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Setting, Space, and Place in “Boardwalk Empire” by Scorsese

Important Background Information

Set on the verge of the age of prohibition, the series offers a unique outlook on Nucky Thompson, who is a well-known treasurer across Atlantic City. Despite being constantly monitored by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Nucky somehow manages to strike deals with gang bosses and politicians in order to flood Atlantic City with illegal alcohol. Throughout the pilot episode, the audience also has a chance to get acquainted with Nucky’s driver, who is a war veteran willing to get involved in the process of building an empire together with Nucky himself.1 The way in which Atlantic City is presented also gives the audience a chance to peek into the incredibly high level of detail that the authors tried to fit into the series. There are numerous reasons to perceive the Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010-2014) as a TV show that outlines the matters of the past in rich detail while paying attention to every crucial character and their interpersonal relationships. Costumes, special effects, and set designs could be addressed as the key instruments allowing the series directors to appeal to the viewers and release episodes of exceptional quality.

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An Analysis of the Series

Setting

As for the setting where the story takes place, the directors had made the right choice when they emphasized the image of Atlantic City and its inherent role in the development of the culture of vices.2 Even though all the possible changes cannot be spotted from the first episode, it may be claimed that the premises for transformation are inherent in the plot of the story due to the grandeur linked to the concept of an empire being built. Atlantic City would later become one of the best places for gamblers and tourists to visit because each of them would find an activity appealing to their interests and budget. Even though the tempo of the narration is relatively slow-paced, there is no point in the pilot episode that could give away lazy writing schemes or an unfortunate approach to the legacy of underground activities that flooded Atlantic City at that time. During the first episode, the future motherland of the Boardwalk Empire is also presented as a messy location that requires a strong intervention to come into order.

At first sight, it also becomes evident that Atlantic City is a rough place that requires visitors to come prepared and know everything about the shady parts of the city. The pilot episode highlights the lack of improvements that could affect the city, even under the upcoming prohibitions. In addition, the latter only serves as a diversion to take the public attention away from the shady operations run by the authorities in the background. The growing occurrence of crimes is presented in the first episode as one of the characteristics of Atlantic City that are only going to become more evident throughout the development of the plot. The grand vision that the politicians and gang bosses have for Atlantic City is masterfully manipulated by Nucky, who utilizes this period of stagnation to gain more authority and remove the thin line between criminal and political operations.3 This “shadow realm” is an essential part of Atlantic City because it feeds everyone, including the regular folk who took pat in the development of the city as a whole.

What is crucial for the viewers since the very first episode of the series is that Atlantic City seems to thrive under the influence of illegal activities. Owing to the efforts exerted by Nucky Johnson, the city becomes welcomed by rich people and authorities. It paves the way for the screenwriters, as they get a chance to populate the setting with numerous additional details intended to draw attention to Atlantic City and its dependence on illegal goods and activities. In literature, the years of Nucky’s reign are regarded as the Golden Age of Atlantic City development, meaning that the history of this city would not become what it is now without Johnson’s questionable initiatives. As soon as the prohibition act was passed, more tourists started to come to the city in search of new experiences and forbidden substances, especially alcohol. The setting is perfect for the series because the Boardwalk Empire visually and metaphorically explains the key reasons for the popularization of Atlantic City and tells the story of Nucky and local citizens as the ones being responsible for the upsurge in unlawful operations and tourists from all over the country.

At the same time, the story develops in a way that gives away the usual dramatic plot twist that relates to the fact that Atlantic City went up rather quickly and then collapsed to its original form without a chance to bring back the old glory. Therefore, the setting that the directors establish in the pilot episode is full of inevitability and negative moods that affect Nucky and his close ones to an incredible extent. In the Boardwalk Empire, the city represents a live organism that responds to external interventions in real-time and affects every citizen irrespective of their wealth or authority. Knowing that people are prone to spending money on illicit services and substances, Johnson quickly created a name for Atlantic City and turned the former saltwater ghetto into a prosperous area that is of interest to many people outside of the city or even the State of New Jersey. The story told in the Boardwalk Empire is a homage to the role that Atlantic City has played in supporting the regional economy and offering tourists plenty of ways to spend their vacations quickly yet expensively.

