Boardwalk Empire 5, Sky Atlantic, with Steve Buscemi, Stephen Graham, Kelly Macdonald PREVIEW

Boardwalk Empire - Series 05 Steve Buscemi
Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson looks out for new opportunities in Cuba. Pics: Sky Atlantic

Rating: ★★★★

Sky Atlantic: starts Saturday, 13 September, 9pm

Story: The series jumps forward seven years to 1931 as the country struggles to cope with the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition looms. Nucky sets his sights on a post-Prohibition future…

THE FIFTH AND FINAL season is back with a bang.

Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams)

Several bangs, in fact. And a stabbing, and a slicing, and… But Boardwalk Empire has always been about more than the bursts of violence, lurid though these can be. It has even been criticised for being too slow during past series.

Its speciality has been its portrayal of a slightly mad era in US history. Prohibition crept in and tipped the whole country into illegality and disregard for law and the Constitution. From the bold and lavish opening episode of series one, directed by Martin Scorsese (still an executive producer), it’s been a hotsy-totsy ride, as they might have said back then.

Nucky Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City – played with relish again here by Golden Globe winner Steve Buscemi – was the emblem of bent politics where it met gangsterdom. The bootlegging empires, the rise of mobsters such as Al Capone and the civic venality has all been engrossingly captured in a drama for which history was not a twee backdrop but the whole point of the show.

Nucky goes to Cuba

Boardwalk Empire - Series 05 Gretchen Mol
Gillian (Gretchen Mol)

As this series begins, the action has sped forward seven years to 1931. Prohibition is on its last legs and Nucky is in Cuba with Sally Wheet, planning to cash on the possibility of shipping Bacardi to the States the second the 18th Amendment of the Constitution is consigned to the bin.

The country is also reeling from the Great Depression, starkly illustrated in a tragic scene where Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret is shown at the Wall Street bank where she now works.

Actually, there’s so much going on in this opener, you need to be more alert that Nucky is in Cuba as he tries to dodge a particularly vicious assassin.

Five storylines unfold in tandem. In addition to Nucky and Margaret, we glimpse Nucky’s musings on his past in 1880s Atlantic City, when as a boy from an impoverished family he came into the orbit of the Commodore.

Chalky and Lucky Luciano

We catch up with Chalky, who’s fallen a long way from his power base, now shuffling along in a chain gang. Then there is also Lucky Luciano, who sets a bloody plan into operation, with

Boardwalk Empire - Series 05 Stephen Graham
Al Capone (Stephen Graham)

Vincent Piazza again a chilling presence as the gangster.

Some people say Boardwalk Empire is more akin to The Wire in its exploration of a society than The Sopranos, but it does look as though this final chapter will be more focused on Nucky than ever. The flashbacks are vivid and finally offer a glimpse into the motivations of the man at the centre of events. As he looks forward, Nucky can’t help looking back.

Boardwalk Empire has been overshadowed in the HBO stable by the likes of Game of Thrones, and has not often been the darling of the awards nights. But it has built into a fine series – season four was the best yet – and will be missed.

Oh, and when the violence comes, it gives you quite a jolt.

Cast: Steve Buscemi Nucky Thompson, Stephen Graham Al Capone, Kelly Macdonald Margaret Thompson, Gretchen Mol Gillian Darmody, Vincent Piazza ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Michael Shannon Nelson Van Alden, Paul Sparks Mickey Doyle, Shea Whigham Eli Thompson, Michael Kenneth Williams Chalky White, Jeffrey Wright Valentin Narcisse, Patricia Arquette Sally Wheet, Anatol Yusef Meyer Lansky, Ben Rosenfield Willie Thompson, Michael Zegen Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel

Also check out…
Boardwalk Empire on the HBO site
Sky Atlantic

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Boardwalk Empire series three with Steve Buscemi PREVIEW

Rating: ★★★★½

Sky Atlantic: Saturdays (from 29 September), 9pm

Story: Welcoming in the New Year – 1923 – Nucky Thompson tells his bootlegger compadres that he will no longer be supplying them with booze. He will only sell to Arnold Rothstein, and they will have to pay his price…

Nucky’s Egyptian-theme New Year’s Eve bash. Pics: BSkyB

The champagne corks are popping – Boardwalk Empire is back. It’s the eve of 1923 and Nucky Thompson is about to make a whole new hive of enemies.

Having offed his former protege, Jimmy Darmody, in series two’s finale, the bootlegging politician wants to simplify his life by turning into a booze wholesaler who supplies just one man, Rothstein, instead of all his former cohorts. When he announces this at a lavish New Year’s Eve party at his home, Nucky makes some nasty people very unhappy about having to pay Rothstein’s price – including the new psychopathic Sicilian in town, Gyp Rosetti.

Sicilian with a Gyp on his shoulder

Bobby Cannavale as Rosetti

In the opener Gyp was introduced to us as he takes a metal tool to the head of a sweet old guy out walking his dog. The reason – the old boy was trying to be helpful.

Boardwalk Empire has been criticised for being short of explosive action, and it’s made hardly a ripple in the UK because it’s tucked away for a small audience on Sky Atlantic. But it is a superb drama, a rich recreation of a fascinating and wild period, and season three’s opening episode was fizzing with conflict.

As the trailer above makes clear, Nucky – an Emmy-winning performance by Steve Buscemi – is precariously balancing between being a corrupt political operator and an all-out gangster. His relationship with Margaret has soured, and she is becoming enmeshed in the affairs of a hospital of which she is a patron, and is perhaps attracting a new admirer there.

Stephen Graham as Capone

Al Capone makes an enemy
The eerily masked man, Richard Harrow, had the episode’s one gun blast to his credit when he took out Manny Horvitz in revenge for killing his secret love, Angela Darmody. More problems there for Nucky.

And Al Capone is emerging as a significant force, here having a serious falling-out with Irish hoodlum Dean O’Banion.

As the actor who plays Capone, Britain’s Stephen Graham says in an Observer interview, the infamous gangster’s character will be developed in season three as we see him as a father as well as fearsome mobster.

Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson

In coming weeks Rosetti will be moving against Nucky and Rothstein, and former G-man turned struggling door-to-door salesman Van Alden is in for an interesting time having fortuitously saved O’Banion from Capone at the Irishman’s flower shop.

With the creative forces of The Soprano‘s writer Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese behind it, Boardwalk Empire is period drama with punch.

Where UK history shows such as Downton Abbey, with its airbrushed view of life below stairs, is a watered down version of the past, Boardwalk Empire‘s evocation of the mad, messy Prohibition era is 95% proof. Go for the real stuff.

Cast: Steve Buscemi Nucky Thompson, Kelly Macdonald Margaret Thompson, Michael Shannon Nelson Van Alden, Shea Whigham Eli Thompson, Michael Kenneth Williams Chalky White, Jack Huston Richard Harrow, Paul Sparks Mickey Doyle, Michael Stuhlbarg Arnold Rothstein, Stephen Graham Al Capone, Vincent Piazza Lucky Luciano, Gretchen Mol Gillian Darmody, Anatol Yusef Meyer Lansky, Bobby Cannavale Gyp Rosetti

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