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'Boardwalk Empire' Brings the Party to New York

The Prohibition-era drama's cast and producers discuss difficult decsions and the threat of a new villain

Howard Korder, Jeffrey Wright, Gretchen Mol, Debra Birnbaum, Michael Kenneth Williams and Terence Winter attend the 'Boardwalk Empire' panel during PaleyFest: Made in New York at the Paley Center for Media in New York City.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images
October 7, 2013 1:55 PM ET

The Paley Center for Media's "Made in New York" series concluded Sunday evening with a panel featuring cast members and executive producers of the Prohibition-era HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Present for the event were series creator and executive producer Terence Winter, executive producer Howard Korder, actors Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky White), Gretchen Mol (Gillian Darmody) and Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Valentin Narcisse).

The Worst Acts of Betrayal on 'Boardwalk Empire'

The audience was treated to an early viewing of Season Four's fifth episode, "Erlkönig," prior to the start of the panel. Due to the fact that the discussion would be livestreamed, and the episode in question was still two hours away from airing, any mention of specific plot developments were forbidden. This made for significantly limited options when it came to questions from the audience, and even for moderator Alan Sepinwall, who not-so-cryptically opened the panel by jokingly referring to Boardwalk as "the happiest show on television." Spoiler alert: Last night's episode featured the suicide of Nucky Thompson's manservant Eddie Kessler – which elicited a loud gasp from the Paley Center audience – after he was forced to rat out his employer to the sadistic Agent Knox.

It was much easier for the actors and producers to be more forthcoming on the red carpet, as this reporter had viewed "Erlkönig" at an earlier date and had many questions for Winter and Korder (who wrote the episode). Winter defended his decision to eliminate Eddie by explaining that it was something that came organically: "It fit the story," he told Rolling Stone. "It just sort of made sense that he's so proud and so dedicated, and especially because he asked for that promotion and then ended up betraying the man whom he's dedicated his life to. It was just too much for him to bear, and we just felt that's what he would do. It was really, as many of these things are, an incredibly difficult decision. We love Anthony [Laciura]; we love that character. But as we've said from the beginning, if it works for the story, we do it, and that's what happened."

Korder seconded Winter's sentiment, while also taking the fall for what was one of the few heartbreaking moments in Boardwalk's history: "I think, ultimately, I'm to blame," he said. "We knew that we wanted Agent Knox to do something definitive that would announce that he was a very serious player and a real threat to Nucky. And I wanted to both elevate Eddie and give a character and actor that we loved a real showcase – and probably nobody gets to shine on Boardwalk Empire without getting killed. But we wanted it to be a powerful moment for the audience as well as for Nucky. And I guess I really wanted to take the audience on that journey with the character and have his end not be the expected one, even on this show, that it would be so quiet and hence even more disturbing."

There's never been a dull moment for Gretchen Mol's Gillian Darmody throughout this series, whether she's committing incest with her son or running a high-end Atlantic City brothel. This season, faced with economic ruin and the loss of custody of her young grandson, Gillian has turned to drug use to combat her ever-present demons. "Right now the therapy is heroin," Mol told Rolling Stone. "I can only think that when she met this drug that it was like the perfect marriage for someone as damaged as her. I think that's the only reason we're seeing this kind of vulnerability. She's off her game, but it's a good thing for her, maybe."

But Mol does see new cast member Ron Livingston's Roy Phillips as a possible beacon of hope for her character: "She's never met anyone like him. He's like from another planet, almost. I'm so broken at this point, so I feel like she's completely open to the possibility of what he represents, which is this sort of straight and narrow life. And I felt in the beginning of the season when we were doing scenes like when they go out on their little faux date, it was like, 'You know, Gillian never gets to just smile and have fun!' And I was feeling for the character, like, what an opening of a door this was, of possibilities."

Certainly one of the most popular topics both during the panel and on the red carpet was the storyline between Chalky White and his rivalry with the new gangster in town, Valentin Narcisse. During the panel, Michael Kenneth Williams did not hold back his feelings toward the depths his character gets to go this particular season ("It's been the biggest opportunity of my career"), and he spoke with Rolling Stone about the dangers Narcisse brings to Chalky's hold on Atlantic City's Northside: "I would definitely say [Chalky] views Narcisse as a threat," says Williams. "And a little intimidating. This is a whole new world for Chalky to see, to run up against a man like Narcisse. I don't think he's dealt with a beast such as that. He's already dealing with the responsibilities of the new club – and Chalky says what he feels, his heart is on his sleeve, you know, he doesn't bite the bullet, you don't have to worry what's on his mind. And Narcisse is very cunning and conniving and manipulative. That's a new animal for Chalky."

Scene-stealer Jeffrey Wright offered Rolling Stone his own take on Narcisse's position, suggesting that it's not only Chalky who should fear his character's presence come future episodes: "Narcisse is an equal-opportunity predator," Wright said. "So what I think we'll see as it unfolds is he's not solely a threat to Chalky, but he's the kind of guy that walks into a room, I imagine, and notices two people – the most powerful and the most vulnerable – among the powerful. It just so happens that in this case, Chalky is a steppingstone toward greater ambitions, I think. But he's non-discriminating."

In addition to the seven episodes still remaining in the fourth season, Boardwalk Empire has already been renewed for a fifth. However, Winter has plenty on his plate before he starts venturing into the mid-to-late 1920s. "We literally wrapped Season Four on Friday night," he told Rolling Stone. "I'm still in post-production on that. I really, truly have not even started thinking about [the fifth season]. I will, probably in about a month."

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