After watching the first season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” I would describe the show as “The Sopranos” meets “Mad Men.” Combining the Mafia intrigue of the former with the historical relevance of the latter, “Boardwalk Empire” is clearly one of the strongest shows on television today. Set during the Roaring 1920s, the program portrays a decade of profound social and cultural change.
The program revolves around Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the fictional treasurer of Atlantic County and political boss of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Like many urban bosses of the time, he maintains power through a combination of favors, intimidation, and payoffs. With the ratification of the 18th amendment and the institution of Prohibition in January 1920, Thompson expands his empire beyond traditional businesses such as gambling and prostitution and enters the bourgeoning market for smuggling and distributing alcohol.
Like most of the late 19th century and early 20th century bosses, Thompson is an Irish American. Arriving in the U.S. following the potato famine of the 1840s, Irish immigrants represented the first major wave of immigrants to the country and established a political base in the big cities. In the absence of modern social welfare services, the urban political “machines” offered jobs and social services to immigrants starting a new a life in America. At the same time, they insured their power through fraudulent elections and kickbacks to supporters.
One of the central themes of “Boardwalk Empire” is the post-Prohibition rise of organized crime and the challenge from the “new” immigrants arriving from eastern and southern Europe through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924. Upstart Italian American and Jewish American mobsters want a share of the growing pie and the show features portrayals of major real-life figures in the history of the Mafia, including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky.
As with “Mad Men,” the show inserts its fictional characters into real-world events. Shortly after the imposition of Prohibition, the states ratified the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. Like any savvy machine politician, Nucky courts the women’s vote and has his girlfriend, Margaret Schroder, address the League of Women Voters. Schroder, like many suffragists, is also a strong supporter of the temperance movement.
Thompson also has allies in the African-American community, as the World War 1-era migration of blacks from the South to the North augmented their population. While Jim Crow disenfranchised southern blacks, those living above the Mason-Dixon line could vote and political machines sought their support, though their wards often received the worst patronage jobs and public services. Nucky’s ties to the black community are strained when a rival gang lynches one of the African-American leader’s closest allies. Suspicion initially falls on the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, whose numbers were growing in the North and Midwest during the decade, making it a national political force.
American involvement in World War I had only concluded two years earlier in November 1918 and “Boardwalk Empire” depicts its impact. Thompson’s protégé, James Darmody, served with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France and returns home with a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, known then as “shellshock.” Once a Princeton man, the war experience has changed Darmody to the point that he is now willing and eager to participate in the most violent parts of Thompson’s business. He is also given to screaming bouts during his sleep as well as violent fits of tempers. While in Chicago avoiding a murder charge, Darmody befriends another vet whose face was severely damaged during combat but survived, as many WWI vets did. While these plot elements are consistent with the era, their inclusion no doubt reflects the many struggles post-9/11 vets have had with PTSD as well as the catastrophic physical damage some have also suffered.
Two major historical events are consistent subplots throughout the season, including the infamous Black Sox Scandal. Huge favorites to win the 1919 World Series, eight Chicago White Sox players made agreements with gamblers to throw the series. Among the conspirators was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the best players in the game. Because of the damage from the scandal, the baseball owners created the post of commissioner to restore confidence in the national pastime, hiring Judge Keenesaw Mountain Landis to fill the position. Though the players were found not guilty in a Chicago court, Landis banned the eight players from the game for life (depicted in the 1988 film “Eight Men Out”)
Finally, the 1920 presidential election forms part of the backdrop for the season. Thompson, a Republican, plays a key role in the GOP nomination process, lending his support to a dark horse candidate, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. The show accurately shows Harding as a long shot who won the nomination due to the machinations of an old-school political convention in the days before primaries decided the outcome. Indeed, the phrase “smoke-filled rooms” derives from the negotiations that eventually gave the nod to the then-obscure senator. The season concludes with an audience at an Atlantic City club listening to a Pittsburgh radio station declaring Harding the victor in the November general election. In reality, the Steel City’s KDKA broadcast of the election returns was the first major radio program.
All of the specific events from the first season occurred during 1920. Like “Mad Men,” each season takes place during one year or so from a particular decade. I will report back analyzing the second season and will provide weekly posts on season 3, which begins on September 16.