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Boardwalk Empire and the Birth of Modern Times

on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 00:00

When it comes to television, the HBO drama The Sopranos is the Secretariat of quality programming. In addition to being the ninth Triple Crown winner in 1973, the thoroughbred horse sired a number of major stakes champions and his successful bloodline extended into second and third generations. The Sopranos also racked up its fair share of Golden Globe and Emmy nominations during its six season run, but the later creations by television writers who spent their tutelage under David Chase are equally impressive. Matthew Weiner, for instance, crafted the 1960s drama Mad Men and in essence raised the reputation of cable channel AMC from the home of reruns to the new HBO. In 2010, meanwhile, the original HBO tapped into The Sopranos pedigree with the Terence Winter created Boardwalk Empire and found its own championship racehorse in the process.

In many ways Boardwalk Empire is an amalgamation of The Sopranos and Mad Men. The former followed mafia kingpin Tony Soprano as he dealt with the trials and tribulations of both his domestic and professional lives. Boardwalk Empire likewise utilizes organized crime as its primary focus but Terence Winter populated his drama with such real life figures as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. Mad Men, meanwhile, uses the advertising industry of the 1960s as a way to explore the changes that occurred during that decade, changes that ultimately shaped the present day world of the Twenty First Century. Boardwalk Empire in turn takes place in the 1920s, with a focus on Atlantic City as representative of an earlier period of cultural change within the nation.

While social issues and religious beliefs have been part of the political debate for decades, Boardwalk Empire begins at the start of Prohibition and the first attempt at moral legislating in the United States. Just like the 1960s, however, equal rights were also at the forefront of the 1920s with the passage of the Nineteen Amendment giving women the right to vote and African Americans attempting to shake off the bonds that previously enslaved them. Boardwalk Empire inevitably tackles such issues in the same manner as Mad Men—through the eyes of its main protagonist, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the undisputed ruler of both the Republican Party and underworld activities of Atlantic City.

“He’s corrupt as the day is long and I’m not just talking about a little graft—there isn’t a single business he doesn’t got a piece of,” Federal Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) tells his boss about the “empire” that Nucky Thompson has built on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. Thompson is also county treasurer and the political machine that he oversees is equally important to his success. He thus openly courts the support of the local Women’s Temperance League, even before the female population has actually been granted the right to vote and despite his priority of keeping alcohol flowing within Atlantic City. Thompson likewise engages the African American community and, as Van Alden phrases it, “Every waiter, busboy and porter swears allegiance to him come election time.”

Not that both racism and chauvinism don’t run rampant during the era, because they do. Nucky Thompson’s predecessor, Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), continually dismisses the intellectual capabilities of women by asking their viewpoints on the League of Nations, a current affairs topic that brings blank stares from the females queried. Derogatory comments like “coons” and “darkies” are also spoken, but Thompson looks at such utterances with a derision of his own. In spite of the time period and his power, influence and wealth, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson comes across as a genuine “man of the people” who believes that everyone—regardless of race or gender—should be treated with an appropriate level of respect.

He is also a politician and head of a large organized crime syndicate, however, and his pragmatic, as well as heavy-handed, solutions to various situations ultimately ruffle a few feathers. One such person is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a World War I veteran who returned from the war a changed man. Although an honor student at Princeton University with a young son, Darmody volunteered in the military and had his leg wounded during battle in Europe. His later disillusionment is clearly evident—“Two weeks in the trench and you forget that there’s anything beautiful in the civilized world,” he tells his girlfriend at one point—and upon his return, Darmody fully embraces the gangster life by evolving into a mob enforcer and even forges an uneasy alliance with a young Al Capone in Chicago. But like Nucky Thompson, Darmody also exhibits an enlightened disposition that makes him a sympathetic character despite his willingness to play the role of Mafia thug.

Mad Men subtly showcases the changes of the 1960s that directly link to contemporary times and Boardwalk Empire does the same with the 1920s. “Stock prices over the ticker, racing results by the wire,” New York gangster Arnold Rothstein explains to his underlings. “Soon radio, I’m told, will transmit news stories within minutes of their occurrence. It’s the Age of Information.” Commodore Louis Kaestner, meanwhile, transformed the swampland that originally comprised Atlantic City into a tourist beacon, while successor Nucky Thompson is intent on taking the city to higher levels with better access roads and a new convention center. The Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire is thus in transition from barely-noticed backwater community to major East Coast metropolis. Prohibition and the free-flowing of alcohol assisted in that transformation during the 1920s just as much as the introduction of legalized gambling in the 1970s.

The first season of Mad Men revealed an underlying society that was more provocative than the bland reputation of the early 1960s, and the world of 1920s Boardwalk Empire likewise displays a different set of morals than one might expect for the time period. Brothels, topless burlesque shows and even an openness in regards to sexual trysts are prominent within the storylines. While the character of Peggy Olson on Mad Men, meanwhile, serves as the bridge between the stereotypical secretary “working girl” of the 1960s to modern day woman, on Boardwalk Empire that role is played by Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald). Like Olson, she initially appears meek and understated but evolves into a strong, intelligent and even independent character in her own right. Schroeder’s relationship with Enoch “Nucky” Thompson is also just as complicated as the one between Peggy Olson and Don Draper, vacillating between mutual respect and male condescension. While Draper is Olson’s boss on Mad Men, Margaret Schroeder is more of a “kept woman” on Boardwalk Empire but the strides she makes in gender equality within that relationship are just as revolutionary.

“To survive in a business like ours, we got to look to the future,” a Chicago mob boss tells his New York and Atlantic City counterparts. “And to do that, sometimes you got to let go of the past.” Just as Matthew Weiner proved with Mad Men, however, Terence Winter likewise demonstrates with Boardwalk Empire—that to truly understand life in the Twenty First Century, one must first appreciate the time periods that contributed to the shaping of contemporary America. In many ways, the issues of today mirror the issues of the 1920s as much as those of the 1960s, and the story of Boardwalk Empire is just as important, as well as entertaining, as any other narrative.

Anthony Letizia (January 25, 2012)

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