The 5 Best Characters on Boardwalk Empire

Being in Rome withdrawal back in 2010, I was anxious for another good historical series from HBO (and those in Rome withdrawal may have noted that Ray Stevenson, who played Titus Pullo, surfaced this season as a Ukrainian bad guy with a British accent on Dexter, another favorite show of mine). Plus, no Quentin Tarantino fan would turn down the opportunity to watch Steve Buscemi headline a series. To be honest, I almost didn’t make it through the first episode, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and relied on self-indulgent historical recreation boardwalk shots.


Season Three started well, but the personal subplots that carried the mob family in The Sopranos became a drag for Boardwalk. Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) was annoying as he paid ill attention to his business while trying to “rescue” yet another woman, this time a flighty actress who fell victim to that ill attention when she was killed by a bomb meant for Nucky at the supper club. Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) began the season on a scary note, but as his reign of terror continued he was often a comical stereotype of an Italian gangster. Micky Doyle (Paul Sparks) was annoying because he’s supposed to be, but got a head-scratching amount of business responsibility this time around (one of the season’s best lines came from Eli Thompson, played by Shea Whigham, when Mickey was sent to pick him up from prison: “Let me ask you something, Mickey. How the f*@k are you still alive?”). And Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) was annoying as all get out as she squabbled with Nucky, went on her family planning crusade, then ironically didn’t think about her own birth control when she had sex with her husband’s handsome Irish right-hand man.

There simply wasn’t enough of the best characters this season, though some got their story arcs broadened a bit.

Arnold Rothstein

One of the Boardwalk characters modeled after a real-life kingpin, I love Michael Stuhlbarg as the cool-as-a-cucumber racketeer and gambler. While other gangsters are strutting and boasting like they just stepped into a cockfight, Rothstein is surveying the landscape, collecting his wisdom, calling the shots, and calmly calling out everyone else on their stupidity. Let’s see if he remains so cool when he finds out at the beginning of next season that Nucky set a trap for him after Rothstein’s 99% deal saved Atlantic City from Rosetti.


Nelson Van Alden

This fascinating character wasn’t even in last night’s season finale, though this season saw him getting a little too close to Al Capone. Michael Shannon is priceless as the uptight Prohibition agent who fled west with his nanny-turned-wife and went from selling irons under the alias George door-to-door to bootlegging (neither of which he’s especially good at, though his wife is adept at the kitchen moonshine). His journey from a man on a crusade against booze to a man living on the fringes of society who has to support his family through booze should develop next season.

Chalky White

Perhaps people will start referring to Michael K. Williams as something other than the guy who played Omar on the The Wire. Chalky White is the king of Atlantic City’s black gangsters, who’s simultaneously trying to give his family a life that isn’t so gangsta. He oozes cool in every scene, like a Jules Winnfield of Prohibition. And after helping save Nucky’s life at the end of this season, Chalky will hopefully get more power in Season Four. Plus, he’s going to make a really interesting father-in-law.

Richard Harrow

One of the more pleasing story arcs was seeing Jack Huston’s (yes, of that family) character evolve from the disfigured pity character of seasons past. He finds real love, yet is trapped by his past, his career, and the fact that he’s bound by his loyalty to his late friends Jimmy and Angela Darmondy to protect their son, Tommy, from weird mean incestuous madam Gillian Darmondy (Gretchen Mol, whose assassination attempt on Rosetti last night didn’t go so well). Last week, we saw this World War I sharpshooter organizing his significant arsenal. Last night, Harrow cleared out the house of gangsters in an epic spree to rescue Tommy and deliver him into safe arms. He likely won’t forgive Nucky for killing Jimmy at the end of Season Two, but Harrow should be someone’s henchman in Season Four.


Al Capone

And one of the most fascinating things about this series is, in subplot mode, watching young Al Capone (played magnificently by British actor Stephen Graham) become Al Capone, for an audience used to seeing the likes of Robert DeNiro in full-grown gangster mode. Whether it’s trying to accept that his son is deaf or taking a key message of personal and professional growth from having to attend a bar mitzvah (“You are a man, yet you wear the cap of a boy,” an old Jewish man notes of Capone’s newsboy hat), we get to experience Capone in a new way. So it was especially pleasing to see Capone as the one who teams up with Nucky to save his hide and save Atlantic City at the end of the season.

He also gets the quote of the season: “We’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then me and you sit down and talk about who dies.”

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