Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter dissects the show’s second season (Part 4 of 4)
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Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter spoke with The A.V. Club about the second season of his show. Following part three, this section covers episodes 10 through 12, beginning with “Georgia Peaches” and ending with the season finale, “To The Lost.” Check out part one, part two, part three.
“Georgia Peaches” (Nov. 27, 2011)
Margaret turns back to God to help Emily with her polio, while Nucky takes Margaret’s impertinent son Teddy with him on a road trip to meet his new lawyer (a Ty Cobb fan). Jimmy is overwhelmed by the costs and logistics of doing business, especially with Nucky’s Irish whiskey stealing market share and Chalky’s labor strike crippling tourism. And after a botched hit on him in Philadelphia, Manny comes to Atlantic City to take revenge on Jimmy, killing Angela and her new lover.
The A.V. Club: In “Georgia Peaches” we say goodbye to poor Angela Darmody. Obviously, people need to die in order for the dramatic choices of the show to have some real consequences. But how hard is it to decide to get rid of a character?
Terence Winter: It’s huge. It’s a huge thing. One of the things we had to promise each other here, and we did this on The Sopranos as well, is that we would never keep a character alive just because we liked the actor. We had to completely take that relationship out of the equation, because then you’d never kill anybody. In general, we really have a great time working with these people, and everybody gets along, and it’s really fun. But you can’t do the job unless you can approach this clinically. From that standpoint, it’s hard because those emotions do start to creep in.
From a storytelling aspect, it’s hard as well because you start to realize, “All right, there’s no more Angela.” And that’s a huge character, somebody we were invested in. She’s gone. That starts to affect the balance of the show, and the other characters, how they relate to each other, etc. It’s not done lightly. If you look at the thing as a whole, as a giant chess game, you’re giving up a rook or a bishop to win the game, with a “win” being a successful series that you feel is dramatically balanced and compelling. You really try to think it through before you take that plunge. With the Angela thing, we ultimately decided that to move that story forward and Jimmy’s story forward, that’s where we needed to go. It was a very tough call to make, and literally a very tough phone call to have to make to call Aleksa [Palladino] and tell her that her character was dying. But that’s the job.
AVC: How soon did she know?
TW: I called her while we were shooting episode eight to tell her.
AVC: You mentioned not wanting to not kill characters because you like the actors or like what they bring, but are there times where characters just pop in a way you hadn’t expected, so you end up doing more with them in the show than you thought you were going to do?
TW: Oh yeah, absolutely. Richard Harrow is a great example. We weren’t sure where that character was going to go or how much we would use him or not, but Jack [Huston] was just terrific in the role and just absolutely popped off the screen immediately. The dynamic between him and Jimmy—and really him and anybody—was just so fascinating that as soon as we saw it, we said, “We want more of that.” It was just one of those things. On the page we thought, “Yeah this is interesting,” but how it’s going to come across is something you don’t know until you get it on film. Then you go, “Oh my God, look at this. Look at these two guys together.” It’s just great. You want to see that. Or you throw different characters together. Nucky and Eddie, for example; it’s always funny. Even the slightest little moment between the two of them is always gold. Van Alden? You could watch the guy eat soup. [Laughs.] Van Alden in any circumstance, for the most part, is fascinating. Who this guy is, what he thinks of the world. Him and Rose together were just gold for me as well. You want to get these actors in scenes together just to see the magic that happens. You never know when it’s going to come or where you’re going to get it from.
AVC: We haven’t talked about Harrow much, but he is such a powerful character, bringing a lot to the show even just visually. Jack Huston’s working with limited facial expressions and a limited vocal expression, yet he brings real depth to Harrow.
TW: It is amazing. I remember reading some comments from people who were saying they didn’t understand why Harrow would want to kill himself. I said to Jack, “This is really a testament to you. People like you so much, even with half a face.” People think, “Oh this guy’s great.” Like, he could totally get girls and be the guy you want to hang out with. From Harrow’s perspective, the world is this horrible place, but he is so compelling. And so charming, in a way. I guess people want to take care of him. “No, don’t kill yourself. It’s not that bad. You still have the other half of your face.” [Laughs.] It’s funny, but yeah, he really can do more with that than many actors can do with reams of dialogue.
AVC: Throughout the season some viewers questioned the choices Jimmy was making, like him not just paying Manny what he owes. One thing “Georgia Peaches” makes clear is that even though Nucky is letting Jimmy be “the boss,” Jimmy doesn’t have any money and doesn’t really have any power. Were you trying to establish from the start of the season that Jimmy may not be up to the task?
