Thursday, October 9, 2014

Boardwalk Empire S5 - a historical fiction author's review

Since it debuted I have been a big fan of Boardwalk Empire. I consider the HBO drama to be historical fiction at its finest. The plot and character of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) are based on the real-life exploits of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson, the king of bootlegging and racketeering in Atlantic City during the 1920s and 30s. In Boardwalk Empire real-life characters such as gangster Al Capone, FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover and entertainer Eddie Cantor are woven into the fictional narrative alongside invented characters with seamless ease. Creator Terence Winter and the team behind the much-acclaimed series invoke the glamour of the era as well as the poverty, lawlessness and violence associated with Prohibition.
When I tuned in to watch episode one of the fifth and final season a few weeks ago I learned the show has skipped seven years since the last series, with the action jumping to 1931. America is suffering through the worst years of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is being touted as the Democrats’ most likely candidate in the following year’s election. If the Democrats win then prohibition will be repealed and gangsters such as Nucky, who have made a fortune from bootlegging, will have to find another revenue stream.

As the plotlines of Boardwalk Empire begin to overlap with my story from The President’s Lunch I find myself eager to continue watching.
As a writer of historical fiction I’m always keen to see how others go about the same task. When the subject matters are similar I am even more fascinated. Although Joseph Kennedy Sr, patriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, has been introduced into the storyline (he was a cohort of FDR whose fortune was partly derived by importing liquor after the end of prohibition), I’m certain that neither Franklin nor Eleanor Roosevelt will make an appearance.

Similarly, the song Happy Days Are Here Again is being used frequently on the soundtrack. This was Roosevelt’s campaign theme song and a tune he was always associated with. I’m interested to see how the politics of the 1930s and the policies of FDR figure in to the show.

In the previous seasons, politics has played a pivotal role in the storylines. But it was more a matter of the hoodlums shaping and influencing public policy to further their own ends. Now that the show has moved into the 1930s I get the feeling that the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and the world’s steady, terrifying march towards World War II will somehow eclipse the relatively trivial rivalries and concerns of the likes of Thompson and Capone. There is a distinct sense that America and the world are on the brink. If the mobsters of old don’t change their ways, history will leave them behind.
I’m pleased the writers have decided to include a more detailed back-story for Nucky. There have been many troubled male characters in Boardwalk Empire throughout its five-year run. Most memorable of these are Richard Harrow, the disfigured World War One veteran turned assassin and George Mueller, the Christian G-Man turned reluctant gangster. Many of the men on the program struggle with the conflicting duality in their personalities, none more so than Nucky Thompson.

I’ve long been sympathetic to Nucky’s plight in the same way I was sympathetic to Tony Soprano, another ruthless crook with an unsettled psyche. I even forgave Nucky for the murder of Jimmy Darmody, who he had mentored from boyhood. But Nucky began to lose me in series four. He had grown too callous. The cold-blooded criminal began to overshadow the more vulnerable aspects of his character.
What I loved about the character of Nucky was his weakness and his constant struggle with concealment. It seemed to me that the larger-than-life role of criminal king pin was forced upon Nucky. He was uncomfortable with the part but he knew nothing else. This frailty was not so apparent in series four.

In the current series the viewer is offered a moving insight into the man Nucky has become. This is achieved to great effect through the poignant use of flashbacks to his troubled childhood. My sympathy for Nucky has been restored and, with it, a considerable sense of anticipation for the show’s finale.

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