Like a few million other people, I was completely flummoxed when Nucky Thompson shot his protege Jimmy Darmody in the head last year. I hate to let television ru(i)n my life like this, but it’s worth talking through in public as we prepare for the third, and if history is followed, most vicious series yet of “Boardwalk Empire“.
Three decades ago, Louis Malle captured the destruction of the Monopoly-era “Atlantic City” with Burt Lancaster at the end of his career, and Susan Sarandon at the lemon-hot beginning. In 1980 there were still plenty of people around who could remember the glory days of the boardwalk. When “Boardwalk Empire” came around, it had all the ingredients of success: a top notch cast and crew, babes, booze, and Django; but the show also tapped the zeitgeist of a decade that is now passing into historical memory, as the only thing that remains of the Roaring Twenties are faded photos and childhood recollections. The year Prohibition began and American ladies seized the vote was 92 years ago, so far back that everyone who remembered it is dead, and their children are dying. Our direct contact with the 1920s is about to go from second-hand to archival, with nothing left but the books and the eroding monuments. It’s a sad fact we don’t appreciate, just as people a century from now will have very little to connect emotionally with our times, except perhaps a deep hatred of our inaction to save the human race from extinction. But I digress; the 1920s.
With nearly a century between us and then, we imagine a time when people were tougher, when nice people started to think about smashing up a lot of assholes, when hope was dangling right out of reach and the gray areas resolved to black or white. “Boardwalk Empire” is the last gasp of style that has inspired many people, chanted up through the 1980s with required reading, until finally given the silver bullet by multiculti. Not having cable, I heard about “Boardwalk Empire” from others, until last summer when my father went into a nursing home. Spoiled cripple that he is, we paid to move his cable to his small room off Sepulveda; my only fringe benefit, other than selling off some unwanted books to make my mortgage, was being able to watch HBO online, since technically I now had cable, even if it was 30 miles away.
I’m not too proud to say I sampled all the cultural waste immediately. Most of the fare, even if unusual, bored the hell out of me. Even the infamous “True Blood” was too predictable to warm me up, especially compared to the novels.
Then Nucky Thompson, Steve Buscemi’s reimagination of Nucky Johnson, made the two year transition from corrupt politician to murderer. You can’t say you didn’t see it coming, even if you didn’t. The narrative curve of “Boardwalk Empire” has escalated the level of violence just as actually happened in the 1920s, when America slowly realized over a decade what an idiotic mistake they’d made in Prohibition. It seemed a good idea at the time, eh? Read up on what alcohol did to this country before Prohibition, when production was industrialized without any regulations, and you get some notion of why Prohibition seemed inevitable…kind of like letting banks go nuts without regulation.
After Jimmy stuck an antique halberd into his father, you should have known that this “show” was about to go off the rails. Why shouldn’t Nucky shoot Jimmy in the head? It was about time for him to kill someone, so why not the protégé who tried to have him killed? Even though the Commodore was dead, Jimmy’s mother would still be pushing him into the stratosphere. Jimmy knew…he didn’t even bring a gun to kill the man who murdered his wife. It’s actually surprising Nucky didn’t have the entire family killed. Sure, I was shocked, but I would have been more shocked (and disappointed) if Nucky had suddenly had a change of heart and shot his brother. That might have been more desireable, but certainly wouldn’t have created enough dramatic tension for this Sunday, and wouldn’t have fit with the “Boardwalk Empire” method of moving forward in opportunistic fits and starts. What could be more surprising…Nucky shooting Jimmy in the head in mid-sentence, or Vincent Vega accidentally shooting Marvin in the head in “Pulp Fiction”, a film delightfully propelled by such accidents? What about this surprise…The Departed Depart? It is Scorsese to a T.
I personally had more issues with Manny shooting Angela and her girlfriend. Some people complained online that killing off Angela removed the interesting possibility of exploring how gays and lesbians lived in the 1920s. That may be true, but there is plenty of opportunity for other gay characters…and by the way, kids, they lived in the shadows until the 1970s, so you DIDN’T know what they were all about then. I had the privilege of knowing three of my grandparents and one of my great-grandparents, all fairly open-minded people who liked to show off their gaydar with a few choice words (Paul Lynde being a favorite target of one) and realized only much later they were testing me. One of my aunts is a lesbian, and her story of growing up gay in the 1950s, three decades after “Boardwalk Empire”, shattered all my illusions of the “Happy Days”. No, I didn’t lose a storyline in Angela, I lost myself, because if anything, sitting in a house on the beach, drunk and snorting heroin with a bunch of artists, musicians and actors while two chicks make out on the porch was just about the only part of “Boardwalk Empire” I could relate to…that was MY 1920s, the ’20s of Weimar Berlin and the Bauhaus, of Bobby La Marr and the wild Hollywood of Queer People, the explosion of art and change that erupted after the Europeans shot their wad (firstly) in the Great War. It’s almost ironic that the iconic figures of the Lost Generation, the flapper, the walking-wounded soldier and the liberated female, have all twenty-three-skidooed from “Boardwalk Empire”, leaving behind only the shell of “Scarface”. It stung even more to have this at the hands of Manny Horvitz, the character who most resembles my grandfather’s family, Ukrainian Jews who fled after the aborted revolution of 1905 to become petty criminals in Chicago. Who can predict where “Boardwalk Empire” can go, now that most of the characters outside the law enforcement/gangster circle have disappeared or been killed? With Jimmy gone, everyone is fair game, except perhaps Nucky himself…unless this show goes completely “Twin Peaks” on us, of course, and terminates the leads in favor of the ingenues.
