After three and a half seasons, it’s pretty clear Boardwalk Empire has nothing up its beautifully tailored sleeve. No one is losing much sleep wondering if creator Terence Winter has a master plan, or what the ultimate fate of political boss and bootlegger Nucky Thompson will say about our societal relationship to TV antiheroes. No one seems particularly worried about whether the show can “stick the landing,” if there’s even a landing to stick: Each season has covered about a year of real time, and we’re currently up to 1924, which means the repeal of Prohibition — the show’s most logical endpoint — is still almost a decade away. Plus Enoch Johnson, the actual Jersey boss Steve Buscemi’s Nucky is partially based on, didn’t go to prison until 1941. At some point HBO may decide that bankrolling this lavish white-elephant TV show isn’t worth the art direction and hairstyling Emmys it brings in, but that hasn’t happened yet. The network announced the pickup of a fifth season shortly after the fourth season premiered last month.
It’s not that nobody cares about Boardwalk Empire. It still gets respectable ratings and garners respectful reviews. It’s been parodied on Sesame Street and Funny or Die. Smart, funny people have written smart, funny things about it, including Sean T. Collins and Grantland’s own Molly Lambert, among others. Explore the #BoardwalkEmpire hashtag on Twitter and you’ll find many, many people who are either catching up on Boardwalk Empire or announcing a desire to do so. Judging by social media alone, it’s the show people are most likely to be thinking about watching after they finish watching whatever show they’re watching now. But it doesn’t move the needle in a national-conversation sense the way Breaking Bad did, the way Mad Men or Game of Thrones do. And it has nothing particularly provocative to say about the corruption in the American grain, about the foolhardiness of other forms of prohibition, about capitalism or the history of New Jersey or old-timey people being not that different from us. It does have beautiful sets, in which 70 different hard-to-tell-apart guys in suits and hats meet and speak disrespectfully to one another, and sometimes Uncle Junior shows up cosplaying Martin Van Buren. Like (I’m guessing) a lot of people, I watched the pilot and wrote it off immediately as a pretty but pointless double-back over ground covered long ago in movies like Miller’s Crossing and Once Upon a Time in America, an attempt by HBO to coast on Terence Winter’s Sopranos pedigree and Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur. I’ll admit this was critical judgment as triage — there are only so many hours in the day, and I had more zeitgeisty things to watch. Which doesn’t mean that the pilot wasn’t boring.
At least at first, it was boredom that brought me back, rather than curiosity — the second season of Boardwalk aired during Mad Men‘s long 2011 hiatus, and after the season finales of both Thrones and Breaking Bad. I had nothing better on the docket, and then suddenly here was Michael Pitt stabbing Dabney Coleman with a trident, and I wanted to know why. With help from HBO On Demand, I figured out pretty quickly what everyone who’d hung in since the pilot already knew — that while the show doesn’t really move the needle as an American creation myth, it remains premium-grade pulp, written and acted and directed by people who know what they’re doing. It lost a level of psychological complexity after the death (for possibly non-story-related reasons) of Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, but I still find the plot and characters engaging and want to know who lives and who dies from week to week. I realize that’s kind of an indefensible reason for liking a TV show in 2013, but it wasn’t always; it’s only post-Sopranos that we’ve decided a TV show needs to redraw the rules of the medium and/or seem indisputably all-time-pantheon-bound in order to be worth our time.
I’m all for talking about TV on the Internet, and for the erosion of the lines between critic and blogger and recapper, and generally speaking I tend to freak out about all the same shows the rest of the online critical establishment tends to freak out about. But I hit a wall during the second half of Breaking Bad‘s last season — I was as riveted as ever by the show itself, but after a while I literally couldn’t stand to hear another theory or opinion about how it might end. Again, many smart people wrote smart things during the orgy of analysis and second-guessing and think-piecing and Monday-morning showrunning that surrounded those last eight episodes, but it still felt to me like the entire culture industry spent August and September talking the pitcher’s ear off during a no-hitter. And even though Matthew Weiner seems to need our advice even less than Vince Gilligan did, we’ll all do it again next spring, when the first half of the final season of Mad Men starts.
Sometimes it’s a relief to be able to watch TV and draw conclusions about it without a vast participatory infrastructure yammering in your ear. For the past few years, Boardwalk Empire has been a diversion for me, but in the wake of Breaking Bad mania, it has become a refuge — from theories, from other people’s snap judgments, from the whole conversation about whether a given TV show ranks among the best OF ALL TIME, which always reminds me of pointless elementary-school arguments about whether the Hulk could beat up Superman. Boardwalk Empire is my cave show; it’s TV that doesn’t feel like homework for reading the Internet. Sometimes I let myself fall behind on it, just because I can; I didn’t encounter a single spoiler about the major character who dies at the end of the fifth episode of this season, even though I waited to watch it until the night the sixth one aired.
