Boardwalk Empire: The Story So Far

One of the things I enjoy most about Boardwalk Empire is how intricate and complex the plot and characters are. One of the things I’ve been dreading about recapping Boardwalk Empire is catching people up on how intricate and complex the plot and characters are. Particularly, I’ve been wracking my brain over the best way to get everyone up to speed on all the crazy goings-on that happened in seasons 1 through 3! So, as a way to prevent us all from going crazy, I want to start out with a summary of characters, places, and generally what I expect will be relevant when we start out season 4!

Life in the AC- A Little Town on the Beach run by Steve Buscemi

In its simplest form, Boardwalk Empire is about Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by the talented and googly-eyed Steve Buscemi, running a bootlegging empire out of Atlantic City, NJ during prohibition.


Steve Buscemi

This is the face of the romantic lead!

Most of the action of the show focuses on Nucky and his attempts to maintain power in the AC. Nucky makes a wonderful anti-hero. He starts out the series as a corrupt politician who loves booze and prostitutes, yet he’s keenly intelligent and well read. His ruthlessness and capacity for violence increase with his bootlegging activities. Also, as his bootlegging heats up, he is forced to step down from his political positions, though until the last moments of season 3, he maintains that weird charismatic persona most politicians have.

Eli Thompson is Nucky’s little brother and started the series as the Sheriff of the AC.. He felt unappreciated and tried to betray Nucky and take over. It didn’t work. He made a last-minute reconciliation with Nucky by taking the legal fall for some of Nucky’s activities and serving time in federal prison. On release, Eli is sent to work under Mickey Doyle, a lieutenant to Nucky who has repeatedly screwed up but somehow remains alive. However, through good judgment and a really great Easter dinner party, Eli and Nucky reconnect, and Eli starts moving up again.

Eli is generally faithful to his very sweet wife June. They have about a bazillion children together, the oldest works at a lumber mill.


Eli also tends to look slightly constipated a lot of the time.


Chalky White is probably Nucky’s most important and steadfast ally. Chalky is the ward leader/defacto mob boss for the African Americans in the AC.


The ironically named Chalky White. No one ever said this show was subtle.

He runs a speakeasy, but also looks out for his community, especially when they are dealing with overt racism. This is likely due to him having watched his father’s lynching as a child. (Michael Kenneth Williams really does a fabulous job with the character and scenes like that one!) He married an upper-middle class, educated black woman, and they have three children. His son Lester is attending college and is infrequently seen, but Maybelle, his daughter, sometimes gets to play an important role.

Her fiancé Samuel, a medical student, becomes involved in Chalky’s mob related business when he has to save Nucky’s German valet/stylist/etiquette enforcer Eddie Kessler from gunshot wounds. He takes charge of the situation and saves Eddie’s life (which is handy since Eddie has some really entertaining moments as the fussy, old biddie in Nucky’s life).

Dunn Purnsley is Chalky’s main underling. They met in jail when picked up for various illegal activities. Dunn tried to intimidate Chalky, and Chalky had him beaten. However, Purnsley learned from the experience and now likes to kill people for Chalky. In season 3, the segregated nightclub Babbette’s was blown up by Gyp Rossetti. Chalkie received permission from Nucky to open a black nightclub in its place on the boardwalk. According to HBO it will be open and running as the Onyx Club during season 4. I’m super-psyched about the Onyx as it looks to have the best interior design, music, and costuming of the jazz age!

The Prodigal Son- or the long-term effects of enabling statutory rape

Before Nucky ran the AC, the Commodore ran things. The Commodore liked young girls, particularly one named Gillian Darmody who grows up to be Gretchen Mol. When she was a preteen, Nucky was ordered to bring her to the Commodore, and she was his plaything for a while.

She will eat you!

This is the face of trauma turned into an angry, angry woman.

Gillian gave birth to Jimmy, and while they never had to worry about money, they both are emotionally ill-equipped. It was all super-gross, and to Nucky’s credit, he held onto a fair amount of guilt about his part in the rape of a tween. He tried to act as a mentor father figure for Jimmy because the Commodore was pretty much useless and disgusting.