TW: Certainly. Once The Commodore is taken out of the game, the whole domino tower just completely collapses. Jimmy and Eli really were relying on the Commodore’s former relationships, and this guy sort of leading the charge and being able to negotiate them through the coup. Without him, now it’s all about Jimmy and Eli, and Eli’s totally lost confidence in this whole endeavor. Jimmy’s just trying to stay above water, financially. This is not good.
AVC: One thing this show does very well, and The Sopranos did very well, and something that Breaking Bad also excels at, is getting across the idea that any kind of criminal enterprise is not easy. You can’t just make something illegal, go out in the street, and sell it. There are steps you have to take along the way.
TW: There was a guy a few years ago who did a whole study of drug dealers in Chicago, I think, and essentially concluded that the average drug dealer makes slightly more than minimum wage, based on cost of inventory, and time spent on the street, and arrests, etc. It’s one of the shittiest jobs in the country, and yet it looks like you just see these guys flashing rolls of cash and diamonds and cars and stuff. The reality is far different. Yeah, there are a few people way up the food chain that make a little money, but your average drug dealer is barely, barely making a living. You’d be better off working at Burger King, because nobody’s trying to kill you. Presumably. [Laughs.]
“Under God’s Power She Flourishes” (Dec. 4, 2011)
Van Alden finally gets busted for the murder of a fellow agent and flees Atlantic City, eventually settling in a small town in Illinois. Small-time crook Michael “Mickey Doyle” Kozik (Paul Sparks) makes a surprise power play, taking advantage of the turmoil in the bootlegging business. And Jimmy, still reeling from Angela’s death (and heavily dosed on heroin) flashes back to his days at Princeton, where he first met Angela, and where everything was going so well until his mother showed up, got him hammered, and had sex with him. Snapping back into consciousness, a woozy Jimmy kills The Commodore.
AVC: Here’s the big one: what I referred to in my review as Jimmy “hitting for the Oedipal cycle.” You hinted as early as season one that there was some kind of twisted relationship between Jimmy and his mother, but I wrote in a review halfway through this season that I believed these two were just strange by nature, and there probably hadn’t been any incest. So, you fooled me.
TW: Yeah! [Laughs.] All right, good.
AVC: Did you know as early as season one that this had happened between them?
TW: I wasn’t sure yet if it had ever consummated, but I certainly didn’t rule it out. The first time we meet Gillian, she runs practically naked and jumps into Jimmy’s arms and straddles him and kisses him on the mouth. It’s just inappropriate. Midway through that scene he calls her Ma, and the whole intention was for people to go, “What? Did he just call her Ma? What the fuck?” [Laughs.] And you realize, holy shit, this is a woman who is only 13 years older than him, and is his mother. I knew, just by the nature of the fact that she was a showgirl, and she’d had him when she was a child herself, that they’d probably had an inappropriate relationship for many reasons. She was a child raising another child, and didn’t really understand how to set boundaries. He was raised in the back of nightclubs, with naked women around, including his mother, and there’s just a lot of weird, inappropriate behavior between the two of them, born of her circumstance. How far that actually ever went, we didn’t really know very early on, but then once we started to create what the real backstory was, we asked the question, “What was it that made Jimmy go off to war and leave Angela pregnant with their child? What was this momentous event?” The answer started to become really clear to us that it involved Gillian, and it was probably that.
AVC: Was there any worry that you may be pushing the audience too far?
TW: No. This was the story. As uncomfortable as people might be with it, it’s an aspect of life. Things like this happen. We’re trying to be honest in our storytelling, and sometimes life is uncomfortable.
AVC: You mentioned a few episodes back about how you try not to employ a visual style that calls too much attention to itself. But in this episode you do get a little more impressionistic, with the music on the soundtrack bleeding between scenes, and the clatter of the trains becoming the clatter of a typewriter. There’s a lot of flair in sound design and the look. Was it because of the dreamy state Jimmy was in?