It has been really good this season, by the way. Instead of introducing a new mad-dog antagonist to replace last season’s bad guy, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale, who won an Emmy for what felt to me like a stock psycho-mobster performance), the show has spent six episodes moving potential villains into position, including baby-faced Agent Knox (and his boss, a G-man named J. Edgar Hoover) and Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, an aristocratic Trinidadian crime lord who runs Harlem and owns a piece of everyone. We’re seeing less of Kelly MacDonald as Nucky’s wife, Margaret — who never quite humanized Buscemi’s character the way she was obviously meant to — and more of up-and-coming mobsters Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano, as well as British bulldog Stephen Graham as the young, coked-up Al Capone, who has taken on Fed-turned-outlaw Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) as a henchman. Aside from the abovementioned major-character death, nothing has really happened, but many incidental characters have met their doom in entertainingly bloody ways, and Nucky’s buying up swampland near Tampa, so who knows — we may learn a bit about the wild early days of Ybor City before too long.
This isn’t going to be the season that turns Boardwalk into a national obsession; if that were going to happen, it would have happened by now. Either you like hanging out with these people and want to see what befalls them next, or you don’t. The show’s not broken, but if HBO is at all concerned with its relative lack of buzz, I’m pretty sure I know how to fix it.
That’s right. You heard me. You saw that I wrote those words in a one-sentence paragraph, which indicates that I am not kidding around. It’s time for this show to evolve from a period drama about the American criminal underworld of the 1920s into a period drama about the American criminal underworld of the 1920s in which the characters occasionally encounter the bloodthirsty undead.
I know what you’re thinking: “This is an incredible idea and I already agree with you.” But hear me out. There are at least five reasons why this course of action makes perfect sense.
1. Boardwalk is already exploring most of the themes for which vampirism is often a metaphor: corruption, addiction, rapacious capitalism’s body count, the irrepressibility of the past, people who spend all their time in windowless rooms.
2. It’s also a show full of characters who look or seem like they might already be vampires, like Buscemi’s sepulchral Nucky and his equally pallid partner/rival Arnold Rothstein. There’s more than a little Lucy Westenra in the curdled maternal sensuality of Gretchen Mol’s Gillian Darmody, the show’s most obviously Gothic character. And the velveteen menace of Dr. Narcisse made me think of William Marshall in Blacula even before Narcisse gave a speech about the “duppy,” a parasitic evil spirit from Jamaican folklore.
3. But there’s no need to reveal that these characters have always been vampires, the way [spoiler alert] Battlestar Galactica did with the final five Cylons. That would be absurd. We need not retcon Chalky White as a descendant of Count Chocula to make this work. (Nor am I proposing a True Blood crossover, an idea that I’m sure has already been explored in the world of fan fiction, which is, as usual, way ahead of us on all these things.) And I don’t think more than one vampire is necessary, at least not at first. Boardwalk Empire is, and should remain, a show in which small plot turns ripple outward in unexpected ways. The vampire story line could start slow, perhaps with the arrival in Atlantic City of a dandyish Romanian bootlegger with suspiciously Old World manners, ideally played by whoever the Benedict Cumberbatch of next year is, although this being HBO they’ll probably give the part to Federico Castelluccio for old times’ sake. He’ll grow fangs and bite somebody at some point — but only after six or seven episodes in which all he does is lurk in the corner during tense closed-door meetings. And since this show takes place in a milieu where people disappear mysteriously all the time, it’ll take a while for anyone to notice that Count Vladu keeps turning up with stains on his spats, even though he says he doesn’t drink wine.
4. Obviously, once you introduce even one vampire, you’re planting the seeds of an ending in which Nucky, who has been slowly losing his soul throughout the show’s run, allows himself to be “turned,” then uses his newfound vampiric powers to vanquish his competitors once and for all, sort of like the mobster Robert Loggia plays in John Landis’s classic Innocent Blood. But the introduction of a single supernatural element could be beneficial to the show in more immediate ways, by breaking up its overdetermined rhythms — and giving everyone on the Internet something to argue about. People would love the vampire, people would hate the vampire, people would write long blog posts comparing the sudden appearance of hungry, hungry hemovores in Boardwalk‘s painstakingly crafted, studiously straw-boatered fictional universe to Jonathan Frid showing up as lovelorn vamp Barnabas Collins more than 200 episodes into Dark Shadows, a twist that transformed a foundering Gothic soap opera into one of the most beloved cult TV shows of all time.
5. Also, eight more words: Richard Harrow and Nelson Van Alden, Vampire Hunters. I mean, c’mon.
And sure, even a not-particularly-discerning 13-year-old will tell you that vampires are even more played out than old-timey gangsters. But so are zombies, and The Walking Dead seems to be doing just fine. If Boardwalk Empire sticks to its current formula, it’ll go down in history as a well-made cable drama that won a few awards and garnered decent ratings without ever quite capturing the public’s imagination. Add a vampire and it becomes a show that started out playing checkers and ended up playing badminton, and long after it goes off the air, we’ll still be arguing about it. Or we’ll at least be saying, “Hey — remember when that vampire showed up on Boardwalk Empire? That was crazy.”