Series Premiere: Boardwalk Empire – “Pilot”


September 19th, 2010

I could very, very easily write a couple of thousand words about the pilot for Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s latest prestige drama series which debuted last night. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning (well, relative to when I should have gone to bed) to watch the pilot, and I enjoyed it a great deal: Steve Buscemi’s performance is spectacular, Martin Scorsese was his usual talented self in the director’s chair, and Terence Winter has crafted a world which promises great return on investment for viewers.

The problem, however, is twofold. First of all, my Sundays are pretty much devoted to Mad Men at this point – Rubicon, for example, has been piling up on the DVR not because I’m not interested, but because there just isn’t enough time to give the series its due on Sundays and the rest of the week is just too busy to catch up. This means that it’s difficult to fit in yet another complex serialized drama, at least until Mad Men concludes its season in a month’s time.

The more important factor, meanwhile, is that the critics have the first five episodes, and many of them are devoting themselves to full-fledge weekly analysis of the kind which I would be creating. Normally, I wouldn’t use this as an excuse not to write: if I didn’t write reviews because other people were writing them instead, Alan Sepinwall and The A.V. Club would have scared me off a long time ago. However, starting a new degree program as I am, there comes a point where I need to make a decision: do I want to watch Boardwalk Empire and enjoy it, or watch Boardwalk Empire and feel the stress of trying to write about it?

As a result, this may be my last word on Boardwalk Empire for a while – as usual, I’ll probably be tempted into writing something when the show gets particularly spectacular in the weeks ahead, but it will remain something short instead of something fully detailed. If you’re looking for that sort of analysis, it’s like I say: between Todd VanderWerff at The L.A. Times, Noel Murray at The A.V. Club, Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, and (eventually, he promises) James Poniewozik at Time, I think the critical community has this one covered.

However, I do want to offer a few more detailed thoughts about the pilot, while I’ve got the time.

What strikes me about Boardwalk Empire is that it is almost startlingly honest (for those who tune in to The Event tonight, you will find quite the opposite); outside of the in media res opening, which I’ll get to in a moment, the pilot doesn’t present Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson as a man who keeps secret. While the show may be build around a secret (the efforts to keep Atlantic City wet amidst prohibition), the show itself has little time for such efforts. As a result, there are no truly “shocking” reveals in the episode, and the post-pilot conflict is driven by a complication within the given system rather than a substantial deconstruction of the series’ world.

The one potential exception, of course, is the reveal that it is Jimmy (Michael Pitt) beneath the mask as he and Al Capone gun down the New Yorker’s men. And yet, even then it feels as if the pilot did a good job of building to that moment where it felt less like a surprise. That’s how In Media Res openings work, really: it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was revealed in the beginning since we hadn’t even met the character yet, and it isn’t a surprise at the end because we’ve seen Jimmy struggle with his identity in the wake of his return home to Atlantic City. Given the opportunity to play the rat and take a job with the federal government, Jimmy decides instead to fully embrace the lifestyle that his mentor lives without truly admitting to it: he gives up the funeral home distillery in order to remain tight with the Feds (and take a form of revenge against its operator for the practical joke earlier in the Pilot), but then takes on the shipment to secure that much more of the available gangster credibility.

I love the moment when he explained to Nucky that you can’t be halfway in this environment: you are either a gangster or not a gangster, there is no in between. And yet it’s clear that Nucky has always lived in the liminal, straddling that line between politician and the criminal, but Jimmy argues that this is no longer acceptable. It’s a brilliant pivot for the series in that the dynamic entirely shifts: while we spend most of the episode lamenting that a young family man could be corrupted by Nucky’s criminal influences, we end the episode with Jimmy placing Nucky in a difficult ethical and moral position in regards to the events which have transpired. The role reversal is a really clever bit of writing, and plays nicely with the final scene of Nucky visiting Kelly MacDonald’s battered wife character – while he seemed to be unquestionably corrupt in the early parts of the pilot, the final act shows that Nucky is perhaps less corrupt than we first imagined.

