In my own personal dark corners of the internet, HBO’s 1920s mobster epic Boardwalk Empire has principally attracted attention for its costumes: its female stars often wear vintage dresses of the period, whilst the men routinely step out in suits tailored expressly by Martin Greenfield, “America’s best living tailor” – and a man who knows the fate of the show’s characters before the actors do, simply by counting the number of identical suits he’s producing for them (more than one means they’re going to get messed up nastily). This gives the show a certain profile, and perhaps one of the reasons I’ve waited so long to catch up with it is a sense that it was more interesting for its look than its content. Until the halfway point of the show’s first season, this remained a very real possibility; but in fact the quality of its clothes is part of a rather more profound engagement with how societies of the American kind are maintained.
This interest in keeping the wheel turning – as opposed to getting it rolling in the first place – separates Boardwalk Empire from HBO’s earlier excursion into America’s past, Deadwood. In that show, set in the Black Hills of the 1870s, we see how societies are brutally established – or forcibly imposed – by special interests. Its cancellation after just three seasons (Boardwalk Empire has recently been renewed for a fourth) led to much gnashing of viewerly teeth, but in truth its final line, spoken by the show’s pivotal figure, the saloon keeper Al Swearengen, encapsulated and codified Deadwood‘s take on the Western and on the American myth: “He wants me to tell him something pretty,” Swearengen sneered, before getting back to the scrubbing of blood from the floor. In Deadwood, the characters learn that nothing is pretty, and that the modern world will be ushered in by a crude, domineering will to power, represented in the show by the robber baron George Hearst.
Where Deadwood sought to teach us the lesson that early American politics and society were not the egalitarian homes of liberty with which we are often presented, Boardwalk Empire begins from a position of cynicism which needs no further disillusionment. Nucky Thompson, the Treasurer of Atlantic County in the New Jersey of 1920, is not so very different from Swearengen: in a stellar turn from Steve Buscemi which can turn from comedy to ferocity to pathos with at times barely a flicker of a muscle, Thompson is a patriarchal figure who buys off antagonists in order to accrue wealth and power to himself, but also exhibits a kind of morality and a genuine fondness for his compatriots; the primary difference between the two men is that Thompson, operating in a more developed urban context and under the constraints of the capitalist democracy ushered in by men like Hearst, must pretend to be something other than he is. “First rule of politics, kiddo,” he advises his bag-man Jimmy Darmody (a magnetic Michael Pitt) immediately following his first appearance, declaiming piously to a hall full of female temperance advocates: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Appropriating Mark Twain is a typical Thompson flourish: for a man of such rarefied cynicism, no figure, aphorism or institution is so sacred as to be beyond co-option. Boardwalk Empire begins literally on the eve of Prohibition. Thompson decants direct from the temperance meeting to a booze-fuelled party at Babette’s supper club, on the titular boardwalk of Atlantic City, where at the stroke of midnight the assembled worthies toast the end of alcohol … and promptly party on. Thompson intends to run his city precisely as before, operating under the cover of elected officials and taking a slice of every inflated glass of booze consumed, delivered or transmitted through his uniquely situated seaboard town. It is a plan he brazenly and shamelessly admits in front of his coterie, and we quickly come to understand that everyone who is – or could be – anyone in Atlantic City is very much a part of that coterie: from the Democratic congressman, ostensibly a member of the opposing party, to the dandyish leader of the black community, who in return for kickbacks delivers 100% of the African-American vote, everyone accepts Nucky Thompson’s comfortable set-up and is, in turn, co-opted into a system which constantly and consistently denies its own existence. When the federal agent Nelson Van Alden arrives in town, he can see Thompson meeting with gangsters in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and yet can find no one who will speak against him.
