It’s been over three years since Tony Soprano faded from our screens in an equivocal fashion that divided the show’s fans nearly as strongly as the series enraptured them. Some people loved the mystery of that final scene in the cafe, others angrily demanded closure, but all of us lamented the passing of one of the greatest dramas of our time. If like me you’ve lost whole weekends to the mob in the past, you’ll know that boxed sets are great, but they just leave you wishing there were new fiefdoms of luxurious detail to immerse yourself in. Comparisons between Boardwalk Empire and it’s esteemed predecessor are rather futile at this stage, but with Steve Buscemi, Al Capone, more slang that will innoccuously attach itself to your lexicon, crate loads of corruption and Martin ‘I wrote the screen gangster book’ Scorsese, the signs look good and more importantly, so does the first episode. For all that money (at nearly $30m it is the most expensive pilot in history) it needed to.
Our tale begins in the glitzy strip of Atlantic City on the eve of prohibition, and after addressing a Women’s Temperance League on the perils of liquor, City Treasurer Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson heads into town to welcome in what he and his powerful entourage of local officials believe will be an era of unparalleled possibility. “We’ve got something that every man’s gotta have!” he exclaims and his colleagues are positively squirming with excitement at the prospect. Steve Buscemi is an odd choice as the man at the centre of it all, but his ambiguous nature does serve the character well in many respects. After a glittering career of supporting roles, he has finally landed the part that should be his legacy. We are left in no doubt that while Nucky is a man with a rigid moral code, he will not hesitate when opportunity knocks. However as this opening episode progresses, his belief that he can run a crime empire and retain his position as a respected public figure is quickly dispelled.. “You can’t be half a gangster Nucky” says his talented but trench-ravaged young protégé Jimmy Darmody.
Like everyone else in this rich and finely detailed saga, Thompson is learning the norms of a new culture that is giving birth to itself before his eyes. Aboard a runaway train which is gathering speed inexorably, they are forced to lay the track as they go along. It is this dynamic which makes Boardwalk Empire a very different prospect to any of the other well-respected organised crime parables. Unlike The Godfather series, Goodfellas and even The Sopranos, this is a world that has only just started writing its mythology. There is no Don Corleone, Tony Soprano or indeed any hierarchy at all – every one of these characters is scrambling to get the genie of the bottle first (no pun intended).
If history provided the perfect canvas for Terence Winter’s adaptation, then he has painted upon it marvellously – his creation throbs with authenticity and the attention to detail is simply wonderful to behold. When you consider the legends at his disposal, you almost wonder why the Emmy-winning screenwriter even considered making Sky Atlantic’s showpiece a ’50s based drama. The introduction of a young and uninfluential Al Capone is one of many utterly irresistable moments. Played by Scorsese favourite Stephen Graham, the Chicago mobster smokes as he waits for his boss. The way he quietly and inconspicuously introduces himself to Jimmy is magical. It seems that amongst everything else, we have an origins tale to look forward to in here as well. Al and Jimmy are a pair of young men who realise that in this new era there are serious opportunities available for men who are prepared to take risks and bend their principles. We see some of that in tonight, but I’ll wager a couple of clams that we’ll be seeing a hell of a lot more.
Two perpetrators at very different stages of their careers and from very different social contexts are the future mob lords Arnold Rothstein and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Urbane and refined, the former is a sharp businessman and an excellent gambler. Conversely, his colleague is a quick-tempered enforcer with a violent nature. In reality both men’s contribution to organised crime was monumental. Rothstein was dubbed ‘The Moses of the Jewish gangsters’ and Luciano was credited with being the father of America’s National Crime Syndicate. If – as Nucky says – Atlantic City is America’s playground, it certainly isn’t short of high rollers. As you can imagine, Winter and Scorsese tease us with all these prospects at this stage, but they promise to explode into each other in the ensuing dash for power.
Almost good enough to stand alone as a short film, from the onrushing score to the slow motion murder scenes, this opener smacks of Scorsese’s hand. But what is most impressive about this introduction is the way he and Winter have subtly laid the important foundations while leaving the audience desperate to find out more about each character touched upon. That means that Boardwalk Empire should get better, which is quite a thought.