Jimmy also has the kind of face you’d like to punch

Jimmy starts at Yale [LAURA’S NOTE: According to our brilliant and annoying friend Dan — who I should not mock, as I am a bad friend, and owe him several phone calls — Jimmy went to Princeton, not Yale. Everyone can relax now. I LUV YOU DAN]. and he meets Angela, the daughter of a mechanic. After an incestuous visit from Gillian, Jimmy freaks out and joins the army to go fight in WWI. He also knocks Angela up with their son Tommy and marries her. Oh, and as it turns out, Angela is a lesbian painter. Only on this show would that be a side note and not really hugely relevant to anything else.

Jimmy returns to the AC and begins working for Nucky. He’s initially only given menial tasks until Nucky figures out that Jimmy likes to kill people.

Jimmy makes a few friends along the way including an up-and-comer from Chicago named Al Capone.

Jimmy also finds the show’s most compelling character in the VA hospital. Richard Harrow, played by Jack Huston, was a sniper during the war, and came away damaged in many ways. Half of his face was destroyed, and he wears a painted Phantom of the Opera style mask to hide it. Harrow also has some emotional damage, in that he can kill people with no remorse or even anxiety.


In sleep he sang to me. . . or just took out a firearm and killed a couple of people

He’s also rather adorably awkward around women, but he develops affection for Angela due to her ability to treat him with basic human kindness.

Jimmy ran away from home a couple of times, and eventually he teams up with the aging Commodore and Gillian to try to take Nucky down. They, of course, fail. Gillian kills the Commodore and takes over his gigantic house. Jimmy is confronted on the beach by all the gangsters in the AC, and Nucky shoots him point blank. Angela ends up being killed by an out of town gangster Manny “the butcher” Horowitz as a means of getting revenge on Jimmy. In the wake of Jimmy’s downfall, the butcher is the only person Harrow kills in revenge. He justifies things by saying that Jimmy knew what he was getting into, but Angela didn’t choose the gangster lifestyle. So, the take-away lesson is that chivalry isn’t dead after all.

The Brochelor

Or maybe it is. Ugh.

During season 3, Gillian is using the Commodore’s mansion as a very high class whore house called the Artemis Club. Harrow lives there as both security and Tommy’s babysitter. Gillian has arranged it to be full of harps, flowing fabrics, and impeccable manners. It’s a lovely place, but it fails to turn a profit as a whore house. Turns out that the romantic fantasies of a horribly traumatized little girl turned into a vengeful and delusional woman aren’t what most men want.


Not how the average man wants to pay for sex


While Tommy is fond of a couple of the prostitutes, it’s also a terrible environment in which to raise a child. As a mandatory reporter, if this weren’t a fictional situation, I’d be calling Child Welfare on Gillian. Harrow is on the side of sanity and appropriate child-rearing behaviors, and he and Gillian clash over this several times. Gillian herself is rather cruel and belittling to Harrow on several occasions and uses his disability to further her emotional abuse of him.

Harrow finds an escape from his life at the Artemis Club in the person of Julia, the daughter of a drunk from the VFW. Julia is rather wonderful, direct, and kind person who is stuck taking care of her abusive, alcoholic father, a vet from an earlier war who is still grieving his son’s death in WWI. She’s also rather fond of Tommy. Harrow and Julia fall in love, and all is going well for a while, despite Harrow threatening to kill Julia’s father when he tries to hit her. This happens more than once.

At the end of the season, Gyp Rosetti along with his group of gangsters has holed up at the Artemis Club to Gillian’s chagrin. Harrow tries to get Tommy out of the situation, but Gillian catches them and kicks Harrow out. Gillian tries to use Gyp Rosetti’s penchant for S&M and auto-erotic-asphyxiation (Yes. It’s HBO. We see a lot of Gretchen Mol’s boobs in this series.) to create an opportunity to murder him. However, he wiggles out of it, and sticks her with a needleful of heroin. She survives, but is pretty darn loopy.

