The HBO cable channel series Boardwalk Empire was a revelation for me. Watching the 56 episodes with mounting admiration and astonishment over a period of a couple of months a year or so ago, I was left with the lasting impression that it is one of the great contemporary works of art.
Written by the series creator, Terence Winter, and executive producer Howard Korder, and directed by Tim Van Patten, the show has been widely praised for its powerful picture of life in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era. Played with extraordinary subtlety by Steve Buscemi, the central character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, is based on an actual historical figure, Enoch L Johnson, a flamboyant racketeer and ruthless machine politician who dominated the city for nearly thirty years. The interaction of power with crime, exceptionally naked and brutal at the time, is re-created with unblinking realism. In many of the characters the ability to inflict violence and death without emotion is not a personal defect, still less a mark of psychopathy, but merely a means of survival. One of them, a facially disfigured war veteran who kills without compunction, is shown to be capable of deep loyalty and affection.
The crimes that are committed aren’t always to do with bootlegging, gambling or prostitution. One strand concerns psychiatric practices of the time which – under the leadership of Dr Henry Cotton, a missionary for “scientific medicine” who believed that mental illness was caused by bacterial infection –included the surgical removal of body parts.
One of Boardwalk Empire’s most engaging characters, Gillian Darmody (played with great versatility by Gretchen Mol), a showgirl who has learned how to survive in a male-controlled world, is subjected to this treatment when, as a stratagem to avoid punishment for murder, she ends up in an asylum for insane women. The defeat of her strong spirit forms one of the most moving episodes.
Some critics have praised the series as a kind of morality tale. The plot – and those who wish to experience it first-hand may wish to skip this paragraph – revolves around Nucky who, as an aspiring young gangster, was complicit in Gillian’s rape at the age of 13 by “the Commodore”, also a historical figure, who in the series acts as his mentor. Nucky seems dogged by guilt over the episode and assumes responsibility for Jimmy (Michael Pitt), the boy who is born as a result of the assault. Later Jimmy becomes a rival and is killed by Nucky. Gillian conspires to have Nucky killed in a succession of gangland hits. He survives, only to be shot dead on the boardwalk by Jimmy’s teenage son.
Nucky’s death has been interpreted as poetic justice for his crimes, but for me the poetry of the series lies elsewhere. What makes it so compelling is its lyricism – the verve and aesthetic power with which the lives of people struggling against the odds are rendered on film. Long-form television drama is the ideal medium for this kind of art, but rarely has it been so accomplished as it was in Boardwalk Empire. Some day, no doubt, I will watch it all again.