While heroes pay the bills in Hollywood, the creative class labouring in movies and TV are in thrall to anti-heroes, a mad love reinforced in the hymns sung by critics hardwired to prefer a menacing, flawed protagonist to a clear-browed, virtuous one. Batman versus Superman, if you will, and a loaded choice ultimately corrosive to the audience’s moral clarity, especially in an industry more competent at asking questions like “Ginger or Mary Ann?”
Director Martin Scorsese is the man behind Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, perennial critical favourites that made him a master craftsman in the art of anti-hero creation, and an influential one considering how seminal the best of his films have been for four decades. It was no surprise then to find that his name attached to HBO’s epic period crime drama Boardwalk Empire would mean a whole gallery of compromised characters locked in often bloody conflict.
Boardwalk Empire, which debuted in September and was renewed for a second season after just one episode, is the story of Nucky Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic City just after World War One and the kingpin of a crime empire that promises to flourish with Prohibition in effect. Based loosely on a real person, Nucky rubs shoulders in the show with real-life characters, ranging from Warren G. Harding and Hardeen, Houdini’s less esteemed younger brother, to gangland luminaries like Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
As played by Steve Buscemi, Nucky is a reluctant gangster, able to delegate his dirty work to his brother, the local sheriff, and his disgruntled protégé Jimmy, a recently-returned veteran of the Great War. Thanks to burgeoning competition,
however, the work is getting dirtier, and Nucky is being forced over the line from merely corrupt political fixer to outright criminal, the bedrock storyline of the series.
If we can be grateful to Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire, it’s for entrusting the role of Nucky to Steve Buscemi, a truly fantastic character actor whose previous claim to fame was playing a series of seething losers summed up by a description of his character in the 1996 film Fargo: “a funny-looking little guy.” Nucky’s privileged position at the hub of the show’s wheeling moral compass, however, comes about mostly because we never see him actually kill anyone, though quite a few die on his orders.
The first victim we see is the abusive husband of one Margaret Schroeder, an Irish immigrant who aroused more than just Nucky’s pity when she joined the line of citizens petitioning Nucky for help, ends up his mistress a couple of episodes later, and stays with him even after she learns that he was the direct cause of her widowhood. Credit goes to the Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald for mostly selling this unlikely turn of events and retaining our sympathy for the character, but Margaret’s accommodation to moral compromise is preordained, a condition of the show’s whole premise, as it puts her face to face with Nucky in the pivotal scene of the first season finale, where he sums up the show’s motto with a single line: “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.”
The answer to that question should be none, but since the human condition makes that unlikely, the creators of Boardwalk Empire – and the whole anti-hero ethic, in practice – take it as license to presume a generous capacity for sin as the benchmark of a heroic life: in for a penny, in for a pound, basically, and since God is supposed to forgive us all in the end, why not double down again?
Margaret’s moral compromise is hastened along nearly halfway through the series when she confides to the leader of Atlantic City’s suffragettes – a patiently maternal character clearly meant to be one of the show’s few fixed moral points – her likely acceptance of Nucky’s offer to take care of her and her children. The woman discretely hands her a copy of Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation, a birth control pamphlet that gives the episode its title, and which contains instructions on Lysol douching, a contraceptive practice clearly meant to elicit shudders in modern viewers.
I’m certain that Boardwalk Empire’s creators had no intention of linking Margaret’s embrace of contraception with her other poor choices, but it ends up echoing loudly when she finally tells Nucky that she knows he made her a widow, and he takes a chunk out of her assumption of victim status by confronting her with her Lysol bottle; she knew what she was doing and made her choices. “A good person wouldn’t be here right now,” he tells her. By the time the credits rolled on season one, there wasn’t a good person in sight, which was how it was meant to be.
In the baptism ceremony, a line about rejecting “the glamour of evil” sticks in the mind, and it seems strange and even absurd until you find yourself confronting the thing in life – or art. I’m willing to give Boardwalk Empire the benefit of the doubt that Margaret and Nucky will be struck with the full meaning of the phrase before a second season ends, mostly because the alternative is a tedious, grimy dramatic nullity, like remaking Brian de Palma’s Scarface in period drag, and at grinding length. Because if we’re to be denied heroes, we can at least hope for anti-heroes that are allowed to come to the full, tragic length of their journeys.