'Boardwalk Empire' Creator Terence Winter on Tragic Season Finale

'Wolf of Wall Street' writer hints at what may come in Season Five

Terence Winter
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Terence Winter
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Spoiler alert: This article contains major plot points from last night's fourth-season finale of Boardwalk Empire.

There were twists. And, of course, there was tragedy. The fourth season of HBO's 1920s gangster drama came to one hell of a close last night with plenty of surprises (both Chalky White and Dr. Valentin Narcisse remain alive), as well as a substantial death toll (Richard Harrow, sadistic double agent Warren Knox and Chalky's daughter Maybelle are the casualties). It was, in my estimation, the most satisfying episode of the series' entire run, as it paid tribute to one of its most beloved characters in a beautifully shot final scene, but also got us fully onboard for Season Five. A couple of days before Daughter Maitland sang "Farewell Daddy Blues" to the world, Rolling Stone called up Boardwalk creator and executive producer Terence Winter, who co-wrote the season finale, to get some insight as to what's ahead for Nucky Thompson and Co. The Wolf of Wall Street screenwriter said that it's too soon to reveal any substantial plans for Season Five (other than the usual time jump), but he was able to confirm the return of Jeffrey Wright's Dr. Narcisse, as well as tease the "possible" reappearances of Daughter (Margot Bingham), Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) and Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette).

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Congratulations on a stellar season finale! Now that you've had almost two months since wrapping, what can we expect in Season Five?
That is a really good question. I'm not trying to be coy, but I don't know. We're really at the beginning stages of just talking about when we might get together to start talking about the broad strokes. Obviously, we will move into the future. The ramifications of events of Season Four will continue to play out. Obviously we leave Chalky in a very unsettled place. Narcisse, Nucky, Eli, Gillian, a lot of those characters are in flux and those story lines will continue and pay off in various ways. But I can't be more specific because at this point I really just don't know.

So when Eli arrived in Chicago, he was picked up by Nelson Van Alden. It looked like there was there a moment of recognition between the two of them. Obviously Van Alden knew Nucky, but does Eli know who this guy is?  
Yeah, I know they've interacted before – of course when I hang up with you I'll be able to name three episodes. But yes, there was a moment of recognition between the two of them and I'm sure that was a very long conversation. At one point, Eli referred to Van Alden as the "Prohi with the big head." That was very early on, in like, the second episode of the series. So they had been in each other's company before. I think Van Alden's pretty hard to forget.

Why does Nucky keep giving his brother so many second chances?
Had Willie not walked in [on Nucky about to kill Eli], I don't think he would have gotten a second chance. I think that saved his life, the fact that Willie is curious and followed him there knowing, sensing that something was up between Nucky and his dad. At this point, knowing that his nephew walked in on it, I think Nucky obviously can't pull the trigger in front of him and essentially had no choice but to give Eli a pass. He's banished from Atlantic City and eventually Nucky gets what he wants. He gets his surrogate son in Willie, and that's what Eli accused him of in the beginning, that he had taken everything, and now Nucky has the son he always wanted.

What's next for Gillian? Is there any hope for her now that she's stuck in prison?
Well, hope takes a lot of different forms. She is in prison, it's certainly not looking good for her, but we will continue to explore that character and her relationship with the world around her and the characters around her. One of the things to remember: You can almost trace Nucky's downward spiral to the moment when he delivered Gillian to the Commodore, and the back story was the Commodore picked her out of the herd and said, "Bring me that girl," and Nucky is the one who did it. I think that event has deep psychological and literal ramifications for Nucky. The ripples from that event have affected so many different lives. Gillian is a very important character – I don't think people realize how closely connected she is to the events of [Nucky's] life in its entirety. That's what made him, that's what put him on the Commodore's radar and probably helped his rise and certainly started an enormous downward spiral for both of them.