Main Character

Based on the information and visuals from the first episode of the Boardwalk Empire, it may be claimed that illegal activities have made Nucky Johnson into a lavish mob representative who somehow managed to navigate between the two worlds. Unlawful money streams boosted his ego and position in the local society, allowing Atlantic City to grow as well. As a man with a strong voice (not only metaphorically), Johnson has been able to reach an incredible level of consistency when resolving issues with business partners and following fashion trends. The show pays special attention to the visual appeal created by Steve Buscemi as Nucky is never caught without being dressed in something expensive. Given the story, it all began with illegal alcohol, but it is much more important to look at how Nucky interacts with his surroundings to understand where his power and influence come from in the series (and in real-life prototypes, too). Johnson is an exquisite character that has the ability to shift among different realms and control everything he sees. Yet, Nucky is a diplomatic type, who freely communicates with mob bosses and politicians to demand favors from them.

Without this high level of command, Atlantic City would never become a dream vacation spot for quite a few people from across the United States. The first episode highlights Nucky’s wittiness and capitalizes on the main character’s ability to negotiate and achieve improbable outcomes through masterful manipulation. Johnson’s attitude toward his followers, as portrayed by Buscemi, could be one of the eventual advantages of the pilot episode in addition to the setting and costumes. It is also crucial to realize that the main character’s political moves were just as strong as his control over Atlantic City. Everything Nucky has built across the city became a source of potential favors intended to provide him with even more control over what goes on around him.4 Johnson had a public job, and it appealed to the local population as well because they realized that Nucky could lead everyone to a better life, even if his methods were not legal. For this particular reason, people in need of a granted favor tended to reach out to Nucky, as he kept every organization on a shorter leash.

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Therefore, Nucky is portrayed as an exceptional figure in Atlantic City who has the power of controlling one’s job decisions and even life choices. The swagger of an undisputed boss is all over Johnson, as he is always firm, collected, and rational. Evidently, not everyone likes what Nucky does, but there is no power that can stop the main character from completing his plan and gaining even more control over the city and the people. Irrespective of the crimes he committed, Johnson was still feared and respected across Atlantic City because it was evident that Nucky had a strong stance among criminals and politicians. The first episode of the Boardwalk Empire takes the time to display respect and admiration others exert when they see Nucky and interact with him. In addition, he did not tolerate disobedience, so he had to take over the police as well. The pilot episode shows that Johnson has the ability to communicate in a diplomatic yet rather influential way. This kind of power one might not be able to meet elsewhere because Atlantic City was wide open at the time, and Nucky Johnson had no choice but to control the police as well.

This exceptional amount of power serves as the catalyst for Nucky’s complex relationships with the authorities in the form of the FBI. The first season of the Boardwalk Empire showed that not everything could be bought or negotiated in Atlantic City, but Johnson had to learn it the hard way. The shady operations ran by the main character turned out to be the most important personal characteristic of his, showing that Nucky was capable of developing positive relationships with practically anyone except for the higher authorities that he could not touch.5 The pilot episode of the series does not dwell much on Johnson’s interactions with the police or other representatives of nationwide power, but it demonstrates that the future boss of Atlantic City realizes the responsibility he has on his hands. Illegal booze and other vices, such as gambling, quickly became synonymous with Atlantic City, and Nucky was the mastermind behind all the good and the bad transformations that the city had gone through during the 1920s and 1930s.

Even though the pilot episode does not give away any specific hints regarding Johnson’s future, there is no doubt that the finale is going to be dramatic. The first episode paves the way for a long journey that Nucky would have to take in order to become the boss of Atlantic City and rise from rags to riches. Despite being a criminal, he still played an important role in putting Atlantic City on the map, as his intentions (while illegal) were solely motivated by the fact that he was a diplomat with strong political inclinations. The Boardwalk Empire does not romanticize mob affiliations, nor does it reward bossism. Instead, the series merely outlines the influence of Nucky Johnson’s legacy and his ability to negotiate.

