Boardwalk Empire: The New Coen Brothers

Alright.  It's time to talk about Boardwalk Empire.  Now that our collective Breaking Bad fevers have broken, we all have room in our hearts and minds and DVRs for another show.  I'm here to tell you that if it's not already, it needs to be Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk Empire's $5 million recreated Boardwalk.
Now in its fourth season, Boardwalk is a period gangster piece about Atlantic City bootleggers and businessmen and the early American mob.  It's fiction, but populated in its periphery with real-life names -- Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano --  so it has this great The Untouchables quality.  It's executive-produced by Martin Scorsese (he gives actual notes on each episode); it was created and is written by Terence Winter (The Sopranos), and backed by a bunch of vetted names.  But, more than anything, Boardwalk Empire feels like one long Coen Brothers movie.  And who doesn't love the Coen Brothers? 

Aside from the obvious actor overlap -- Steve Buscemi in a masterful, stereotype-shattering lead, Kelly McDonald (No Country for Old Men), and other character-actor guests like the masterful Michael Stuhlbarg and Stephen Root -- Boardwalk consistently appropriates favorite Coen motifs and details.   It has some of the Coen's love affair with small town poverty, tinny music, twangy ambiance.  It's got lots of period costumes lit by warm filters and overlaid by an O Brother/No Country dinginess like the whole world is covered in industrial smoke or Model-T dust.  Boardwalk employs some extreme accents and caricatures (Mickey Doyle, anyone?) with the respectful sort of mockery the Coens perfected, at once sympathetic and self-parodying.

But the real Coen crossover is the violence.  Boardwalk, like so much of the Coen's work, is driven by grisly, creative, unglamorous violence -- that pure, bloody, thud-y violence that you can hear as much as you can see (clunks, cracks, breaks, drips -- so much more than just gunshots).  It's hands-on violence, dirty and painful and mean, and when it's done, there are no clean shirts, no salvageable pieces.  But the hands-on-ness of it also means its delicately choreographed: balletic, poignant, poetic in its gristle; it's the sickening air-rush sound of murder by cattle gun; a spear driven right through your one eye; the sawing off of a little green toe.

It's also violence that resolves in beautiful, contrasting vignettes -- art pieces painted in crimson.  Murders in jagged, dead woods, a la Miller's Crossing.  Peeling wallpaper in decrepit hotel rooms a la Barton Fink.  The gentle spray of wood-chipper blood onto snow, a la Fargo.

And though it doesn't always have the Coen's rapid, pedantic, magical dialogue -- there are just way too many words in a 12-hour season to polish each phrase the way the Coens do -- it has its moments (like this little gem of dialogue in Season 2, Episode 5 [starts at 26:00] that's got the Coen's classic out-of-place sophisticated diction -- rural rednecks saying "bamboozled" and "pontificating").

Pop Quiz: Coen or Boardwalk?
Of course, Boardwalk stands up on its own without any Coen comparisons -- it's truly an heir both to the line of epic HBO television shows and the long, lauded history of the American mob movie.  But the parts of Boardwalk that call the Coens to mind are often its cleverest, most charming, most profound moments.  And for those of us wishing only that there were two more Coens to churn out even more movies, Boardwalk is a prolific and satisfying fix.

And, frankly, Boardwalk has been one of those great, self-propelling shows that has survived some major plot twists that would be series-enders for lesser shows.  The quality of the writing, the character-building, and the supporting cast (who are able to rotate into and out of lead roles as necessary), combined with the shifting ground of the real-life time period means that that show has a lot of rumbling opportunity to change and grow where it needs to.  HBO must feel the same way, because they just renewed it for a fifth season.  So, if you haven't jumped aboard the Boardwalk train, consider this my (and maybe the Coen's?) endorsement.

Jump aboard the actual Boardwalk Empire subway train car.

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