We didn't see too much of Margaret this season. Will she and Nucky ever cross paths again or is she on her own trajectory now?  
Yes, I'm sure they will cross paths again at some point. I didn't just want to reintroduce Kelly [Macdonald]'s character just because we have Kelly under contract, even though she and Nucky are estranged. What we talked about in the writers' room – the idea would be, when it's organically right for Nucky to reach out to her or vice versa, they'll get back into each other's world. Otherwise, we'll play it out the way the reality of the season is. Which is, she is gone, she's estranged from him, she rejected him at the end of Season Three, didn't want him, didn't want his money, etc. So when Eddie Kessler died, that seemed like the natural thing: Nucky would reach out to her. He's looking for comfort, he's looking for someone that knows him, that knows Eddie, and Margaret was that person. It was fun to take that ride along with him. We hadn't seen Margaret in so many episodes, we don't know where she is, where she's living, she looks different, she's got a job. So it was really fun to discover that along with Nucky, and I think that was, for us, the better choice.

You said the return of Sally Wheet is possible. Is Nucky's future with her shattered because he's not going to Cuba anymore?
I wouldn't say shattered. I think relationships in one form or another have survived more than broken promises or dreams people may or may not have. I think Sally's very realistic about who Nucky is and she probably hears a lot of drunken promises made to her. While she's clearly disappointed, she's been around the block. I don't think she's completely surprised that that didn't happen.

How is Chalky supposed to bounce back from his ordeal this season? Maybelle is dead, Narcisse is alive, Lenore knows he's a cheat and Daughter, while alive and safe, has disappeared.  
That's certainly what we'll be exploring in Season Five. I think the first thing people do is have a good couple of drinks, and sit on that porch a while trying to figure out, "What's my next move?" That's where we leave him at the end of it, and yes, he certainly does appear to be a broken man and he has every right to be. But I think Chalky is a survivor and he's resilient and he will come back in some way, shape or form. It remains to be seen what form that takes.

Richard Harrow's death was probably one of the saddest moments on the show so far. How come you decided to kill off the character?
It was really tough to make, but creatively it felt like the absolute right decision. We just felt like that character had come full circle, given the events of Season Three, when he spent the whole season with Julia, then had to pick up the gun and become that monster again. In Season Four, he's a killer for hire and when he finally tells his sister he's had enough, she says, "You need to call yourself into account." We knew, if he picked up a gun again, and we knew he would, that would be the last time.

And that of course was when the story lines conspired to add Richard back into the mix; we knew that this is going to be the last time he's going to do this and psychologically he's not that person anymore. Physically, because of his hand injury, he's not as capable as he was. To have him survive that and come back from that felt like, we're just going to bring Richard out of mothballs every season and have him kill people and go back to the farm. In some way, he ultimately did get what he wanted. He had that scrapbook of the family and the house and the farm and, at least in his mind, at the moment of his death he became whole again. We just felt it was the best way to go out with him and it really was beautiful.

I think Tim Van Patten did, as always, and incredible job of shooting that. What you saw was his director's cut. That's what he gave us and we said, "Don't change a frame." We ran with a lot of different music choices, but in the end we just felt that the strongest way to go was no music at all. There's no music that could do that character justice in terms of sendoff, just the gravity of that death. It's funny, HBO cut together a tribute reel of Richard Harrow, and I was emotional at the end of it. This is a fictional character that we created in a writers' room, but it really is a testament to my incredible writers, to Jack Huston and our directors who brought that to life. That character really resonated for people.

I agree. How soon into the production did you know that this was the path Richard was going to take? Was this something you knew right at the start?
No, if anything, it was going to be the happier ending for Richard, where he was going to get out – and then it just didn't feel real. You don't make those choices and pull the trigger that many times and get to walk away and die in bed. It just felt more organic that he goes out in the worst possible way. Given the tragic events of what just happened – he missed his target and killed an innocent girl – he probably would have put a bullet in his head anyway, which he didn't do of course. It was a lot of waffling up until the last few months of shooting about where that exactly was going to go.

Can you say whether Tommy and Julia will be back? At least they're safe.
We'll probably check in with them at some point, but I'm not sure when.

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