Power and Politics as Descriptive Tools for Space and Place in the Boardwalk Empire

One of the instruments that are successfully utilized by show directors to point out the importance of Atlantic City and Nucky Johnson is the concept of power. During the first episode, the viewers may quickly learn that it is a costly business to run the local Republican Party and maintain connections with the criminal environment while remaining a ladies-man who is able to spend every other night with a different woman. Evidently, Nucky is the definition of a person who “made it,” at least in the eyes of those who are close to Johnson and interact with him on a daily basis. Nucky has an iron fist for controlling everything in his sight. Nevertheless, the series quickly puts everything in its place because there are quite a few downsides associated with the amount of power that Nucky has. In the background, people with more authority are trying to take him down while fellow mob bosses are also aiming for the throne of the king of Atlantic City. That is not an exact depiction of a dream coming true, as Nucky does not even have friends whom he may trust.

Throughout the series, viewers learn that the constant struggle experienced by Nucky and successors is not a path of honor, as power tends to change people. The atmosphere created by the directors proves that the Boardwalk Empire is not for soft dudes, and it is always lonely at the top. Another essential instrument utilized across the series is a detailed depiction of politicians. Not only are they far from being honest and authentic, but these politicians also resemble the mob bosses, as they are allegedly trying to fight with their policies and decisions.6 For instance, there is Nucky Johnson, on the one hand, a tough Republican who easily communicates with the representatives of the local criminal environment and never tries to create an innocent image for himself. On the other hand, there is Hap Farley, who easily depicts a flawlessly honest politician but is exceptionally corrupt on the low. In Atlantic City of the 1920s, there was no place for soft decisions, as the city was taken over by shady operations drowning the locals in illegal booze and other vices. Therefore, the audience can grasp all idiosyncrasies and irrationalities characteristic of contemporary politicians.

With all these operations running in the background, there may be no doubt about the fact that the political environment described in the Boardwalk Empire is only the tip of the criminal iceberg melting across Atlantic City. The directors masterfully show the fine line between illegal activities and political decisions, which goes beyond mere metaphorical symbolism. The city’s history itself proves that local governments are not as antagonistic toward powerful criminals as they usually pose to be. This unique relationship is shown in the Boardwalk Empire in order to prove that there were more levels to what had happened to Atlantic City during the 1920s and 1930s. The development of further criminal schemes also contributed to an accurate depiction of space and place, allowing the series to shape the background of the political machine properly. Yet, there is another important idea included in the series, which is the presence of survival-related needs forcing regular citizens to side with criminal enterprises. This ultimately highlights the idea that the majority of shady operations erase the line between politicians and criminals, contributing to the creation of an extremely dangerous syndicate.

The ultimate idea that should not be overlooked for a better understanding of why and how the Boardwalk Empire became an accurate depiction of the whole era is that the spotlight on Nucky does not reveal the real star of the series. Instead, the directors hint at the huge role that the blue-collar employees had when building Atlantic City from scratch and creating everything for the people who lived there. A unique mix of nations, including Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, has developed into a unique atmosphere that is perfectly translated into the form of the series in the Boardwalk Empire. The working class represents the mediating cohort that manages to stay right in the middle of all political troubles and criminal operations without suffering.7 Instead, the majority of these blue-collar workers benefited from their own contribution to the development of a playground for lavishly living politicians, mob bosses, celebrities, and businesspersons. Therefore, the changes within society can be easily seen from a distance even when the audience only gets to view Nucky’s operations from the front row seats.

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Conclusion

Evidently, the Boardwalk Empire became so appealing to the audience because it created an incredible picture of Atlantic City. The artistic performances of Steve Buscemi and other supporting actors were so realistic that it made the viewers believe they were witnessing the real 1930s and the era of prohibition. Even though mob affiliations did not affect the series to an extent similar to The Sopranos, there is no doubt that the Boardwalk Empire has carefully approached the long-standing vice kingdom established and nurtured by Nucky Johnson, a fearless man who held the whole region in his iron fist. The opening episode of the series featured the prototypes of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, so it may be safe to say that the directors wanted to show off all of their joker cards at the same time. Gangster proceedings are presented with caution and respect, making the setting, the place, and space into a perfect outline of historical events that shaped Atlantic City and its countrywide reputation. One of the major roles in the show was played by the city itself, so there is no wonder the audience carefully grasped the mafia vibes of the series.

