Usually, I wait until the end of each “Boardwalk Empire” season to speak with creator Terence Winter about all that happened. In the case of the gangster drama’s fifth season, which debuts Sunday at 9 on HBO, a preliminary conversation was necessary. Not only is this going to be the show’s final season – earlier than Winter had maybe once intended, but the one he wanted after realizing the direction he had taken the story – but it leaps seven years into the future for Nucky, Chalky, Margaret and the other surviving characters, landing them in 1931. Atlantic City and the rest of the country are still mired in the Great Depression, while Nucky and many of his partners are hearing rumblings that Prohibition may be repealed soon.
I’ve seen the first three episodes of season 5, and though the show is dealing with a shorter order (8 episodes compared to the usual 12), they feel very much like the beginning of a “Boardwalk Empire” season – which, based on past experience, means the best time to evaluate it will be at the end, rather than now. (Though I’ll still be doing weekly write-ups.) We get to see Nucky, Luciano and others in action in the early ’30s, but we also get flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood and his early days working for the Commodore.
Here’s the conversation with Winter, whose pilot (produced with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger) about the New York music scene in the ’70s recently wrapped filming on its pilot episode. (“I’m going to have a couple of conversations with HBO in a month or two,” he says of it, “and godwilling, we’ll know something soon.”) We talk about the decision to end the show, and to jump forward in time, and in the process get into some historical “spoilers,” including some famous true crime events the show will no doubt cover this season, not to mention why the show has to do without a character who in real life died in the late ’20s.
Also, this conversation took place the day after David Chase appeared to confirm that Tony Soprano survived “The Sopranos” series finale, then put out a statement suggesting that that wasn’t exactly what he said. Since Winter worked on “The Sopranos” until the end, we talked about this turn of events and whether he considered the response to that finale at all in writing his own for “Boardwalk.”
When and how did you decide this would be the final season?
Terence Winter: Somewhere toward the middle of season 4, (writer/producer) Howard Korder and I looked at each other and I said, “I feel like we’re inadvertently winding down Nucky’s story. He has his eye on an exit, and he’s so desperate to get out of this business.” The whole idea of trying to move his operation down to Florida and Cuba, we seemed to be wrapping it up. It wasn’t our intention to end it this quickly, but it was certainly looking like that. The more we talked about it and the more we talked with HBO, we felt we were really getting towards the end here. The one thing nobody wanted to do was feel that we were treading water, bringing back the Villain of the Year, keeping it on the air beyond what felt like the natural progression of the story was. It felt more and more clear that we were there. Then it just became a question of how we wrap it up, and when we wrap it up. And the decision was made to jump ahead and bookend with the end of Prohibition, because we started on the day before Prohibition, and 1931 was the first year it became clear that Prohibition was going to go away.
Was there ever a point where you had thought about just jumping ahead a year or two like you had previously?
Terence Winter: I thought about it in the broad scheme of things. In terms of tying it to historical events, not a lot happened in the gangster world between 1924 and 1931. There was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and a couple of other things where guys were shooting at each other, but it wasn’t like we said, “Oh, in ’26, we’ve got this event.” It would have just been a continuation of things we’ve done before about who the big bad is. It would have been repetitive. ’31 was really attractive to us for a lot of reasons: Capone went to jail, Luciano formed The Commission, which became the governing body of the mob, it was clear the Depression wasn’t going away, and the country was settling in for a long period of economic decline. It was very clear that the party that was the 1920s was over. Even the hemlines were lower. It was a much more somber period of time. And close enough to repeal that it felt like a bookend for us.
By jumping ahead to 1931, though, you lose Arnold Rothstein, who died in 1928. How soon in the process of planning the season did you realize Michael Stuhlbarg wouldn’t be a part of it?
Terence Winter: As soon as we said (it would be) 1931, we went, ‘Oh, shit.’ Yeah, that was really really tough. He’s one of my favorite characters – and in terms of real life, one of my favorite people. But that could not be the tail that wagged the dog that was the rest of the series. As tough as it was to miss that, it was a decision that had to be made. I’d been comfortable enough in the past playing around with the timeline a few months in either direction, but Rothstein’s death was too big of an event to cheat and say he was still alive in ’31. But his presence is certainly felt. The residual effects of his relationship with Margaret are felt. He’s always there in spirit.
You had started to set up that relationship with Margaret at the end of season 4. Did you have anything more in mind to do with it that you never got to because of the time jump?
