Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter talks about his show’s shocking finale

Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter talks about his show’s shocking finale

Warning: The complete fourth season of Boardwalk Empire is discussed in detail below. There are spoilers aplenty.

The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire was the ’20s-set mob series’ most sprawling yet, though the show never stretched too far or brought in too many elements. The show’s many main settings—Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago—all had fascinating plotlines of their own, with a war between Atlantic City’s Chalky White and Harlem’s Dr. Valentin Narcisse dominating the season. Although there was still plenty of room to showcase the rise of Al Capone and Nucky’s attempts to expand his operation to Tampa, Florida. The show’s fourth season finale made so many changes to the show’s status quo—including killing off one popular character and sending another to entirely different city to escape the watchful eye of the FBI—that the series has set itself up nicely for a season five that will break the mold. Creator and showrunner Terence Winter, who also wrote the script for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Wolf Of Wall Street, talked with The A.V. Club about the season’s twists and turns and why the character that died in the finale’s closing moments was fated to do so from the season’s earliest moments.

The A.V. Club: Why Richard? If I were up to it, I would do an anguished howl.

Terence Winter: Aw, I know, I know. It felt like the right time and the right way to end his story. It just really felt like we’d brought him full circle. Given the events of season three, how we left it, he delivered Tommy to Julia’s house and sort of went into a downward spiral and went back into that world, that mindset of killing, and we pick him up in season four, of course, having become a killer for hire again. When he left Wisconsin and his sister told him to call himself to account, we knew if he got to the point where he picked up a gun again, it would probably be the end of him. Inevitably, as the story progressed, we knew it was heading there. That was sort of the one step too far, both for him emotionally and literally in that world. There’s only so many times. You know, Oscar Boneau said in episode 11, “Eventually, we all run out of road,” and Richard ran out of road. We felt we can’t go back to that well every year of bringing Richard out of retirement to kill people. [Laughs.] Not that that was the only function that character served, certainly, but again, as it played out it just made the most sense dramatically to bring him to a conclusion in that way. We just cut together a little piece that HBO’s going to run of a Richard Harrow memoriam thing, and it’s really emotional. That character resonated with people and certainly for us. Jack Huston’s portrayal of that guy was heartbreaking, and it speaks to how good of an actor he is. This guy, by his own count, said he killed like 87 people, and you still forgive the guy. People would just want to invite him over for dinner, [Laughs.] and it’s like, “This guy’s a murderer!” He’s done some horrible things, but he really made you fall in love with him.

AVC: Was there any thought given to him going to Wisconsin and starting a new life?

TW: Yeah, there was. We talked about it. We batted that around for a while, but it felt too wrapped up neatly in a bow. Not that we were trying to punish him for his sins, or we were trying to send a message that crime doesn’t pay. We weren’t. It just felt a little too nicely wrapped up and neat. This felt like a much more realistic, dramatic way to go and tell that story. In his way, he did get a happy ending. He was able to put together the family that he wanted, sort of the real-life version of that scrapbook, and send them to Wisconsin with that wife and adopted son and ultimately came home in the end.

AVC: You brought back Jimmy Darmody’s death at the end of this and yet the characters that have connections to him outside of Nucky, obviously, are increasingly on the margins of the show. Was this your way of saying goodbye to that as a motivating factor for the show?

TW: The Jimmy thing is something that resonates with Nucky very strongly, and certainly Nucky’s relationship with Gillian is something that’s a pinpoint of his downward spiral. The idea that Nucky delivered this woman to the Commodore. If you remember the back-story, the history of the two of them, the Commodore picked her out of the crowd, and Nucky’s the one who basically delivered her. That idea was something that is an overriding theme of who he is and what turned him into the person he is and how Gillian’s life took a turn and ultimately Jimmy’s as well. And everything sort of rippled from that event. So that’s something that I think is an issue that’s at the core of the series. It will, in one form or another, continue to be visited.

