Perhaps Boardwalk Empire piqued your interest during the Emmys last weekend, with its pile of nominations and a notable win for Martin Scorsese as Best Director. The HBO drama returns for Season 2 this Sunday, so it's a good thing you're all caught up! Wait, what? You haven't done the homework I suggested as part of The Great Fall TV Cram? For shame! You'd better get to studying this primer, which should help you jump into Season 2 with a bit of context. You gotta know your Nuckys from your Luckys.
Picture it: Atlantic City, 1920. The country’s love affair with warbly crooners is in full swing. Booze is out. Voting is in. The lady garden is in full bloom. Mingling along the famous Boardwalk are tourists, Mafioso, politicians, suffragettes, war heroes, black businessmen, naturalized immigrants, and the KKK. At the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Enoch Thompson (Steve Buscemi), lives in a suite he couldn’t possibly afford on his County Treasurer salary. But he can afford it, because he’s Nucky Thompson. And Nucky Thompson runs Atlantic City.
The Key Players
Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thomspon (Steve Buscemi)
Nucky is an unlikely badass (and not only because he's played by the oft-goofy Buscemi). He’s a loose canon, for sure, but he’s also got a soft spot for pregnant ladies and family men. Of late, he’s been seeking to fill a void left in his heart by his dead wife and infant son seven years ago. But on the political front, Nucky is gangbusters. He has a knack for walking the party line, successfully pushing through every vote in his interest. Nucky’s also got the criminals on his side, bootlegging quality hooch and knocking off the occasional foe.
Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald)
A lovely Irish mother of two and a widow of one (thanks to Nucky, who had her husband killed and framed—but whatever—Mr. Schroeder was a bastard anyway), Margaret routinely struggles with her morals in the moral-free world of Atlantic City. She eventually became Nucky's quasi-concubine, albeit reluctantly. (She also, like most naturalized citizens, seems to understand more about U.S. government, history, and politics than the people born here.)
Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon)
Van Alden is a mess. He’s a federal agent who loves to crack the whip on bootleggers—and also on himself. For a pious man who digs self-flagellation (I haven’t seen welts that impressive since the albino in The Da Vinci Code), he sure participates in a lot of questionable activities—you know, like adultery and murder.. He’s got a queen bee in his bonnet for Nucky’s crime ring, and will stop at nothing to bring it down.
James 'Jimmy' Darmody (Michael Pitt)
Sure, Jimmy is pretty much a third-rate Amsterdam from Gangs of New York, but a third-rate Leo DiCaprio is still better than a first-rate Anybody Else. Jimmy is back in AC after fighting in WWI (which, I should note, isn’t “WWI” yet) and is now battling daddy issues and inner demons that manifest themselves in night terrors and fits of beating people with a giant pipe. Still, there’s something about Jimmy…
Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham)
Nucky’s brother—the Jan to Nucky’s Marcia. Eli is the Sheriff in town, and does a lot of Nucky's grunt work while receiving very little of the glory. And that, as you might imagine, makes Eli very bitter.
Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)
Poor Harrow—he came back from the war with half a face. While very sympathetic, Harrow is totally creepy and majorly damaged goods. Who knows what he’s capable of?
Al Capone (Stephen Graham)
Who doesn’t think of a crazy man with syphilis at the mention of Al Capone’s name? But Boardwalk’s Capone is young and feisty, with a penchant for pranks and a steamer trunk full of ambition.
Chalky White (Michael K. Williams—Wire fans will recognize Chalky as Omar Little)
Chalky is Nucky’s tie to the black voters and the black muscle. Chalky loves himself some flashy threads and a white Packard, and—in a time where racial tension is at a dangerous high—Chalky still manages to wrangle a ticket to the most elite parties in town.
Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta)
With her curvaceous figure, loose morals, awesome headbands, and alluring baby talk, men find it hard to resist Lucy. So imagine her surprise when Nucky switched to Team Schroeder midway through Season 1. Well, she’ll show him— and everyone else—once her impregnated belly starts to expand with the child of Agent Van Alden!
Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg)
A real-life person like Capone, Rothstein is a renowned gambler from New York City with sights on the bootlegging business. At the end of Season 1, Rothstein and his associate Lucky Luciano offered Nucky one million dollars to bury the hatchet and work together on mutual interests.
The Important Stuff to Note From Season 1
On the eve of Prohibition taking effect, Nucky expressed to his inner circle that bootlegging would be an opportunity to make serious bread. Nucky wasn't the only one with the idea, however, and when he a deal with Rothstein to supply the hooch, everything went south. By knocking over Rothstein’s men, Jimmy and Al Capone successfully launch bad blood between AC and NYC.
Meanwhile, a disillusioned ex-employee of Nucky’s—Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks)—tried to snuff out Chalky, who's taken his place in Nucky’s business. Doyle partnered with Italian mobsters the D’Alessios, but the hit went sideways and they killed the wrong man. Worried about an impending race war, Nucky asked his brother Eli, the Atlantic City sheriff, to cover up his mess—sigh—again!
The D’Alessios fired guns at Eli and Nucky a few different times, but these guys are horrible shots! Eventually Eli, betrayed too many times by his brother, teamed up with others Nucky has jilted—Jimmy and Jimmy’s father, Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman). Ultimately, Nucky and Rothstein mended fences when they realized they each possess something the other one wants: Rothstein needs help with an indictment for fixing the 1919 World Series, and Nucky—rightfully so—wants the D’Allesios wiped out, along with a big pile of cash.
Nucky left his lover, Lucy, for the straight-shooter Margaret Schoeder—after enlisting his brother Eli to help axe her abusive husband. Lucy found comfort in the arms of Agent Van Alden, who's married to a woman who'd give anything to have children, but can’t. Naturally, Van Alden successfully knocked up Lucy in one shot. Jimmy returned from the war to find his baby-mama, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), suspiciously friendly with another couple. Though Angela yearned to run off to Paris with her lesbian lover and become an impressionist painter (how cliché…) she ended up abandoned when her lover ran off without her.
Nucky Thompson is as much tied up with the politicians of his era as he is with the gangsters. Is there a difference, you ask? Somewhat. The politicians are older, stodgier, and have a harder time getting laid. In a town where everyone’s corrupt, Nucky manipulates the voters and politicians alike. While running hooch is a lucrative, Nucky likes to keep his hand in the pockets of legitimate business as well, including the highways and byways.
The Women of the ‘Walk
It’s not easy being a dame in Nucky’s Atlantic City. Relegated to whore houses and mistress communes, the Real Housewives of Boardwalk Empire have little say over their lives. They subvert their circumstances by hiding money under floorboards, keeping company with wealthy Grover Cleveland doppelgangers, and finding love with other women. (Yet, they all seem to hate each other.) Ironically, when women were granted the right to vote, Margaret endorsed a candidate for Mayor whom she does not support, but who favors Nucky’s interests. And imagine Jimmy’s rage when he found out that Angela cut her hair short! It’s all part of the life of a kept woman.
The second season of Boardwalk Empire debuts this Sunday at 9pm on HBO. Will you be watching?