When Boardwalk Empire returns for its third season this weekend audiences can expect several things: lush period costumes, the return of the creepily excellent Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon), and lots of scheming from Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). But one (spoiler alert) thing audiences shouldn’t expect is the surprise return of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who was killed in cold blood during the final moments of the season two finale.
Unlike so many season endings where the big cliff-hanger turns out to have all been a dream or to be resolved via some deus ex machinations when the next season starts, Jimmy Darmody is really dead—and staying that way according to Boardwalk’s creator, head writer, and showrunner, Terence Winter.
He says that killing one of his key and most popular characters was "the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my career." But he did it because he feels he owes audiences a truthful show. "First and foremost you want to be truthful as a storyteller. So I said if we are going to tell this story truthfully and not as a ‘TV show,’ then he has to die. Even though it was very inconvenient for me as a showrunner, I felt I had a duty to be real so I had to do it. Anything less would feel phony. " In fact, just before Nucky shoots Jimmy in last season’s finale, they have this exchange:
Jimmy: This is the only way we could have ended, isn’t it?
Nucky: This is your choice, James.
With Boardwalk on the HBO platform, Winter feels he can do things—even unpopular, audience-infuriating plot-twisting things—in a way that network showrunners cannot. "Having worked in television and film, television is certainly the most satisfying for me. What’s being done on cable dramas today are like the movies that people used to make in the 1970s. They are dark, real gritty films and character studies as opposed to superhero stories that are basically all visual storytelling. As a storyteller I find that unsatisfying."
Although Winter wrote about contemporary gangsters as a staff writer and producer on The Sopranos, a period piece like Boardwalk provided an entirely new outlet. The social and historical issues that pop up on the 1920s set show range from class, race, and immigration to birth control, and of course, Prohibition, the primary backdrop and contextual metaphor of the show. Boardwalk's depiction of Prohibition makes this weird, almost surreal period of American history seem very contemporary and relevant to today’s politics and to the "war on drugs" in particular. Yet setting Boardwalk Empire almost a century ago allows people enough distance from such issues to feel comfortable using the world of the show as an escape.
That verisimilitude of Atlantic City in the '20s is something that Winter has worked tirelessly to create with the aid of a first-rate production team who have developed an award-winning visual aesthetic. Like fellow Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner—now of Mad Men fame—Winter is very focused on not allowing a single detail (whether a prop, handbag, song, or idiom) to be out of place with the time period. "Even the things in Nucky’s drawer are period appropriate," Winter says. "Things you’ll never see. It helps the actors feel like they’ve really been transported to the period."
Winter is careful to distinguish between the look and feel of the show, which is as accurate as he can make it, and the actual content of the show, which is fiction, albeit loosely based on real historical events. The heart and soul of the show is the life story of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, who was a real gangster in Atlantic City in the 1920s, observes Winter. In fact, Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties provide juicy possibilities for Winter, such as the ability to show Al Capone when he was just getting started—something rarely seen by audiences. Other characters are complete inventions, such as this season’s new gangster, Gyp Rosetti, played by Bobby Canavale. Winter is eager to remind audiences who were drawn to Darmody, that the same writers who created Darmody are creating new characters—like Gyp and several more—this season.
Winter made the eternal TV gamble when Nucky killed Darmody: treating the audience like they are smart. And while it remains to be seen if audiences will reward or spurn him with viewership this season, he’s stands by the decision with pride. "I knew it would piss people off. There’s an unspoken bond with your audience that you will not kill the second lead of your TV show—it just doesn’t happen. If something purports to be really gritty and real and then you show me ninjas jumping out of helicopters, unless you somehow do that really well, you’re going to lose me. If I saw the Jimmy Darmody scene on TV and Nucky didn’t kill him, I would have said ‘Come on! Are you going to let that kid live after all he’s done?’ This show has the courage of its convictions."