AVC: Margaret is still a character on the show, but she didn’t appear a lot this season. How did you make the call to keep her off screen so much?

TW: Well, everything starts from what’s organic to the story—what feels real. All of the choices we make, I try to make from a place of truth and reality. Killing Jimmy—anything else would have felt phony. Looking at what happened at the end of last year between Margaret and Nucky, I couldn’t see them back together in any logical way until there was something organic that happened that would necessitate Nucky reaching out to her or vice versa. So the choice wasn’t made until we knew where we were heading in episode five with Eddie’s suicide. I said, “That’s the moment where Nucky would logically reach out to Margaret.” Or reach out to somebody for comfort, somebody that knew Eddie, somebody that knew him, and that’s the place where he would decide that he needs to talk to her. To tell a Margaret story separate and apart from Nucky’s story this year didn’t feel like it made any sense either, because it would have just been, “Okay, we have Kelly Macdonald under contract, and we’re paying her anyway, so let’s see what she’s up to.” It needed to fit into the bigger story. It was more of a fun reveal for us also, because I thought, “Oh, this is interesting. We’ll see her for the first time when Nucky sees her. I’m curious: What is she up to? What is she doing? Where does she live? Where is she working? Oh, she got a haircut, wow.” All of those little things, so you’re going along on that ride with Nucky, and then that would be the entrée back into Margaret’s world.

AVC: What do you think her role is going forward?

TW: We’re talking. She’ll certainly be part of the series and part of Nucky’s story, ultimately, but that’s literally what we’re talking about now and just starting to get back into the writers’ room, dipping our toes into season five.

AVC: How did you decide to kill off Eddie?

TW: Once we decided to explore the Agent Knox/FBI storyline, just in following that story, logically, we thought, if you were that guy and you wanted to get into Nucky, who are you looking at? And it was like, okay, this is a guy who is one of the people who’s closest to him, and [Knox] said, “I’m going to find the weakest link.” Well, Eddie Kessler certainly is the weakest link. Concurrently, Eddie, after the events of last year, is asking for more responsibility, which logically made sense and now it’s, “Okay, you got what you asked for. You want more responsibility? Okay, go deliver money to Ralph Capone.” And of course that’s the thing that gets him. His overreaching in terms of his responsibilities is the very thing that puts him on the Fed’s radar, then they bring him in. Eddie, for us, was a character who’s incredibly loyal to Nucky and principled, and going forward, knowing what we knew about him—that he was initially disloyal and stole money—almost overcompensating in his loyalty to Nucky. The whole idea that he would be exposed as a fraud in that sense was too much for him to bear. We knew for a guy like that, there is no coming back. The only way out is the very Japanese harakiri version of, he dishonored himself, and he’s going to go out the window.

AVC: What was the origin of Dr. Valentin Narcisse? He’s a very interesting figure within the world of the show.

TW: Early on in the writers’ room, we talked about the idea of exploring how the Jazz Age really came full swing in 1924, no pun intended. So we knew we wanted to spend some time in Harlem and explore the Harlem renaissance. So we said, all right it’ll be interesting, and the way into that is certainly the nightclub world. The idea that Chalky had a nightclub in Atlantic City meant we knew he’d probably be importing musical acts from New York that had cleared the Cotton Club as well. It went from there. Okay, well who are the people who control those acts? What if there’s a black gangster? Who is this guy? And we just started reading a lot of books about race relations, black pride, Marcus Garvey—that world. We just started to shape this character of Narcisse. At the same time, we read about a character named Casper Holstein, who was from the [U.S. Virgin] Islands, who was a philanthropist, but also the head of the numbers racket in Harlem and was loosely affiliated with Marcus Garvey and the [Universal Negro Improvement Association]. This was already after we had come up with Dr. Narcisse, so it served to validate our Dr. Narcisse character, and it just sort of took off from there. We immediately thought of Jeffrey Wright and wondered, “Wow, is it possible we could get him?” And we did. It’s interesting what happens. You cast an actor for a role, and then you hear Jeffrey speak those words and it’s this ping-pong effect, where you go, “Oh my God, I want more of that.” You’ll see what he does with your writing, and it’s back and forth, and suddenly, within an episode or two, you know exactly who Dr. Narcisse is. There could not be a better person for that role. We’re just thrilled to have him.