TW: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. This was directed by Allen Coulter, who really prepares and completely plans out the visual motifs and sound design and lighting. Just everything, really. Even the look of the color palette. Even the look of 1916 as opposed to 1921, in terms of having this sort of washed-out effect. All this stuff was well-planned. But yeah, Jimmy in the present day is on a heroin binge, self-medicating as a result of hearing the news of Angela’s death. There is a dreamlike quality to a lot of it. Even at the end, when he’s sitting in The Commodore’s house after having killed The Commodore, there’s that very strange moment where he comes out of his stupor and sees Richard across the hallway and then kind of falls back asleep, and when he wakes up, it’s all gone. For a moment you think, “Did he imagine that or did it really happen?” And of course, it did really happen. The whole episode has a very dreamlike effect.
AVC: Throughout this episode, there’s a looming question of whether people can face up to the difficult things, their relationships, or the judgment that’s coming to them. That extends to Van Alden, who talks about getting right with God, and yet when he’s about to get arrested, he just bolts.
TW: [Laughs.] Easier said than done, right? It goes to one of the earlier things you talked about in terms of hypocrisy. It’s very easy to preach and say what you will do or what you should do. Very often when you’re pushed to put your money where your mouth is, your instinct is to run away. That’s certainly what Van Alden opts for.
AVC: There’s a great Nucky line in this episode that says so much about his character, in addition to being very funny. Margaret is retelling her priest’s lesson about the oversized spoons in heaven and hell, and how in heaven people survive because they feed each other, and Nucky says, “Why couldn’t they hold them higher up on the handle?”
TW: [Laughs.] Just logic. It ruins the entire story. I had written that whole parable and wrote that line as well. There was a lot of debate about that with me and [the episode’s writer] Howard [Korder] and Allen, because that’s a long story that Father Brendan tells Margaret. We ultimately decided it was worth keeping only for Nucky’s line. The callback is funny enough to justify him giving her that whole spiel in the hospital.
AVC: It’s got to be very satisfying, because it’s not just a funny line, but also it explains who Nucky is.
TW: Yeah, he cuts through all the bullshit. “This makes no sense at all. What do you mean? They couldn’t just hold them up?” [Laughs.]
AVC: This episode takes Mickey Doyle, a character who’d been puttering around on the fringes of the entire first two seasons, and makes him a major player. At what point did you decide to make Doyle more prevalent?
TW: He’s another great example of somebody where the role got bigger because the actor is so interesting. We’re always interested when Paul Sparks is on screen as Mickey. He makes me laugh. He can take one or two lines and really steal a scene. As the season and series progressed, we found ourselves wanting to know more about him, and that’s really a testament to how terrific an actor Paul is. He makes you watch him, and then he makes you want more of him. Then you think, “Well, if we want more of him, we just need to write him.” Because we also started thinking, “This guy just walks through the raindrops. People are dropping dead left and right around this guy. He’s got to be a lot smarter than he appears to be.” That whole goofy laugh and the dopey expression on his face are really by design. We come into episode 12, and you see that a little when he’s in the back of the synagogue with Nucky and Manny Horvitz. It’s the first time you start to see a different Mickey Doyle. He’s not quite the buffoon he appears to be, but that’s his survival skill. As things went on, we wanted to bring him more to the fore, and say, “This is a guy who’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.”
“To The Lost” (Dec. 11, 2011)
Nucky swoops back into power by marrying Margaret (so she won’t have to testify against him) and persuading Eli to take the fall for him (so Esther Randolph won’t have a case to prosecute). But there are complications: The new legally empowered Margaret signs over a good chunk of Nucky’s property to the church; and, to tie off his biggest loose end, Nucky kills Jimmy.
AVC: Was the entire second season complete before its first episode premièred?
TW: I’m not 100-percent positive, but I think it was, yes.
AVC: Did you know you’d been renewed for a third season while you were working on the final episode?
TW: We were pretty sure. I don’t think we knew officially, but all signs pointed toward a renewal. If your question is, “Did we kill Jimmy thinking that was going to be it?” No, not at all. I assumed we were going to continue forward with the series.
AVC: Could this episode have served as an ending to the series, do you think?
TW: It could’ve, certainly. But I’m glad it’s not. [Laughs.]
AVC: At what point did you decide that Jimmy had to go?
TW: Early on in the season. I wrestled with it, back and forth a lot, more than any other decision I’ve ever made creatively in my career. Maybe more than any I ever will make. It was a huge, huge decision. This is a major character on the show. A terrific character. A terrific actor, a great guy. Really a lot of fun working with him. And I knew this was going to be a major mindfuck for the audience. We’ve got 70 years, practically, of television history to draw from, and there are rules of TV and rhythms of TV that people have come to expect. One of the rules is that this could not happen. People get so lulled into complacency with the idea that, “Okay, I’ve seen this before. At the last minute, something’s going to happen, and some sort of deus ex machina will occur to prevent Nucky from having to do what I’m being led to believe he’s going to do. He’s going to turn around and shoot Manny Horvitz, or he’s going to kill his brother. The police are going to show up. It’s going to be something.” And that was my intention all along. No, it’s actually exactly what you think.