Harrow gets the most badass scene of the season when he orchestrates a one-man attack on the Artemis club. Harrow has balls of pure titanium! Seriously! He carries about 9 firearms and takes out about 20 guys.  Just watch it!  You will grow hair on your chest.

He carries the tuckered out and traumatized Tommy to Julia’s home. Without words, he makes the decision to leave Julia as he cannot morally expose her to his violent professional lifestyle.

Gyp Rosetti leaves the Artemis club before Harrow’s attack on it, but Nucky catches up with him a bit later. . .

Sex on the (AC) Beach

Nucky’s love life is generally one of the aspects of the show I find most interesting. Probably because I am a sucker for a tangled love story, and the women’s costuming is really, really pretty! Prior to the series’ start, Nucky was married. His wife had severe post-partum depression and both she and their infant son ended up dying. At the start of the series, Nucky is sleeping with the rather vapid and mean showgirl Lucy Danziger, played by Paz de la Huerta, amongst other women of ill-repute.


She’s kind of mean, but at least it’s a character trait.

However, Margaret Schroeder, played by Kelly MacDonald, catches his eye when she comes into his office seeking assistance. Margaret is keenly intelligent and has been actively involved in the temperance and suffragette movements. She’s an Irish immigrant, and in addition to being so pretty and ladylike in her manners, she has the most adorable brogue. (You can tell I’m pretty heavily Team Margaret! It fits in well with my favorite narrative of “smart and slightly awkward girl gets the popular boy”.)



Seriously. Kelley MacDonald is so, so pretty and a really talented actress. I mean, look at this! So conflicted, yet elegant on the beach!


The more they interact, the more Nucky finds himself drawn to Margaret, probably because she’s capable of discussing more than clothing and booze. The only major obstacle is that Margaret is married to an abusive alcoholic. Nucky conveniently has Mr. Schroeder murdered and gets Margaret a job at the ritzy ladies’ lingerie shop on the boardwalk where she and Lucy get to have a really fun scene where Margaret tells Lucy that a vagina isn’t enough of a foundation for a solid relationship.

This is how I felt after Margaret verbally bested Lucy:


 Smart girls for the win

Eventually, Lucy gets kicked to the curb, and Margaret is set up in a nice townhouse with her two children, Teddy and Emily, courtesy of Nucky. Nucky becomes very close to the children, and it is rather sweet. Nucky and Margaret end up getting married as a way to avoid Margaret having to testify against Nucky regarding the murder of her husband, and things go well for a while.

However, little Emily gets polio and permanently loses full function in her legs. Margaret, despite many of her progressive ideals, decides that the polio was a punishment from God, and she goes uber-Catholic for a while. She donates a large piece of land that Nucky had bought for investment purposes (and put into Margaret’s name for legal purposes) to the local diocese and Catholic hospital. While this angers Nucky, it does give him standing as a charitable pillar of the community.

Margaret's new/old God.

Still. Less disturbing relationship than her relationship with Nucky.

During season 3, Nucky has a new showgirl mistress, Billie Kent, who lives in New York. Billie is extremely irritating. Everytime she came on screen, my mind immediately went “ugh, her again.”


Ugh. Her again. 

She’s supposed to be somewhat talented and vivacious, but she just comes across as insincere. She’s not vicious like Lucy was, but she’s just not that compelling. The epitome of “just another pretty face”. Fortunately for the audience, she gets blown up along with Babette’s Supper Club when Gyp Rosetti tries to take over the AC, and aside from a few concussion-related flashbacks Nucky has during the next episode, we never have to see her again. (Okay, that was a bit mean. Maybe that was Team Margaret talking. Nucky, why go for bologna when you’ve got steak at home?)

Margaret, for her part, has been carrying on both a flirtation with a young doctor and an affair with Owen Slater, a former Irish Republican Army assassin who has worked his way up to be Nucky’s second in command. The doctor is unfortunately engaged, but he and Margaret work together to teach a women’s reproductive health class at the hospital despite the protests from the administration. They also help women access birth control! I’m kind of hoping the doctor and Margaret get together at some point in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

Watch "The Mindy Project" to get this reference!  It's pretty adorable.