The place and space reflected on the invincible impact of vices on people’s everyday lives and planted the seeds of anticipation and belief into numerous individuals who started looking at the series as the successor of the Sopranos after the first episode. The growing reputation of the show, later on, proved that the directors made the right choice picking Atlantic City and Nucky Johnson as their calling cards. Yet, the biggest advantage of the first episode of the premiere season is the incredible level of detail that was put into the series to highlight the structure of the mafia world and share the experience of interacting with mob bosses and corrupt politicians. Even if not all details are fully tangible, some of them are merely sensible, as the audience gets insight into how regular folk perceived the revolution going on inside Atlantic City. The first episode does not answer the question of what their role was in keeping that upheaval going, but the inherent idea was that all people active in the territory of Atlantic City were responsible for erasing the line between criminals and politics.

Even though there are structural weaknesses sometimes making it harder to fully dive into the 1930s Atlantic City, the overall quality of the first episode is overwhelmingly flawless. The conspicuous opening sequence sets the tone not just for the first episode but for the whole series. The slow pace of narration is another calling card of the Boardwalk Empire that leaves the audience in awe due to the incredible level of attention to detail displayed by the directors. From costumes to the setting, the series could be deemed as a perfect depiction of Atlantic City from Nucky Johnson’s era. Since the first episode, the pace of narration does not change over time and remains slow in order for the audience to experience the 1930s and immerse into the atmosphere of dealing with gangsters and corrupt politicians. Each set was constructed with specific attention and the willingness to make the series believable. A thorough depiction of violence is another virtue that cannot be taken away. The first episode of the Boardwalk Empire was a masterful depiction of the complete prohibition era with several shots.

Bibliography

Cavallero, Jonathan J. “Issues of Race, Ethnicity, and Television Authorship in Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues and Boardwalk Empire.” In A Companion to Martin Scorsese, edited by Aaron Baker, 214-236. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2015.

Klarer, Mario. “Putting Television ‘Aside’: Novel Narration in House of Cards.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 12, no. 2 (2014): 203-220. Web.

McCabe, Janet. “HBO Aesthetics, Quality Television and Boardwalk Empire.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 185-197. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Nochimson, Martha P. “Boardwalk Empire: America through a Bifocal Lens.” Film Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2012): 25-39. Web.

Television Series Cited

Scorsese, Martin, dir. “Boardwalk Empire.” Boardwalk Empire, season 1, episode 1, HBO, 2010.

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Footnotes

  1. Martin Scorsese, dir. “Boardwalk Empire.” Boardwalk Empire, season 1, episode 1, HBO, 2010.
  2. Martha P. Nochimson, “Boardwalk Empire: America through a Bifocal Lens.” Film Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2012): 25-39. Web.
  3. Janet McCabe, “HBO Aesthetics, Quality Television and Boardwalk Empire.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 185-197. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
  4. Nochimson, Boardwalk Empire: America through a Bifocal Lens, 35.
  5. McCabe, HBO Aesthetics, Quality Television and Boardwalk Empire, 192.
  6. Klarer, Mario. “Putting Television ‘Aside’: Novel Narration in House of Cards.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 12, no. 2 (2014): 203-220. Web.
  7. Jonathan J. Cavallero, “Issues of Race, Ethnicity, and Television Authorship in Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues and Boardwalk Empire.” In A Companion to Martin Scorsese, edited by Aaron Baker, 214-236. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2015.

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StudyCorgi. "Setting, Space, and Place in “Boardwalk Empire” by Scorsese." October 20, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/setting-space-and-place-in-boardwalk-empire-by-scorsese/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Setting, Space, and Place in “Boardwalk Empire” by Scorsese." October 20, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/setting-space-and-place-in-boardwalk-empire-by-scorsese/.

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