I was worried that people were going to be upset early on. Once Jimmy starts to make amends to Nucky in the episode, as an audience member, I would’ve said, “This is bullshit. So the guy all year long is trying to fuck this guy up, and tries to have him killed, and now he’s sorry and he’s going to help get Chalky White’s Klan guys, and he’s going to kill Nucky’s enemies and then all’s forgiven? Fuck that! That’s bullshit.” [Laughs.] That’s what I thought people were going to say. And then the answer: No. Nucky is just using Jimmy. All is not forgiven, and he’s going to kill him anyway.
Then, of course, people freaked out when he actually did it. [Laughs.] In a huge way. Like you just couldn’t believe. I made you feel something you didn’t want to feel. You really liked this guy, and felt sympathetic toward this guy, and are very conflicted. Why not Manny? Why not his fucking brother, who also tried to have him killed, who really wanted to have him killed? Well, life is unfair, and Nucky maybe should’ve killed those guys. Maybe Nucky made a big mistake. But that’s how it played out. That’s what makes it, for me, so compelling, and so horrifying in a way. It’s just, “Wow. Holy shit. He really did that.”
AVC: It’s kind of the reverse of the Richard Harrow sequence on Memorial Day. I was legitimately tense during the Memorial Day scenes in the woods with Richard, because I knew that you could very well have this character die. But I wasn’t tense at all when it looked like Nucky was about to kill Jimmy. I was sure it wouldn’t happen. It was a shocking moment.
TW: A lot of people think it didn’t happen. [Laughs.] They think it’s a dream sequence. Again, it’s like, they’re hoping against hope that this isn’t real. But he is dead.
AVC: Not to pit you against series that you probably don’t have time to watch, but there were a couple other shows around the same time as your finale that built to a big, climactic moment where a major character could’ve died, but didn’t. One is Sons Of Anarchy and the other is Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad, as it always does, found some perfectly logical way to allow its hero to live on, albeit in an even worse, crueler way; whereas Sons Of Anarchy seemed to duck the issue completely, and let a character live who should logically be dead.
TW: Yeah, I mean we’re all just trying to get through the day here. [Laughs.] I totally respect whatever anybody has to do on these shows. To paraphrase something Nucky said, “We all have to decide how much sin we can live with.” For me, creatively, I had to decide whether I would accept Nucky not killing Jimmy, and ultimately, I wouldn’t. It’s holding to my own standard. I made my bed here, and I creatively have to lie in this, because I would call bullshit on another show that let this guy live. Again, logically I probably could’ve come up with a reason where you say, “Eh, let’s have Nucky kill his brother.” The history between Nucky and Jimmy, and after all he feels he did for this kid, at this point, I think, Jimmy’s got to go. That’s really, for me, the only true solution to this. The chips will fall where they may.
AVC: How important was it that Nucky be the one to kill Jimmy?
TW: It really comes full circle. This is something we set up in the pilot. Jimmy is the very person who told Nucky, “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” We knew at one point, the line would be crossed completely, where Nucky would become a full gangster by pulling the trigger himself. Up until that point, it was Nucky ordering other people to do it, or having people roughed up and that sort of stuff. Now, to come full circle and cross that line, he has to be the guy to pull the trigger. Otherwise there were just really no real consequences for him, psychologically or in becoming a “real gangster.” That’s how you do it. That’s how the whole idea of “making your bones,” that you’re going to be the guy who does the murder. The idea that the very person who told him that is the one who’s the recipient of that bullet is something that was by design.
AVC: There’s a great line in the episode where Nucky says, “How can someone order someone to commit murder?” As if this is some sort of justification for everything he’s done wrong: that people have free will.
TW: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. If I told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that? It’s that childish rationalization.
AVC: You have another spectacular shot at the very beginning of this episode where the camera is behind the masked Jimmy and the double-masked Richard, driving out to the Klan camp, and for a few seconds the audience doesn’t know where they are, who anybody is, or where they’re going.
