Interview: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ creator Terence Winter post-mortems season 2

Senior Television Writer
12.11.11 130 Comments
“Boardwalk Empire” wrapped up its second season earlier tonight with some surprising developments. I published my finale review a few hours ago, and I also got a chance yesterday to talk to the show’s creator, Terence Winter, about how and why everything went down, coming up just as soon as I buy some stamps…
Obviously, we have to start with Jimmy’s death. Was that something that was always planned, or was it a Tony Blundetto situation (from Winter’s time on “The Sopranos”) where you realized at some point down the line that it had gone too far, and Nucky would not let this stand?
It was more of a Tony Blundetto situation for us. It’s funny: I never really thought of it in those terms, and it’s ironic that Tony Blundetto is the one killed him. But it was really the latter. Once we started plotting the season out, when we were honest with ourselves, we said, if the idea was to bring Nucky from (Jimmy telling him) “You can’t be half a gangster anymore” to the point where he crosses the line and is engaging in gangster behavior himself, meaning he’s the guy who pulls the trigger, if we’re telling that story honestly, there was no way Jimmy could survive this, and moreso, if Nucky’s going to be a gangster, he’s got to be the one to pull the trigger. Otherwise, he’s still delegating things to people.
We waffled. Once we started to come to that conclusion, there was a good number of months where we really wrestled with it, asking, “Is there any way? Can he kill someone else? Let Jimmy off the hook?” And the honest answer kept coming back to “No, this is it.” It ended up working out for us in a way. Just given the fact that episodic TV being what it is, the audience is so in tune to the rhythm of things: Okay, well, they’ll never kill a main character. If this happens, it’ll happen in season five. You’re always trying to stay ahead of them and defy expectations. In a way, it’s great. My hope is that as soon as Jimmy sees Nucky and says, “I want to make things right,” everyone’s going to say, “Oh, shit, he’s gonna take him back now and it’s all forgiven,” and then at the end, that’s not the case at all. I’m really hoping to piss a lot of people off early in the hour who think this is phony and we’re just trying to undo the situation we just spent 12 episodes creating.
In that way, it really serves the storytelling in a big way. In another way, you’re taking a stick of dynamite to a major character and a big part of the first two seasons’ arc. Jimmy’s obviously one of the co-leads of the series. For me, that’s the challenge of what we do. Okay, now where do we go from here? You introduce new people, new conflicts and life goes on from there. It’s alternately scary and challenging at the same time.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the hesitation. We’ve talked in the past about how good Michael Pitt is, you’ve seen it, everyone’s seen it. How hard is it to say, “This is not going to be a person on my show anymore”?
It’s very hard. You know what you have. It’s not a question of, “Okay, we’ll cast someone else, and we’ll have other characters and other actors.” That’s very true, but those people haven’t been written for yet, they don’t exist yet and I don’t know what their situations might be. On the one hand, I know Michael, I know what he can do, what he can do as a character, it’s all there, it’s great. So selfishly, in terms of making it easier for everybody, you go, “Why don’t we just keep this guy around?” But if you want to have a series that has some balls and really honest storytelling, then we’ve dug ourselves into a position where we pushed our main character into a corner and we really want this guy to come out as a gangster, then this is the only option. And anything short of that is phony and is cowardice on our part, because we’re trying to preserve a situation that works better for us. We’ve been through a lot of conversations about this.
You referred before to Jimmy as one of the co-leads of this series, and this season it seemed there was a clear set-up where even if Nucky was 1, Jimmy was at least 1A, if not equal to Nucky. He provided a nice emotional balance: Nucky is cool and reserved and keeps everything to himself, Jimmy is hot and straightforward. How does that change the balance of the show without him there?
The season was very much about Nucky and Jimmy together. The balance of that was skewed according to the story. That was the story we were telling this season. Wherever we come back in season 3, there will be different dynamics, different characters, a different balance, whatever that is. Nucky will change too. Nucky this year seems very cool and reserved, and calm under pressure; he may not be that guy next year. He’s crossed a major line now. We’re going to come back to the series over a year into the future. Nucky’s trajectory as a gangster has continued to grow. Nucky could have a different personality when we come back. And then depending on who he interacts with, it’ll be a very different energy on the show. On “The Sopranos,” not that Big Pussy was as major a character as Jimmy, not by a long shot, but Richie Aprile was a nemesis of Tony’s, and then he’s gone. Then Ralph Cifaretto is there, and you get two seasons, and Ralph is gone and suddenly it’s Feech La Manna and Phil Leotardo. You’re constantly reinventing the series even though you’re keeping it the same series. People come and go, and leave and come back. That’s sort of the job. It’s almost like a magician: Look over here! Okay, now look over here! Just direct your attention somewhere else. Our job is to tell compelling stories so that people don’t get fixated to what the show was in a particular season. The same thing Matt (Weiner) has done to “Mad Men.” He’s taken the detonator to that show a couple of times. The agency crumbles, and you come back and it’s a different set-up. So similar in some ways.