It’d be like these two getting together. Constant sniping, but great chemistry!

Margaret and Owen are very, very pretty together! Between the accents and good looks, they also seem to understand one another in a very sexy way.


Forbidden love at its most gangsterish! 

Owen and Margaret planned to run off together, and Margaret was pregnant with his child. Sadly, Owen also bites it in season 3. As he tries to assassinate the Italian New York Boss Masseria, he gets caught and is sent home to the AC in a large crate for Margaret and Nucky to open.

Margaret decides that she’s had enough of this bootlegging/gangster lifestyle and takes the children to Brooklyn, where she gets an abortion from a very nice doctor and his wife. (As a pro-choice feminist, it’s good to see an abortion doctor on cable portrayed in a sympathetic light!) Nucky finds her living in a tenement and tries to reconcile with her, but she’s having none of it! At the beginning of season 4, they are still separated and angst-ridden.

Where the Wild Things Are-Chicago and New York

While the AC is the focus of the show, a lot of time is spent in New York and Chicago, two hubs of gangster activity.

Not like real life.

How New Yorkers see Chicago.

By the way, check out the "Girls" posts that will be coming Spring of 2014.

How hipsters see New York.
















Chicago was run by Johnny Torrio, but after a vacation back to Italy, Torrio is losing interest in the gangster business and it’s pretty clear that he wants to retire. He delegates more and more responsibility to his underling Al Capone.

Al has a deaf son at home. Because of this, he’s very sensitive to when people get bullied. Al literally pummels a man to death because he made fun of Al’s fat friend Jake. It’s sweet in a twisted way.


A very different portrayal than the one on “Drunk History.”

Dean O’Bannion is Torrio and Al’s main rival in Chicago. He’s got a flower shop as a front, and he actually seems to be a good florist. He’s getting more aggressive with territory, and he and Al are headed for a turf war in season 4.

New York is run by the rivals Arnold Rothstein (Jewish mob) and Joe Masseria (Italian mob). Rothstein gets more screentime because he is awesome.

A very level-headed crime boss, he is obsessed with games of chance and skill. He also tells a terrifying story about convincing a man to choke himself to death on a billiard ball. That’s right! Rothstein kills people with his brain!


 This is not a man you want to fuck with

Rothstein has two major lieutenants, Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Lansky is a mini-me for Rothstein, and he’s interested in heroin.

He's also a bit of an unfortunate stereotype.

The background is trying to jazz up Lansky.

Luciano starts as a card cheat, but joins Lanksy in a series of side-businesses, especially the heroin trade.

A hot dish!


Luciano has some cultural identity issues. He’s an Italian working with the Jews, and he sometimes has angst about it. Luciano is quite a dish, but sadly he had a bit of a problem with ED for a while.

He met Gillian Darmody when he was trying to kill Jimmy, and she seems to have cured his ED. He was her partner in the Artemis Club until it failed to turn a profit, and Gillian wouldn’t let him use the prostitutes to sell heroin.

Joe Masseria is old-world Italian and runs a good chunk of New York. He and Rothstein have an uneasy peace. He is a master at guilt=tripping the Italian gangsters. Lansky and Luciano go behind Rothstein’s back to deal with Masseria in the heroin business. Rothstein sets up a fake law enforcement bust on Luciano, and he ends up with all the heroin. He offers some of it to Masseria in exchange for him withdrawing his support of Gyp Rosetti in his assault on the AC.

Okay, so who is this Gyp Rosetti person I keep going on about?

Gyp Rosetti, played by Bobby Canavale, was the main antagonist in season 3.Aside from his weird sex stuff, he’s pretty uncomplicated. He’s all id. Killing, taking offense at make-believe slights, having prostitutes choke him with a belt until he gets off, Italian food. These are the things that make up Gyp Rosetti.