And, instead of registering as a surprise, it registers as a clever bit of narrative construction, and gives the series some pretty solid momentum heading into subsequent hours.

Cultural Observations

  • Still not entirely sure what went down in Chicago – who, precisely, shot the restaurant owner who had been part of the deal brokered by Nucky with the New Yorkers (and who Capone worked for)? Perhaps that was supposed to remain a mystery, but I was perplexed.
  • I know everyone else noticed this as well, but Molly Parker plays the part of Nucky’s deceased wife, in purely pictorial form of course: curious to see if we will see her in flashbacks at some point.


Filed under Boardwalk Empire

11 responses to “Series Premiere: Boardwalk Empire – “Pilot”

  1. Jeff

    Big Jim Colosimo (the restaurant owner) was gunned down by Torrio (or someone working for him-I couldn’t really tell who pulled the trigger, but it actually kind of looked like Rothstein, though that wouldn’t make sense) because he didn’t want the Chicago mob to get involved with bootlegging, while Torrio thought it could be a big moneymaker.

    Torrio was the other Chicago guy with Colosimo at the meet, along with New Yorkers Luciano and Rothstein, and, of course, Nucky. Capone is working for Torrio.

  2. james

    By “in media res” do you really mean “in medias res”? Had to look up the term as I’ve never heard it before, so thanks for introducing it to me.

  3. greg

    I loved everything about it right up until the montage scene with the gangster being killed whilst listening to opera. Such a painfully obvious cliche I couldn’t believe that Winter & Scorsese went THERE. They were doing so well, and then just ruined it .

    Well, okay; the Kelly MacDonald stuff was pretty obvious and predictable as well. Here’s hoping they start pushing the envelope in later episodes.

    • zaulsiin

      “…Such a painfully obvious cliche I couldn’t believe that Winter & Scorsese went THERE….”

      As I understand it, that “painfully obvious cliche” actually came about precisely because of the historical event that the scene in Boardwalk Empire was based on. Life imitating art imitating life, and so on.

      But even putting that aside, I personally thought that it was handled very well in context.

      • Morda

        I agree with Greg. I loved the whole thing up until that bit. I so knew the Italien guy was gonna get shot (Or something) as soon as the music started and Scorsee started taking strange angle shots of the restaurant. On a similar note, I could so tell that it was Jimmy under the hood during the heist. I love this show and the talent involved but I hope I actually get surprised in coming episodes – I’m sure I will.

  4. Morda

    Sad to hear you won’t be uber-analysing this new TV gem Myles, but I get your reasons. I just watched this earlier today and it’s fantastic (Then again Steve Buscemi, Martin Scorcesee, Terence Winter and HBO don’t exactly scream “The New Adventures of Old Christine” type of…ahem…quality).

    One tiny complaint(?). Whilst watching it I was like; “Huh, I don’t remember this episode of The Sopranos”. I know you haven’t seen The Sopranos yet (Which, by the way, shame on you! :P) but I felt very much that this was a spiritual successor to that incredible show. For instance the heavy use of the word “cock-sucker”, the particular brand of violence, Nucky’s character in many ways is similar to Tony (Trying to stradle two different worlds, reasonable but potentially deadly etc). I don’t mean this as a bad thing. Second to Buffy, The Sopranos is my favourite show ever. And I did expect this what with Terence Winters, HBO and Steve Buscemi involved all of whom are connected to The Sopranos. Also the fact that it’s about gangsters (to an extent). Anyway, I know you won’t notice the connection Myles but maybe it’s something you can think about when you get round to The Sopranos one day. 🙂

    Anyway yeah, good review!

    • Morda

      I should argue that Nucky’s character is in no way as much as a bastard as Tony so I guess there’s that difference. Nucky’s more redeemable and, in many ways, more likable.


  5. Excellent review, Myles. Thank you.

    I wonder though, would you say this is HBO’s not-s0-subtle strike against Mad Men’s sunday’s spotlight? If you wanna look at it from industrial standpoint.

    ”I’m just sayin’ ”–Jessee Pinkman

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