What happens at this point to the Jimmy-adjacent characters? Is Richard still a part of the show? Is Gillian?
Yes, they’re all still part of the show. Aside from the people who have been killed, they’re all still part of our universe.
But Richard, the two people in the whole world he connected to after the war were Angela and Jimmy. They’ve now been murdered. I imagine he’s not going to respond too well to that.
You go back and rewatch the scene with Richard and Jimmy at the end of this. Essentially, Jimmy is giving Richard permission not to come with him. Jimmy knows what he’s walking into, he comes unarmed. Jimmy never expected to come back alive from the war. Nobody was more surprised than he was. He’s kind of been the walking dead, for lack of a better term, since he got back. Even from the first encounter with Gillian, it was very weird; Gillian remarked, “This isn’t my son anymore,” he was different. Of course, coming out of the gate, it was an inappropriate interaction, she ran practically naked into his arms. So right out of the gate, you see this guy’s got a lot going on behind there. In coming full circle to the realization of how deeply he’s been manipulated by Gillian and how badly she’s screwed him up psychologically, he’s sort of taking the honorable soldier route and falling on his own sword, and he knows full well when that phone call comes, what it means and what he’s walking into. He says to Richard, “This is something that I have to do,” and Richard knows what he’s talking about, and being a soldier himself, Richard allows him to do that. Otherwise, it would have been Butch Cassidy and the two of them would have gone out (together). Richard accepts Jimmy’s fate also, and as his friend, offering to go and help him and says, “I’ll kill them all if you want,” and Jimmy says it’s okay and goes out the door. Richard knows when he walks out the door, as does Jimmy. He knows he’s walking to his death and this is what’s coming to him. I don’t know that Richard necessarily feels that he needs to avenge this.
We have to talk quite a bit about Gillian, but first there’s this: how fearful should we be for young Tommy?
In what sense?
In the sense that now his mother and father are dead, and he’s been left in the charge of his mentally unstable, incestuous grandmother?
I don’t know how all of this has changed Gillian yet, I don’t know if she’s learned anything from this. Obviously, she says she used to kiss Jimmy’s winky. I don’t know if the winky kissing will be passed on through the generations. I hope not for his sake. In any event, even in the best case scenario, that’s probably not a healthy relationship, but I don’t think we need to be worried about him.
In terms of what happened last week (between Jimmy and Gillian), that’s something that had been hinted at for a long time, since that first meeting that you talk about. Something was not right with their relationship. Did you know the whole origin story when you started the series, or did it come to you later?
It came to us as season 1 was developing. Searching back in my memory of how even Gillian developed, I knew I wanted his mother to be a showgirl, so if she’s a showgirl, she can’t be 50 years old, she’s gotta be younger. So she’s a young woman, so she had him as a kid. Why don’t we push that as far as we can go, she had him when she was 13 years old. And if she was a child herself, they would have a very odd relationship; he probably grew up in dance halls, and around a lot of naked showgirls, seen his mother naked a million times. This has just been a strange childhood for this guy. So then if we’re going to introduce her as some showgirl, let’s do the mislead of people think she’s his girlfriend, and the way to sell that is that she’s overly affectionate. And then we said, wow, that’s interesting. What if that’s just a dynamic in that relationship? That she was a child herself when she had this baby, she’s sort of stunted emotionally herself and never learned how to interact properly with this kid. And then as the series developed, then you start to see the characters come to life, and you see Gretchen (Mol) and Michael together, and how they look at each other, and you see what it looks like when she kisses him on the lips. You go, “God, this is really creepy.” And then we said what-if what-if what-if, and we finally got to the origin story, and we realized it made perfect sense. Of course he joined the Army; he’s trying to get away from this woman. We also knew that Jimmy and Angela hardly knew each other, and that baby was born. We didn’t know the exact circumstances, just that he was in college and she was a townie.
You say everyone who wasn’t killed is continuing. Van Alden seems to be in some trouble, but you also deliberately put him in Cicero, which is Capone-adjacent. I assume you have plans for him.
He’ll be back. Good catch. I think the Cicero reference will be lost on 90 percent of the audience, if not more. But people who do know their mob history know that was a hub of activity for Capone around ’23-’24.
But that gets back to what we were talking about before with Jimmy. I imagine you could have contrived a way to get him back into the Treasury office, but you said, “No, we’ve got to find a way to do something different with this guy.”