AVC: Both Chalky and Narcisse survive this conflict. How boxed in do you feel by the end of season three, where the main villain is bumped off? Did you feel boxed in by that this season?

TW: Yeah, you start to understand the rhythms of a show. “Oh, okay, they set up the big bad guy, and then they get into episode 12, and he gets knocked down, and then everything’s wrapped into a bow, and then they move into the next season.” We consciously wanted to avoid that. And we also felt like there were more stories to tell. It actually worked in our favor anyway, so we didn’t feel the need to kill him, or wrap it up in any more of a conclusive way than it was handled.

AVC: Are you hoping to return to that in season five?

TW: Yes.

AVC: You also did storylines about FBI agents investigating organized crime on The Sopranos. What made you want to revisit that idea in this series?

TW: J. Edgar Hoover very famously denied the existence of organized crime up until the Appalachian Meeting, I think, in 1957. It was interesting to me that he clearly had to know that there was such a thing as organized crime and organized criminals as far back as the ’20s. So we just started with that idea and thought about, okay, who was an agent? How did that get on his radar? And we came up with our fictional Agent Knox, whose real name is Agent Tolliver, the Bureau of Investigation agent. This is a guy who first posited the theory that there are a bunch of criminals from different cities working in concert, and we could arrest them all. Let’s come up with some sort of legal theory that allows us to arrest these guys en masse. Ultimately, when that thing falls apart, Hoover shitcans that whole idea, wipes it off the table.

Ultimately, for Hoover in reality, it was too complicated and too much bad publicity. It was easier to just get headlines arresting bank robbers and people like Marcus Garvey than it was to address the idea that there’s this massive criminal network afoot that we can’t do anything about. We wanted to tell the story that Hoover was really aware of this, but conveniently chose to ignore it in exchange for putting Marcus Garvey away. 

AVC: This season, you develop Chicago as a separate setting and a world unto itself. How did you build out Chicago this season and set that up as a different series within the series?

TW: Capone’s story, particularly in 1924, just really felt like its own self-contained story. I also felt like season four of the show, we knew the people and characters in Chicago well enough that I didn’t feel like I had to necessarily connect it back to Nucky’s story—they sort of felt like their own franchise of the series within the series. So I didn’t feel, oh gee, every week, we need to have phone calls back and forth between Al Capone and Nucky in order to keep that tether there. I felt it could sustain itself completely on its own. There was enough going on in the Capone/Van Alden story that I didn’t feel any need to connect it back and forth, aside from Ralph Capone collecting money and Eli openly going there. Aside from that, it just felt like its own completely sustainable story, so we just let it rip and let it play out. 

For me, creatively, it’s always just a fun place to go visit, and it’s a fun world to explore. And it does tie-in to the bigger scope of the show, certainly, about the development of organized crime and basically the events that shaped modern America. So telling the Chicago story at the same time is completely organic for me, as well.

AVC: Originally, Van Alden was a stuck up, humorless guy. Now he’s become such a funny figure, although he’s still very terrifying when necessary. How did you write toward that split?

TW: He’s really completely turned upside down. As the seasons progress, he’s becoming the truer version of himself. The joke was sort of always on Van Alden. He’s the one prohibition agent who’s actually taking this law seriously—trying to uphold the law that no one else is actually paying attention to. He’s this religious guy in a world where it’s very easy to argue that maybe there isn’t a God, or these rules that you’re supposed to be following are really impossible to follow. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chase women, don’t be a human being, basically. And the deeper into trying to adhere to those rules he gets, the more miserably he fails, and it’s not until he starts to actually give in to his baser nature that he actually becomes the more realistic version of himself and happier. I think the big irony for him is that the thing he’s really good at is being a criminal. That’s probably what he was meant for and he’s almost completely come full circle. He has, now, come full circle from when we first met him.