Am I begging the question, “Who’s next?” Unless “Boardwalk Empire” spins off into the bullshit that informs most gangster dramas (hell, most historical dramas, period…think the monstrous De Palma/Costner “Untouchables”), we can be assured of a few things. Enoch Johnson, Meyer Lansky, Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, Salvatore Luciano, and Waxey Gordon all survived Prohibition and World War II, with some going to jail and all of them dying a natural death. Of course, Jimmy Darmody and his father, the Commodore, were also actual people who certainly didn’t die in the way they have on HBO. Anything is game.
Finally, I just have to say that if Nucky doesn’t put a bullet in that Irish Catholic twist Margaret for giving away all his ill-gotten gains, that’s a far larger suspension of disbelief than seeing a white kid from the good side of the tracks hand over three Klan members to a warehouse full of African Americans in 1920s New Jersey. I’m also anticipating a way to bring Lucy Danziger back into the series, since the first season featured her getting joyfully fucked like clockwork in every episode. We know a few people are doomed…Arnold Rothstein was shot at the Park Central Hotel in 1929 and Mickey Duffy, Doyle in the show, was plugged two years later in Atlantic City. Agent Van Alden just moved to Cicero, the town that Al Capone turned into his first fiefdom, and George Remus has yet to meet Esther Randolph, based on Mabel Willebrandt, the attorney who put him in prison in 1925. As to the rest…the future’s uncertain and the end is always near, but truth is stranger than fiction, eh?
Read some more…and see youse tomorrow.
[WARNING: The following interview with Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter contains spoilers about the show’s second-season finale that aired Sunday night.].
“This is the only way we could have ended, isn’t it?” Jimmy asks.
“This is your choice, James,” Nucky replies.
And with that buildup, Boardwalk Empire executed one of the most surprising moves in recent TV history: killing off James “Jimmy” Darmody (Michael Pitt), the show’s second-biggest character after Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi).
Nucky shot and killed his former protégé after a season-long power struggle for control of the Atlantic City booze trade. The Oedipal-conflicted young war veteran was the victim of his own tragic decisions, including a bungled assassination attempt on Nucky. Though many fans will regret losing Pitt’s character, the move gave viewers an uncompromising finale that allows Nucky to embrace his gangster destiny.
Below, Boardwalk Empire showrunner and executive producer Terence Winter, who wrote tonight’s finale, talks to EW about why Jimmy had to go, how he broke the news to Pitt and gives some hints about his plans for season 3 — which include a time jump and the introduction of new brash young character. And at the end of the interview, there’s a link to our exclusive interview with Pitt.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first know that you were going to kill off Jimmy?
TERENCE WINTER: Probably at the very beginning of season 2. The idea was to try and push things to their absolute limit, even if it makes it difficult for yourself and your writing team. If you take things to their logical extreme with the situation we created, Jimmy has betrayed Nucky, he tried to have him killed. You want to be honest about the storytelling. In the pilot, Jimmy told Nucky: “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” We wanted with the first two seasons to follow that trajectory, where he goes full season from being the guy who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty to actually pulling the trigger himself. And what’s the strongest version of that? To pull the trigger on the very guy who told him, “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” It’s like, “Guess what? You’re right. I can’t. And here’s me now fully becoming a gangster.” Anything short of Nucky doing it himself wouldn’t feel real, it wouldn’t be real. And it would be a cheat for us to say, “We want to keep our beloved character Jimmy Darmody alive.”
One of the things I wanted to do by design in the finale is make the audience pissed off [at the start of the episode]. I wanted people to say [when it seemed like Nucky and Jimmy would reconcile], “Oh great, after all that, it’s all going to be forgotten and Jimmy is going to be back in Nucky’s good graces.” I wanted them to think right up to the very end that Nucky is going to forgive him and take him back. It was a really hard decision. You’re sort of blowing up your own show, in some ways. Now we’re back in the writers room trying to figure out where we go from here without Jimmy Darmody.