All of which brings us back to the suits. Late in the season, the gilded elite of Atlantic City attend a performance by Hardeen, a man who has been trailed for weeks as “Houdini’s brother, but just as good” (he is, but he isn’t). During after-show drinks, Hardeen intones that, “deception requires complicity, however subconscious. We want to be deceived.” He cuts to the quick of life in Atlantic City. Nucky’s clothes, which are so colourful as to make him almost clownish, but certainly never sinister, are well-tailored and of exquisite quality; as Darmody leaves behind the dubious prospects of a bag-man and embraces the ever-increasing opportunities offered by the explosion of organised crime occasioned by Prohibition, he begins to build a wardrobe of a more youthful, but equally expensive quality; and Kelly Macdonald’s conflicted Margaret Schroeder, a poor woman present at that meeting of the Anti-Saloon League who ultimately becomes intimately involved with Thompson’s life, goes from scratchy skirts to silky shifts. That is, clothes hide as much as they reveal: they certainly signify wealth, and over-done peacocks such as the mobster Lucky Luciano are the best example of this tendency; they can even signify sophistication, as in the case of Luciano’s boss and mentor, the meticulous Arnold Rothstein, whose clothes are of both better and more understated quality than his ward’s. But they also, of course, conceal Rothstein’s utter ruthlessness, Jimmy’s descent into violence and sociopathy, and Margaret’s abandonment of principle.
Clothes make ugly people prettier. They allow the fiction of respectability. They are, in Sea Island cotton and English worsted, the sartorial equivalent of the bricks and timber of the boardwalk itself. This latter is one of the show’s great achievements, a mostly seamless meshing of physical set with CGI, all exhibiting a quite remarkable attention to detail. The authenticity of the recreation, however, can be lost in how much like Disneyland’s Main Street USA the boardwalk can look, all pastel plaster and straw-boatered entertainers. The Dixieland jazz and pretty façades of the boardwalk are frankly confected, thoroughly fantastical. Atlantic City makes no apology for its reliance on fortune tellers and ‘natives from the Dark Continent’, all of which offer titillation without substance. But the holidaymakers who come to Atlantic City simply want to have a good time, and will consequently tolerate the ugliness that lies behind the stucco.
This would all be fine, if a little fatuous, and for the first half of the season I was concerned that Boardwalk Empire was going to offer little more than the 21st-century equivalent of the boardwalk: nasty sex and violence leavened by charismatic performances and gorgeous cinematography. Much has been made of Martin Scorcese’s involvement in the show – he directed the pilot and executive produces – but the show’s visual style winds up quite different to his own, more naturalistic than the opening episode, and to the credit of the material. Boardwalk Empire is never less than beautifully shot, but also offers under that improbably lovely light a sort of unblinking stare at the brutality of, for example, 1920s Chicago (the pilot ends with the assassination of Big Jim Colosimo, allowing for the rise of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone). But this approach runs the risk of being guilty of some of the sins it condemns, giving us a few vicarious thrills at the price of a little unquestioned ugliness. Counter-intuitively, however, the series finds its voice in its final stretch by becoming an unexpectedly wise counter-blast to the cynicism of which many of its characters are so guilty.
As early as the pilot, Nucky is warned by Jimmy that, in the new era of Prohibition, he can no longer be half a gangster. The show juggles these dark words to not much effect for several episodes, finding its feet as it attempts to strike a balance somewhere between its three poles: Thompson’s Atlantic City, Rothstein’s New York, and Chicago, where Jimmy sets to work for Torrio. The show insists on weaving the real into the fictional – Buscemi’s character is based on the real life Nucky Johnson, but increasingly diverges from the details of his biography as the season progresses, whilst the trajectories of the better-known Luciano and Capone (an unsurprisingly brilliant Stephen Graham) appear to be much the same – and this at times seems to destabilise its central story. Boardwalk Empire can be unsure whether it is about the fairly fictional milieu of its central scenes in Atlantic City, or its admittedly hugely enjoyable cameos from figures such as Meyer Lansky (a wonderfully self-contained Anatol Yusef). Jimmy enjoys a four-episode furlong in Chicago, which involves an induction into mob life and an affair with a tenderly played prostitute, Pearl, but which also seems to have little bearing on what we believe to be the show’s main narrative back in Atlantic City; Arnold Rothstein is even more isolated, constantly having detailed conversations in a billiard room or a barber shop but otherwise detached from the action, and saved for interest only by an intelligently oily portrayal by Michael Stuhlbarg.