This does not convey the crazy this character brings to the show

At the beginning of season 3, Nucky makes the decision to only sell his booze to Rothstein. All the other gangsters take the news like grownups, but Gyp throws an epic tantrum. He takes over Tabor Heights, the last gas stop between the AC and New York, effectively stopping Nucky’s deliveries to Rothstein.

Throughout the season, Gyp killed the sheriff in Tabor Heights, blew up Babette’s Supper Club, and took out Nucky’s offices. Gyp was protected by Masseria, so he got away with a lot of this behavior.

Eli came back to the AC with Al Capone and a bunch of Chicago gangsters. With Chalkie’s men, they engage in a series of counterattacks against Gyp and Masseria’s men. Finally, Nucky gives control of the Overholt distillery to Rothstein in exchange for Rothstein arranging for Masseria to withdraw support of Gyp.

Once the support is gone, Gyp flees the Artemis Club before Harrow carried out his badass assault. Gyp left behind one underling who Nucky finds and talks to. When his underling catches up to Gyp, he knifes Gyp while he’s peeing on the beach singing a stupid song he made up to mock Nucky’s googley eyes. (Life lesson- don’t mock the physical characteristics of violent gangsters.) His body was sent to Masseria, ending one of the more tiresome plots in the series.

This isn’t Newsroom, but we still have to talk politics

Part of what makes Nucky such a successful bootlegger are his connections to politicians. Nucky’s a big-time player in the Republican party, and he even helped to keep Warren Harding’s adorably naïve mistress busy so that she didn’t blow Harding’s chances in the election.

Warren G. Harding, unlikely heartthrob

This is his TigerBeat pose!

Nucky’s primary political connection is the US Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Previously, Daugherty helped Nucky avoid various forms of prosecution, and Nucky paid for that protection through Daugherty’s second Jess Smith. Then, Daugherty turns on Nucky because he’s worried about his own skin and the various scandals he’s involved in. That’s when Nucky enlists the help of Ester Randolph and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon.

Randolph is one of a handful of non-corrupt officials in law enforcement. As a lady lawyer when there were not many lady lawyers (Go, lady lawyers!), Randolph got her start as a defender of prostitutes and abused women. As a US Attorney, she was assigned the Sisyphean task of prosecuting Nucky.

Lady lawyer enjoying her profession

This really is the most effective way to prepare for trial!

She, of course, loses, but only due to some last minute wrangling and deal-making. Daugherty punishes her for doing what Daugherty plotted to happen, and Randolph ends up prosecuting low-level drunks in night court.

When she runs into Nucky again, she’s given the opportunity to finally catch Daugherty and hold him accountable for his corrupt ways.

Mellon is an ardent opponent of both prohibition and the income tax. He bought the Overholt distillery just prior to prohibition. He’s rather patrician and deeply loathes Daugherty. He gives Nucky control of the distillery and backs Randolph as she begins the plans to prosecute Daugherty’s associates.

Jess Smith meanwhile is becoming more and more nervous, almost breaking down into tears at a boy scouts luncheon. Daugherty finally recognizes that Jess Smith is a huge liability, and agrees to let someone “take care of him”. As that is about to happen, Jess shoots himself through the head.

The man who gets Nucky and Randolph together with Mellon is the same man who attempted to take care of Jess Smith. That man is the enigmatic and drawling Gaston Means.


Or…the boss from “News Radio.” 

Daugherty brings him in initially as a more secure method of collecting protection money. Means has been working behind the scenes. He’s lining his own pockets and getting rid of rivals. In the end, he’s still free to keep his creepy and ominous vibe going.

Leftovers- just when you thought we were done!

George Remus. Oh, Remus.

Remus doesn't like to get arrested.

He’s not a petite fellow.

He’s a major bootlegger operating out of Ohio. He speaks in the third person, and Nucky amongst others roll their eyes anytime he’s around. At the end of season 3, Remus is arrested in a rather amusing scene where he’s forced law enforcement officers to chase him around his marble-floored mansion while Remus, a large man, is wearing his bathrobe. They catch him after a few pratfalls, and Remus offers to show Randolph receipts that demonstrate that Daugherty was in on the wrong-doing. Randolph looks like a cat who just got a very fat mouse. Revenge is sweet for progressive do-gooder lady lawyers. (Yay!)