Terence Winter: We never got that far in terms of the plotting. As it progressed, the first part of that relationship had become apparent. And I should clarify, by “relationship,” I don’t mean that they had a kid together. It was a business relationship.
Where did the idea to do only 8 episodes come from?
Terence Winter: (It) was the result of my conversations with Howard Korder, Tim Van Patten and HBO. Once we knew it we were wrapping up Nucky’s story, we didn’t feel that we had to stick to the traditional 12 episode structure, so after waffling between 8 and 10 episodes, we finally determined that 8 would give us the right amount of time to tell the story we wanted to tell
Nucky took something of a backseat to Chalky in season 4, but he’s at the forefront of the story here, and we also start getting flashbacks to his childhood as he first went to work for the Commodore. Why did you decide to go back to Nucky’s origins?
Terence Winter: Because it was the end of his story, we felt it was also now time to see what were the events that shaped him. What were the events that made Nucky Nucky. It was much more powerful to show it than just talk about it. We had talked about his relationship with his father, the Commodre, the young Gillian, but it felt more powerful and visceral to see this kid, and then see Nucky as a young man, at 22. We’ll see the young Gillian, the young Eli. It paints a much clearer picture of who Nucky is and why he is what he is. We’re really happy with how it turned out.
How do you go and find a kid or a young adult version of Steve Buscemi?
Terence Winter: We have an incredible casting director, Meredith Tucker, who just put out a wide net. It’s a huge challenge, of course. We were questioning whether or not we could pull it off. The kids, you have a lot more lattitude, because you don’t have to find an exact match, but the 20-year-old has to feel like a young Steve. Marc Pickering was the actor we cast, and it’s uncanny. He’s not in any way doing a Steve Buscemi impression, but he captures it in the way Robert DeNiro captured the young Vito Corleone in “Godfather Part II.” The right makeup, the right posture, and you get the essence of it. And we had to find a young Commodore. We weren’t looking for a young Dabney Coleman, but someone who reminded us of that character.
You lost the use of the original boardwalk set a while ago, and you built a new, smaller one for the flashbacks this season. Why was now the time to do that?
Terence Winter: We haven’t had our boardwalk set since season 2. We just used the real boardwalk in Rockaway and augment it with visual effects. It turned out over the course of season 3 and 4, the story didn’t take us to the boardwalk very often. We would go to Rockaway when we needed, but a lot of last season took place on the north side of town, for instance. But this season, because we were doing the flashbacks and showing Nucky working with the Commodore as a kid, we had to do it. It was challenging, because we had to present the boardwalk in 1884, in 1897 and 1931, and it looks so different in each era. But if Nucky’s first job was sweeping the sand off the hotel porch, we needed to see and feel that. It felt like we needed to spend more time there if we were going to tell Nucky’s story.
I assume you’ve heard about yesterday’s kerfuffle involving David (Chase) and “The Sopranos” finale?
Terence Winter: It’s funny, we wrapped photography on the series officially yesterday. I saw a headline, something about how he finally confirmed that Tony isn’t dead?
Well, sort of. Someone wrote that they asked David if Tony was dead, and that David said, ‘No, he isn’t,’ and for five or six hours, you had some people happy they had gotten closure, some upset because they think he died, and some who prefer to keep it ambiguous. And then David put out a statement that said that while he did say that, the quote was misconstrued and part of a much larger discussion about the finale, so now everyone’s back to arguing about what it meant.
Terence Winter: (laughs) Well, he oughta know. It’s amazing that people are so into it. That’s great that people still care so much.
You were there at the time David wrote that ending, and I know at times you argued for more closure – like with the Russian – than David wanted to provide. Given that, and given the reaction to that finale, has that in any way informed how you’ve chosen to end Nucky’s story?
Terence Winter: It didn’t influence me at all. It never would have been my intention to do the same thing anyway. I never thought, ‘Oh, let’s do this or not do that.’ I just took Nucky’s story to the place where I thought it should naturally end up. As it turns out, it’s not ambiguous; it’s pretty much there for you to see. That said, it could have been. I wouldn’t have avoided ambiguity if that’s where I felt the story took us. David gave us absolutely one of the all-time great endings. Certainly, people talk about it every day. So I think it’s apples and oranges.
And finally, I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, we know how Nucky Johnson’s story ended, so that’s what the show will do, right?’ But you’ve always said that you changed the name to Nucky Thompson precisely so you wouldn’t have to be married to that part of the real story.
Terence Winter: Nucky is not Nucky Johnson, and that’s all I’ll say. They’re two different people.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org<!–