It’s the same thing. Rather than concoct scenarios that are stretching the bounds of credulity in order to make it easier for us – we already have the post office set, so let’s just keep him here and figure out a way out of this thing – as much as it makes my life as a writer and my writing staff more difficult, you say let’s push this as far as we can take it and we’ll figure it out. Of course, we’re sitting in the writers room now pulling our hair out, going, “What do we do now?” But that’s the job and that’s what makes it fun. Godwilling, if you can make it all make sense, it’s so much more satisfying than having taken the easy way out.
One of the things that occurred to me when Angela died is that you have a whole lot of characters on this show, and I believe Nucky and Margaret and Jimmy were the only ones to appear in every episode. A lot of the other character would flit in and out, and we only saw snippets of Angela’s story, and then she’d be gone for a while. We saw some of Nelson’s story, and then he’d be gone for an episode. How difficult is it to maintain a throughline for all these characters when you have so many of them and there’s not necessarily room or budget for all of them in there all the time?
It’s difficult in the sense that sometimes you want to service your wonderful actors and characters more than you have a chance to. There’s so many of them and you’re telling so many stories in a finite amount of time. In terms of the storytelling itself, I don’t find it that difficult. If anything, we have too much material and not enough time to tell the stories; you have to pick and choose what you want to do. In terms of how things interweave with each other, I find it really fun, it’s really challenging to make the puzzle all fit together. Sometimes stories that seem to have nothing to do with each other will intersect late in the game. That can be the most satisfying thing to me, like, oh wow, this little thing we developed in episode 2 can pay off in a big way in episode 9. It’s just like designing a crossword puzzle and you just put the pieces all together. I don’t find it that difficult.
Well, you purged a fair portion of the cast in terms of the people who got killed, plus Lucy skipped town and hasn’t been seen since. Do you ever think, “Maybe we can pare it down,” or is your intention to bring in a whole bunch of new people to replace the ones you eliminated here?
It’s a little of both. I’d like to explore more aspects of some of the characters, deeper aspects of characters we’ve gotten to know a little bit: Rothstein, Luciano Lansky, Capone, Chalky, Richard. Those are people who already exist and I’d like to get to know more about them. On the other hand, they also need conflicts and people to butt up against. So there will be new characters and new situations.
Is it simply Margaret knowing that Nucky has lied to her about Jimmy that causes her to sign the deed over to the church?
It’s not just Jimmy. I think she felt completely duped. As soon as Nucky came home and said Jim Neary had committed suicide, she’s been down this road before. I think she made her decision at this point, that this guy will never change. The whole sappy story about God and the family – it’s not that she doesn’t believe he loves her and the kids, because he does, but in terms of him learning any kind of lesson or changing in any way, I think she knows things are pretty much the same, if not worse. The Jimmy thing at the end just caps it for her, she knows he’s absolutely lying and that Jimmy didn’t rejoin the Army. In giving away that land, signing the deed over, it’s that all debts are paid to God. This is it, her bill is paid, she can move on, she found the happy medium between confessing her sins and purging herself of all that stuff and not having to put Nucky in jail, and then she writes a massive check at the end and thinks, “Okay, here it is.” Now she can be done with the religious stuff and the God stuff forever, and where that leaves her and Nucky, I think she can wield can wield a great bit of power as Mrs. Thompson now, and how they fare in that relationship will be one of the storylines of season 3.
Her storyline evolved more than a lot this season. She started off as Nucky’s co-conspirator, he’s completely candid with her about his business, and then she retreats back to God after what happens with Emily. How did you sketch that out to get to this point at the end?
The idea was that everything was going along fairly well, and it’s a series of downward spirals for Margaret. She’s alienated from her family, they reject her. In a moment of weakness, feeling horrible for herself, confirms what they’ve said about her: that she’s this horrible person, and she deserved to be sent off to the workhouse, and then encounters Owen, who is a somewhat familiar voice at least, someone from where she is and is relating to who she used to be, and they sleep together. And on the heels of that, Emily is stricken with polio. Margaret was a woman raised in the latter part of the 19th century as a Catholic in Ireland. As much as you can be a thinking, logical person, that stuff is so ingrained into your personality, I think it’s very very difficult for her to not start to question God’s role in this stuff and to look at why this is happening. “Why is God doing this to us? What did I do?” She didn’t have to dig very deep to say, “I’m sleeping with the man who killed this child’s father, and regardless of my reasons, my lifestyle has inflicted this child with this illness.” In some ways, that’s a very narcissistic view of the world, but growing up Catholic myself, I have no problem thinking Margaret thinks this way. And taking it further, she’s being asked to testify about the very thing she feels she’s done wrong, which is that Nucky killed this man. She’s really spinning wildly out of control in the sense of thinking “Maybe if I set things right with God I can undo this horrible situation.” Maybe in her analysis of this, she doesn’t realize the rational side of her is totally competing with the religious side, and that not a lot of good is going to come from this. The situation won’t be undone by putting Nucky in jail and putting her kids back in poverty again, so she arrives at the place where she can live with herself and think that Nucky loves these kids, he loves her, can marry him, confess her sins to God, have her cake and eat it, too. And then she realizes she’s been duped a little, and she fights back.
