Boardwalk creator takes hard line as gangster builds his empire

SPOILER ALERT: this feature contains spoilers about season two.

"There'll be some changes made," goes the old jazz classic as we swoop down to the now-familiar boardwalk empire of gangster-made-bad Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson. Starting a new season is always hard. But when the creators of HBO's hit show sat around a table to plan season three, they were stumped.

"We all stared at each other, then [said] 'let's eat lunch', 'let's take naps'," says the creator of Boardwalk Empire, the Sopranos veteran Terence Winter.

Winter is a Brooklyn-raised motormouth with a greying beard, a friendly manner and a habit of turning thoughts into dialogue. He was clearly born to make TV. But that didn't make it easy. His problem was the season two climax that had furious fans racing to Twitter, and critics in raptures.

Young, ambitious Jimmy Darmody – at the core of the show's main story-line for the first two seasons – died in a gripping finale that lifted this prohibition drama to new heights, slain at the hand of father-figure Nucky (played to icy perfection by Steve Buscemi).

It was one of those moments that you watch TV for. So now what?

"Originally we talked about, 'right, what if it's the next day?'" says Winter. "And as we talked about that it became apparent to me that I felt like I know what happens.

"Nucky comes home and he finds out that Margaret [Nucky's wife, played by Kelly Macdonald] gave away his land. They have a big fight and then people realise that Jimmy Darmody is missing, and he was dead, and I understood how that would all play out.

"But I thought if we go a year or so or more into the future, anything could happen."

So series three misses all the predictable fallout. Instead we jump to New Year's Eve 1922, a year-and-a-half forward in time, as the price of illicit booze soars and the stakes have risen for the gangsters of the east coast.

The characters have moved on, emotionally, physically, even geographically.

"I'm a philanthropist now," Nucky says.

He's not, of course. Episode one begins on familiar territory. Nucky delivers a deadpan lecture with a ruthless punchline while his new nemesis makes a bloody debut on a New Jersey beach. Margaret prepares for a New Year's Eve party, while dreaming of (literally) flying away. And the Chicago boys are negotiating increasingly fierce turf wars.

But the echoes of Jimmy's death are still there, in the story and also in the minds of the writers.

"He was terrific, he was always interesting and fun to write for," admits Winter. "So to make the decision to take him out of the series, it was like playing chess, it's like losing a very important piece, you think 'wow we still have to play the game but without that piece'.

"But that wasn't enough of a reason [to keep him in the show]. I always say to my writers 'let's make it more difficult on ourselves' [rather] than easier. It would have been easier to keep Jimmy alive for us – OK, at the last minute Nucky says all is forgiven, he kills Manny and keeps Jimmy alive and they shake hands and he walks off and that would have been easy, because now we could just have Jimmy.

"It's a lot more challenging to say 'OK, we're killing him. What do we do now, how do we fill that gap in the story and move forward?'. But it was the right decision."

Winter says he tries to be true to his show, to keep the story growing "organically", rather than be distracted by the reaction to his big decisions.

"It's funny, when I was a kid we thought it would be great to be able to read each other's minds. And now we can read each other's minds, it's called the internet, and it's not so great, you know?

"You read all this shit people are thinking about everything, not just your show but any news story. You read the comments and you're like 'oh my God, is this what people think?' So I try not to read that stuff.

"I like that people are invested and they care. I do question the sanity of people who are mourning the loss of a fictional character to the point that they are sending bouquets of flowers but I love that we have affected people, I made you feel something that you either didn't want to feel or you are shocked by. That's our job, to make you laugh, make you cry, anger you, all of those things."

He compares season three to a delicious New York pizza. If you make it delicious enough, no one is going to think about yesterday's cheeseburger.

Nucky himself – Steve Buscemi, that is – is just happy to play the cards he's been dealt, even when it's a tough hand.

"The last scene of season two was hard because I like Michael [Pitt, who played Jimmy] so much and I didn't want to see him go and I didn't want to do it, so there was a lot of me resisting what I had to do," Buscemi says.

"So that was really, really hard. But then I always remember that it's not real, it's a job and this is what I'm required to do as the character."

Buscemi in person is far from his ruthless alter ego – soft-voiced, quick to laugh and preferring quiet truths to showboating . Winter calls him a "gentle guy [who is] not into violence in any way", and Buscemi worries that Boardwalk should not glorify the evil deeds of its characters.

"Some of the stuff is very upsetting to do on the show," Buscemi says. Generally he is able to "just leave the work at work" but there is one scene from the new season – which he won't reveal in detail – but he says it stayed with him long after they called "cut".

But he is loving the show – he says it is one of the best jobs he has had.

"When I'm challenged by really good work it makes me want to step up and go even further," he says. "If you feel like people aren't really giving you that, or everybody's not there, then I will tend to go 'well I'm not going to do all the work here'. If they're doing it [well] then I say 'oh my God, I'd better step up'."

But he knows Winter and the writers too well to assume that he'll be doing Boardwalk for as long as he wants. He remembers keenly signing up for two seasons of The Sopranos, then dying after just one.

"It was hard, I really wanted to keep doing it," he says. "But I'm not afraid to die – I'm used to it."

Winter hopes to keep telling the story for years to come: he already has plans that stretch well beyond this season's arc. It's a joy to write a long series that can explore the birth of the world of gangsters, he says – one of the first lines of The Sopranos is "I feel like I came in at the end of something" – but with Boardwalk he's gone back to the beginning.

"The prohibition era really hadn't been depicted in American television since about 1960, in a show called The Untouchables about Eliot Ness and Al Capone," Winter says. "That was 50 years ago, so this era was really wide open for exploration on TV. We can actually tell the story the real way and really dig deep into it.

"In terms of the fascination with the gangster genre and criminals, I think we are always interested in people who live outside the law or people who are at least presumably unlike we are, doing things that we wouldn't do.

"It's sort of a vicarious thrill, you get to experience that world without the consequences, you get to hang out with a bunch of gangsters but at the end of the day nobody's going to be chasing you with a machine gun, you can just turn the channel and watch something else."

Season Three of Boardwalk Empire starts Wednesday on Showcase. SBS will be showing season one from 29 September.

The story Boardwalk creator takes hard line as gangster builds his empire first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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