going back to Chalky and Narcisse, pretty much since the start of the series, you and I have talked about your desire to give Michael Kenneth Williams more to do, which you clearly did this season. What was it you had learned from watching him and writing the character in previous years that fed into what he got to do here?

Terence Winter: The minute the camera’s on the guy, you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s just so electric. Michael is one of those actors where whenever he’s on screen, you’re just thrilled to see him. In the pilot, he had literally one shot, one line, and I knew I wanted to see more of that guy. I knew from seasons 1 through 3 that he was gold, and you could just bet the ranch on him, and he wouldn’t disappoint – especially putting him in the same room with Jeffrey Wright or Margot Bingham. He’s just great, just one of those guys you’re drawn to. He’s so magnetic and powerful and compelling that you could bank on him always being there for him.

How did you end up with Jeffrey Wright as Narcisse? And how much of that character and the way he plays him was on the page, and how much did he bring to it?

Terence Winter: The language was all on the page, the words were all there, but the mannerisms, the cadence, the physicality, the look to a large extent was Jeffrey. And that was a no-brainer (casting choice). The question was, “God, can we get Jeffrey Wright to do this?” We did have a conversation. He wasn’t completely familiar with the show when he had his first meetings with Howard (Korder) and I, but then he was very interested and very excited, and just dove right in. We knew we were in great hands with Jeffrey, and as soon as he felt the same way about us, we were off to the races.

Finally, going back to Chicago, Van Alden refers to himself by his given name for the first time in a season and a half. Who exactly is this guy at this point?

Terence Winter: I think he’s now finally the truest version of himself that he’s ever been since we met him. We meet him as this upright, hyper religious guy trying to enforce this law, but the joke’s on him: no one else is taking this law seriously, and he is, and he’s failing miserably at enforcing it. That was really, everybody says they believe in God, and should follow the Ten Commandments, but they really don’t. People lie, they cheat, they steal, they fornicate, they do all these thing. You’re just doomed to failure, trying to adhere to these rules. It’s not until he starts to slip as a person is that he’s happier. And the thing is, what it turns out he’s really good at is being a gangster. He’s probably never been happier in his life now, this is who he is, he’s now back, after years of pretending, he’s now Nelson Van Alden again, but he’s the real Nelson Van Alden. He’s not the guy we met in the pilot.

Because earlier in the season, he was all ready to kill Al Capone to get him out of his life, but he later saves him from an assassination attempt.

Terence Winter: By that point, the whole O’Bannion thing is already played out, and he’s firmly entrenched in the Capone camp now. He’s a good soldier. He’s realized this is where his bread is buttered.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com