Well, in terms of being duped, how much can Margaret – and how much can we in the audience – take seriously anything that Nucky says?
How much can they believe it?
Nucky says a lot of things, and says them very convincingly, but is willing to turn on a dime and do something else.
From this point on, I think anything he says, certainly for her, can be called into question. I don’t think she can trust anything or take anything at face value.
You wrote for another show where a guy lied all the time, so what are the challenges that come from having a profoundly dishonest central character?
It depends on who he’s interacting with. Is he up against someone who knows him and knows not to believe him? People lie to each other all the time, they lie to themselves all the time. People believe things because they choose to believe them. It’s easier to believe your 15-year-old isn’t smoking pot, even if you have all the evidence there and he’s lied to you 10 times already. It’s sort of that thing. For convenience’s sake, very often people in relationships: Tony and Carmela, he’d lie to her about where he was that night, and she’d accept it even though she knows it’s not true. Obviously, Margaret might not believe Nucky anymore, but that doesn’t mean she won’t choose to say, “I accept what you say, and let’s not fight and let’s move on, it’s just easier for everybody.” In terms of other characters that he deals with, it’s a question of who they are and how well they know him and what they choose to believe or not to believe.
Why is it that Nucky chooses to kill Jimmy and spare Eli? Is it simply a matter of choosing blood over friendship?
Yeah, I think at the end of the day, as sinful as it sounds, I think blood is thicker than water. In the final analysis, I think the bigger bet is on Eli. I don’t think he completely believes Eli, either, but he feels he can move forward with Eli a lot easier than he could have with Jimmy. In some ways, Jimmy’s a mercy killing.
It’s clear, as you said, that when Jimmy gets the phone call and doesn’t bring his knife, he knows it’s coming. Does he know it earlier in the episode? Because it seems like some of his interactions with Tommy, for instance, are that of a father getting ready to say goodbye.
I think he knew. I don’t know that he knew exactly when it was coming, but this finale was Jimmy mopping up all the business he could, preparing knowing that at some point in the future, this was going to happen, whether it’s now or next week or next month. He’s going to do as much undoing of the damage he’s caused as he can, he’s going to psychologically say goodbye to his son, say goodbye to Richard, and get his affairs in order, and then he’s ready to ship out.
Did you know when you introduced Dunn Purnsley that he was going to somehow wind up as Chalky’s sidekick?
No. Eric LaRay Harvey was just so powerful in that role that it’s one of these examples where you cast somebody and I said, “Ohmigod, this guy’s great, we’ve gotta bring him back.” And we knew we were going to do this storyline with the strike, and he’s such a great instigator, such a shit-stirrer and such a terrific actor, and we loved the dynamic between him and Chalky and knew that he was our guy.
I need you to clarify something related to that, because I appear to have been profoundly wrong on this: is Chalky illiterate?
Okay. So why does his wife give him the book?
They’re pretending to not know that he is. They go along with the fiction that he doesn’t like to read, in interest in helping keep his dignity there, they’re all pretending.
I mentioned Lucy before, but is she coming back, or has she left forever?
We may see her again. I wouldn’t say gone forever, but she’s alive. Much like on “The Sopranos,” people come and go, and they pop back into our lives, and we may see her again, I’m not sure where or when. But she’s out there. People travel, but she could pop up back in Atlantic City, or elsewhere.
Manny somehow survives all of this, and winds up being a prop in what Nucky does with Jimmy. Do you have plans for him going forward?
Yes, he’ll be back.
There was this idea that the young turks were going to rise up and overthrow their masters. Obviously, it didn’t work out for Jimmy, and in the last episode, Meyer and Lucky go back to Rothstein and offer to put him into the heroin deal. Did they decide it wasn’t worth the effort to work around him right now? What happened?
They just took part in a coup attempt that failed in Atlantic City, and for now it’s, “Let’s reassess and move forward.” Obviously, Rothstein’s going to find out what happened with Jimmy and that they were a part of this, so better to smooth things over, involve Rothstein in this deal and reassess where they are in a year or two. Which is what happened. In reality, they did involve Rothstein in their heroin business. But as the 20s progressed, they started to come into their own. That’s the thing: for every Luciano and Lansky, there are thousands of Jimmy Darmodys who are footnotes in history – these guys who made a run at it, didn’t make it and died died trying. That’s sort of the point. In our big sweeping crime story, it’s why isn’t Jimmy Darmody in the history books? Well, A)because he’s a fictional character, but B)not everybody became Al Capone. Only one person became Al Capone, and there are hundreds or thousands of people who wanted to be and tried, these low-level alcohol/drug dealers who were never able to get their act together in the way that those guys did.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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