Next, up Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller. He starts out as Van Alden, a prohibition enforcement agent assigned to the AC.

Buscemi's rival for the title of googly eyes.

This is what prohibition relied on. No wonder it failed.

He figures out pretty quickly that Nucky is a big ole bootlegger, and he develops an obsession with bringing Nucky down. This obsession breaches the bounds of professionalism when he gets a picture of Margaret from when she immigrated to the states as a teenager. He physically flogs himself then masterbates while looking at the picture. He ends up confronting the real life Margaret, which creeps her out. A lot.

Van Alden comes from a rather fundamentalist and rigid branch of Christianity. He insists on having sex with the lights on when his wife Rose visits. And, more importantly, he is extremely antagonistic towards his underling who is Jewish. In fact, he takes his Jewish underling to an African American baptism ceremony and uses the opportunity to drown his poor underling, not registering that the large group of black people are witnesses to this murder. When this all goes downhill, Van Alden flees the AC to go to Cicero.

Prior to things going south, Van Alden meets Lucy, Nucky’s discarded mistress, at a speakeasy. Drunk and depressed, the two hook up, and Lucy becomes pregnant. Van Alden takes care of her until she delivers the baby. By which we mean, he keeps her prisoner in a somewhat crummy apartment outside of the AC where her basic needs are met, but he fails to provide any entertainment or affection. His wife Rose finds out about Lucy and divorces him. Lucy, eventually having had enough, abandons both the baby and Van Alden. Van Alden hires a very sweet Norwegian girl Sigrid to take care of the baby, and gives his name as George Mueller. He takes Sigrid and the baby with him to Cicero, and they end up married with another baby in Chicago the next time we see them.

In Chicago, Mueller is a pathetically inept electric iron salesman. He is universally disliked by his co-workers. On the plus side, Sigrid seems to adore him. For some reason.

Cute red-head with accent who brews booze=consolation prize

Honey, you can do better.

He inadvertently saves O’Bannion’s life when Al Capone came by to kill him. Then, cute little Sigrid kills a prohibition agent who recognized Mueller, and O’Bannion helps dispose of the body and sets up a still in their house. Sigrid makes a bit of extra booze called Aquavit, a traditional Norwegian liqueur for additional income. Mueller goes around selling it, and accidentally walks into a bar in Al Capone’s territory. He agrees to provide Capone with information in an attempt to not die. As the tensions between Capone and O’Bannion heat up, Mueller will have some interesting times ahead. At least, he has Sigrid.

Out of Van Alden's league

Really, Sigrid, honey, you can do so, so, so much better!

Eddie Cantor is the last person we need to talk about. He doesn’t often come into the plot, but he’s on the show often enough to warrant a mention. He’s a song and dance man/broadway star. He used to perform at Babette’s, and it’s unclear what role he’ll take in the future. Nucky bullied him into taking a crummy part in a show, so that Billie Kent got her big break, but they seem to get along despite that episode.

Well, that’s all folks

Whew! Sorry for the length of this post. Blame HBO and Martin Scorsese for making such a complicated show! The weekly recaps will have a bit more pizzazz and a lot less background.

Overall ratings
Season 1- A+
Season 2- A+
Season 3-B-

Gratuitous Violence Rating
Season 1- C
Season 2- B
Season 3- A
(Things just keep getting bloodier!)

Gratuitous nudity
Season 1- A
Season 2- A
Season 3- A
(Mostly breasts. A lot of breasts. I would prefer more gender parity ideally, but I am also not particularly psyched to see more of Steve Buscemi than I’ve seen so far.)

Season 4 of Boardwalk Empire premieres on HBO on Sunday, September 8th at 9 PM.


Most of the images came from the Boardwalk Empire wiki. I will be better at giving credit in my next post.  (This is my first blog-post ever, and I’m still learning the technology!)