Rothstein’s detachment, however, is ultimately part of the point – these are men who wish to remain above the fray but ultimately cannot. In the same way, Jimmy’s adventures in Chicago come into focus when Nucky is forced to ask Darmody to come home precisely to practice the skills he has learned as a gangster. The final episodes of Boardwalk Empire‘s first season, then, settle on this central crisis: Nucky’s cynicism is insufficient to its task. His words and actions really do have real-world effects that he can no longer overlook. Nucky’s under-appreciated and under-achieving brother, Eli, is shot whilst doing the Treasurer’s bidding, and during his convalescence comes to see the truth of the environment in which the Thompson family now move: “You need to wake up,” he insists. “They are coming after us with fucking pickaxes.” In the same conversation, Nucky admits to taunting Margaret with the truth about the Thompsons’ illicit business ventures, because he wanted to hurt her. “What do you think these are for?” Eli counters, holding up his fists. “That’s not who I am,” sighs Nucky, dolefully. In this sickly exchange is Nucky’s dilemma: he now inhabits a world, made febrile by Prohibition, where his old weapons of the gladhand and the bribe are of less use than the violence for which he has no stomach. “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,” said Macbeth, “Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
Of course, whilst the show is finding itself in this patiently-spun and at times overly-extended conceit, that conversation also evidences a difficulty which the writers cannot wholly solve. The women of Boardwalk Empire are, like the women of Deadwood before them, visible principally in their oldest profession: from Jimmy’s Chicago girlfriend to Lucy Danziger, the former Ziegfeld girl with whom Nucky has acrobatic and repeated sex in the opening episodes, the women of the boardwalk are of a certain, unrepresentative stripe. Even the two Mrs Darmodys – Jimmy’s own mother and the mother of his son – have character arcs defined primarily by the sexual relationships they choose (in the case of the younger woman hers is at least a sapphic subplot, though not one that ends happily). The Bechdel Test is rarely more than provisionally passed by the show – in one episode, for instance, the French shopkeeper who sells fine dresses to the trophy wives of visiting politicians begs Margaret to help extricate her from a protection racket, but it’s a racket run by Nucky – and too often the weight of the wider female story is placed on Kelly Macdonald’s admittedly capacious shoulders. This despite a recurring concern that the male characters have about impending female suffrage (in another episode, and in a scene reminiscent of The Remains of the Day, Nucky’s Machiavellian predecessor humiliates his maid – both a woman and an African-American – by asking for her opinion on the Paris Peace Conference, using her enforced ignorance as an argument against giving her the vote). Margaret is routinely given the opportunity to better men in debate, and her relationship with Nucky is one of the most complex and even-handed on the show, but Boardwalk Empire, like its women themselves, struggles to emerge from the male shadow.
All this being said, by its finale the series has resolutely found its feet, and its actors – firing on all cylinders from the off – are finding excuses to shoot into orbit: in particular, Michael Shannon as Van Alden humanises a puritanical figure composed initially of cliches – stiff posture, dull suits, self-mortification – whilst Buscemi’s performance is delivered so consistently and almost invisibly that he becomes all too easy to take for granted. Even the show’s violence seems to become somehow less gratuitous as the season hits its metier. Boardwalk Empire, like Deadwood, is not pretty; but, following a shakier start than David Milch’s western enjoyed, it may yet come to rival that show’s complex achievement. The era of the mob doesn’t need the same kind of demystification that the age of the cowboy might have required; but Boardwalk Empire suggests that, where we have left Wild Bill Hicock behind, the spirit of Nucky Thompson is still with us.