AVC: Why did you decide to keep Eli alive, and also what are you looking forward to doing with him in that Chicago setting?

TW: Well, we’ve got to keep him alive because we wanted to subvert your expectations. [Laughs.] Partly—in terms of the story, we are always trying to be surprising and do something different than what the audience expects as long as it falls within the framework of the reality of the show. I really try not to do things that feel like TV, or the TV version of something.

I think had Willie not followed his father there, I think that would have had a completely different ending, but since it did play out that way, I think realistically Nucky is certainly not going to kill his brother in front of his nephew and sort of can’t do it, because Willie saw what was happening. For us it actually worked out well, and then the idea of, okay, well, where might Eli go? Well, Chicago is a place that they’ve got people they know, it’s far enough away that he might be able to live undercover and, depending on how vigorously the FBI wants to pursue the death of Agent Knox—and it doesn’t seem like they’re all that interested in that—Eli might be able to survive there under an alias for the time being. 

AVC: Nucky is central to this season without having his own storyline. Why did you have everyone coming to him with their problems, while his main problem is a C-story?

TW: Yeah, it certainly seems like his story takes more of a backseat to the Chalky/Narcisse story. That was really the story we wanted to explore more than anything this year. It was Chalky’s season in that way and Nucky, obviously, is a big part of that, but it wasn’t really a Nucky-centric story. It was again by design. It was Chalky’s world and Chalky, as a character, was somebody we wanted to spend time with, and there’s only so much real estate in the series. Again, in terms of defying expectations, or not feeling like we have to adhere to a formula, that felt like the right time and the right way in which to tell that story, and I think the Nucky story and his involvement in the other characters’ worlds was exactly enough. 

For me, it felt like exactly the right amount of time to spend with Nucky and the right amount of involvement in the other stories. It was not so much a conscious decision as it was an offshoot of how the stories laid out. Again, it’s not like, oh gee, we need more Nucky or well, Kelly hasn’t been in three episodes, we’ve got to put Kelly in there. The show is created and written and designed to work the way it works. If that means we won’t see Van Alden for a couple weeks, then that’s the way we do it. It’s like jazz in that sense. 

AVC: So you’re coming up on season five. Most of these shows run five, six, seven seasons. Have you started thinking about what the end of this looks like?

TW: We are. Those are the conversations we’re having right now. The model for TV has changed a lot, where it’s not so much, we need x amount of episodes for syndication, we need to keep it on the air so long, we’re all trying to pay for our vacation homes… It’s not that anymore. And thankfully, it’s about telling the best story and the best series. So I’m not feeling any pressure to keep us on the air any longer than I feel like we should be on the air. We’re talking now about, okay, well, we want to tell Nucky’s story full circle, and are we there yet? Or what else do we want to say, or where are we trying to get? And I think when we answer that question, we’ll know what the longevity is. HBO respects that, and I think that’s why it’s such a great place to work. There isn’t the pressure of trying to milk something, because we’re getting ratings or selling commercial time or any of that stuff. Those are the conversations we’re having.

AVC: We ran a story called “How the fuck are you still alive?”,which was about characters who are surprisingly still alive…

TW: [Laughs.] I remember that…

AVC: The first thing everybody suggested was Mickey Doyle.

TW: Absolutely.

AVC: How is he still alive?

TW: That is one of the in-jokes on the show, you know. Of all the people who would normally get a bullet put in their head, this is a guy who just sort of dances through the raindrops, inexplicably. Characters on our own show have made that same observation. I think Eli said that to him when he got out of jail. “It’s amazing. You of all people.” Like I said, it’s kind of an in-joke that Mickey somehow manages to skate by. I think as he himself said, he brings people together. Maybe he’s right.

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