TW: That was scripted, and also designed in very close collaboration with Tim Van Patten, who more than any other director has directed things written by me. Tim very often will just walk into my office and pitch me a sequence, and just go, “What about this? We just open, you’re already on the move, on the truck?” I’m a very big fan of opening episodes really hot, where it’s mid-action, or something really jarring happens, and then sort of slows down a little bit. This is a perfect example: cold open, bang, get into it as quickly as possible. We even edited that down some. I think that opening shot of them driving was even longer in our initial cuts of the show, and we cut deeper into it so you’re only with them for a few seconds, driving that car. By the time you’re orienting yourself as a viewer, Jimmy’s already got the gun out, and has already blown a guy’s face off. And you’re like, “What the fuck is going on?” [Laughs.] And you’re already into it. It was meant to be jarring and gripping.
I honestly don’t remember if Tim came in and pitched me that sequence, which he very possibly could have, or if I wrote it that way. In any case, it’s always a collaboration in that sense. A good example is the whole Klan shootout: The Klan attack in episode one of season two was completely Tim Van Patten. We knew it was going to be a Klan attack. He actually came into my office and performed the entire sequence for me. “This is what happens: Chalky and the guy, there’s a knock on the door, and the guy opens the door. Machine gun. Bladadadadada. And then Chalky runs, and he falls on the floor.” This went on for like five minutes. He was in a sweat when he finished. [Laughs.] I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just write that.” I basically took dictation, wrote it in script form, and gave it back to him. He shot it, but he had that whole sequence designed in his head.
AVC: What about the big montage in this episode?
TW: That was painstakingly scripted. Which visuals matching which dialogue, during what line… that’s the kind of thing that just takes days and days to craft, editorially and even on the page. Taking all that footage and marrying it to those words. That’s a real testament to Tim and our terrific editorial team, Kate Sanford and Tim Streeto.
AVC: It’s very true to the genre, too. In the spirit of The Godfather and Goodfellas.
TW: Yeah, I always freely admit what a huge influence Goodfellas is. Call it stealing, call it homage, but that is always something that’s in the back of my head: that style, the whole look of it, the manner of storytelling. Anything Marty’s [Martin Scorsese’s] ever done, really, and certainly The Godfather as well.
AVC: Back at the start of this, we talked reorienting people to the world of the show in a season première. You have to do something similar in the finale, which is deciding how much you need to say about where everybody’s at before you leave them behind until next year. In this finale, we get just a little bit of Van Alden, and just a little bit of Chalky, and a lot more of the other characters. Do you wish you’d had more time to deal with everybody, or do you feel like you got it about right?
TW: No, it was exactly the right amount. Van Alden, I sort of set up in Cicero, Illinois. People who are students of mob history know what Cicero means in the larger sense. That, in 1924, became the headquarters of Al Capone. Van Alden inadvertently has ended up in what will become a hotbed of activity for the Capone gang wars of the ’20s. Chalky is now off the hook for his murder charge. Nucky and Margaret: Margaret has now realized that she’s been duped by this man who she just got off for murder, and has essentially decided that she doesn’t owe him anything anymore. As far as the religious stuff, she’s essentially written a massive check to God in the form of giving this land away. I think, in her mind, all debts are paid to God and the church, and as far as her relationship with Nucky, we’ll see where that picks up in season three.
AVC: Do you know where you’re going to begin season three yet?
TW: Season three will begin 14 to 16 months in the future. It will actually begin on New Year’s Eve 1922, heading into 1923. So quite a bit of time has passed since we’ve seen everybody, and we pick up the characters in the future a little bit.
AVC: It seemed that there was a real momentum to the buzz around Boardwalk Empire throughout season two. People seemed to be starting to find the show, and appreciate it a little more. Did you sense that at all?
TW: I don’t really pay that much attention to it. I saw that people were talking about it a lot, which is good. I knew we were getting more popular when Howard Stern started talking about the show and saying how much he liked it, which was great. And of course, the president came out and said he watched. That was really cool. Enormously flattering. But again, we really try to do the best show we can and hope people are watching and liking it—and that’s it. Because it can really be destructive, in a way. There’s so much out there these days, so much criticism and analysis of every little thing. It can take over your life if you let it. I think earlier on, in season one, when the show was first premièring, I was much more conscious of who watched, and how many people watched, and what they were saying, what they thought. As it went on, I realized there is an audience, and they’re going to watch it. That’s enough for me to know. I can’t get caught up in the rest because that would just take over my life.