Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter has been responsible for more than his fair share of murders, but no hit was more shocking than the one he ordered on the HBO show itself. “The first rule of show business is get off the stage while people still want more,” he says of ending the saga of Prohibition-era gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), whose journey from crooked politician to ruthless crimelord comes to close with the series finale on October 26th. “You tell the story you want to tell, and when it’s done, you’re done.”
For his next act, Winter and two of his Boardwalk collaborators — legendary director Martin Scorsese and actor Bobby “Gyp Rosetti” Cannavale — are teaming with Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger for a new HBO show about the seedy, creatively explosive 1970s New York City rock scene. The music and intoxicants of choice may have changed from the jazz and booze of Boardwalk. But according to Winter, the song — individuals impacted by the chaotic world around them — remains the same.
Nucky Thompson is a relatively quiet criminal compared to many of his larger-than-life antihero-drama peers, wouldn’t you say?
It felt to me like a cerebral half-politician, half-gangster was more interesting than a screamer. I wrote for The Sopranos and worked on big blustery characters for quite a while. It was a lot of fun, but Nucky was just a different person. Fortunately, we spent time with gangsters who provided plenty of bluster. When you have Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone, a certain number of people are gonna get hit over the head with things as a matter of course [laughs].
Still, when Nucky killed his longtime apprentice Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in Season Two, it marked a major turning point for the show — and for him.
I always knew Nucky would kill Jimmy. He is the guy who tells Nucky in the pilot that you can’t be half a gangster, and at some point you knew Nucky would cross that line by killing the very same person who gave him that advice. If it didn’t happen, I would call bullshit. If this were a network show, I guarantee that at the last minute Jimmy would have gotten some reprieve.
Nucky started the series as a crooked politician, but as Prohibition continued he became more of the traditional gangster. Was it the law that unleashed the criminal in him?
People were made millionaires overnight by Prohibition. If you were willing to traffic in illegal alcohol and run the risk of getting arrested or hijacked by other gangsters, you had to be prepared to do things you hadn’t done before — like murdering people. That’s what Jimmy was warning Nucky about.
You know, there was no shame about it. People had been drinking beer their whole lives, and suddenly it’s illegal? It was pretty hard to convince anybody other than the temperance movement that alcohol was this bad thing. It was just illegal, not morally wrong. Your average man on the street had no intention of giving up his daily beer or scotch — he just had to figure out how to do it. So these guys weren’t looked down upon. It’s not like they were heroin dealers or murderers. They were providing a service, a commodity, that most people found innocuous.
The stakes are high, and we’ve been conscious of that as we’ve plotted out the finale. We’re confident about it.
There was also a collision of historic events that not only made the gangster world possible, but were tailor-made for it. You had a generation of young men coming back from World War I who spent the last two years in trenches killing people for free. Now, suddenly, all you have to do is guard a truck and maybe shoot somebody, and you could make a fortune. Guys lined up all the way around the block to do that, since they’d basically been doing exactly that for nothing. You had all these disenfranchised, disillusioned young men who were perfectly willing and able to get into that business.
There’s a character on the show who says: “The premise of fiction is that people have some sort of connection to each other. But they don’t.” Is that your conclusion as well?
I think it’s a matter of perspective. I’ve always thought that when they say ignorance is bliss, the converse to that is that knowledge is hell. The more you know, the bleaker things can get. Jimmy once said that all you have to worry about is when you’re alone at night. You run out of booze and you run out of company, and [then] you’re really alone with your thoughts.
Audiences and critics invest a lot in series finales. Does telling the end of the story feel substantially different than telling the rest of it?
It’s like getting in a rocket ship and heading to the moon: It’s a long, long journey, and you’ve got to land on one particular spot. When we finish, we’ll have done 56 hours of this; the finale is the culmination. The stakes are high, and we’ve been conscious of that as we’ve plotted out the final year, and the finale. We’re confident about it.
Is there anything left to say about the American gangster?
Regarding the Mafia, or maybe organized crime in general…probably not. For me, it’s all about the individual character within that world — the Tony Soprano, the Nucky, the Walter White. Otherwise, it’s a big sweeping story of a nameless, faceless mass. With an interesting character, there’s always something to say.
For your next project, you’re collaborating with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger for a show about the New York music industry in the 1970s. Is this going to be another series that filters huge cultural and societal forces through one character?
It’ s similar to Boardwalk in that sense, certainly. The character that we’re starting with, played by Bobby Cannavale, is a record producer in New York City in the 1970s. The backdrop is the birth of punk, disco, and hip hop, all colliding in this incredibly tumultuous time. Crime was through the roof. The city was practically bankrupt. Taxi Driver was shot in the time frame where the series is set. Mick was on tour with the Rolling Stones that year. They have a pretty good handle on that world.
You like to draw on a big canvas, don’t you?
I do. I’d feel like I was missing something if I didn’t explore the greater scope of what was happening. Boardwalk Empire lent itself to that. Prohibition tied into World War I, with veterans coming into the trafficking world. Prohibition led you to gangsters. Nucky being in Atlantic City led you to nightclubs. They were all organically interwoven. It’s the same thing in New York in 1973: The nightclub world and the music industry have a gangster component. They have a political component. Music just meant so much to so many different people that you almost can’t help but stumble across bigger threads. If you focus on what’s happening in somebody’s apartment when there’s a much bigger world outside, whose events impact all our daily lives, you can only tell half the story.