The Brutal 'Boardwalk Empire' Finale: How Terence Winter is Like Floyd Mayweather
I thoroughly despise Floyd Mayweather. A boxing champion, he is also a disrespectful braggart, a convicted woman-beater, and a dirty fighter who spits on the very legacy of boxing at every turn.
He is a champion who pads his record by dodging truly big fights, all while heckling the one man he should be fighting (Manny Pacquiao). He's the type of ludicrous man who burns money in public to show how bad he is.
Yet for all the reasons there is to despise Mayweather, there is no one better at hyping a fight, drawing viewers, and raking in pay per view receipts. Therefore I must hate the man, but begrudgingly respect his accomplishments.
Which is exactly how I feel right now about “Boardwalk Empire” and writer/creator Terence Winter.
I regularly refer to the "Boardwalk Empire" (to few friends who will listen) as the best drama on television. With the skillful storytelling of “Sopranos” alum Winter, the gangster-film God Martin Scorsese’s fingerprints shining through in all the details as an executive producer, and a cast that’s better than the vast majority of feature films (let alone tv shows), it has grown from a compelling story of an up-and-coming gangster working his way up in the Prohibition era Wild West environs of Atlantic City into a complex and incredibly nuanced multi-generational tale of greed, corruption, violence, love and lust.
While the first season was focused more on survival and developing the framework for the complex and sometimes incestuous interweaving of characters, families, political ties and class structures, season two went deep into what drove the characters, from Steve Buscemi’s all-encompassing Nucky Thompson to Michael Pitt’s war vet-turned reluctant gang leader Jimmy Darmody, to the fascinating half-masked man Richard Harrow, to Kelly MacDonald’s deeply conflicted Margaret Schroeder and her Irish bomber/lover Owen Sleater.
Lay the characters out like that, and it begins to sound a bit like a soap opera, and “Boardwalk Empire” this season was anything but.
While there was plenty of illicit sex, plotting and political intrigue, the writing was far more fascinating than your average television drama, and superior to the vast majority of gangster films ever made. Winter and crew delved into the psychological scars of war, the struggles of women, the politics of race and the struggles of labor.
Everyone seemingly had father issues, and if ever there was a poster child for Mommy issues, it was Jimmy Darmody.
The struggles of morality and the conflict of hedonism and the church that defined the Prohibition era were also there in nearly every episode, whether it was in the mind-boggling performances of Michael Shannon’s adulterous baby daddy and Prohibition Agent van Alden or in the cash-for-salvation relationship between Margaret and the Church.
Which is one part of “Boardwalk Empire” you have to respect. Literally everyone is in on the take, and everyone gets theirs, one way or another. This is what takes us to the hate part.
Winter clearly has a set of rules within “Boardwalk Empire” where everyone ultimately must pay for their sins eventually, and given the level of violence on the show, that usually means seeing the business end of a bullet (or maybe a good scalping).
But what he did at the season finale was just some seriously cold hearted sh%^.
It was very much like Floyd Mayweather knocking out Victor Ortiz in the fourth round of his last fight with a brutal sucker punch, when Ortiz’s hands were down as he was apologizing for an accidental head butt and the ref was looking the other way.
As Mayweather and the judge argued, legally speaking, you can sucker punch a guy after an apology if you want. It’s not the sportsmanlike thing to do, and it doesn’t show even a modicum of respect to your audience, but damn skippy you can do it.
And that’s exactly what the hell Winter did. On the last episode of a season devoted almost entirely on Jimmy Darmody, a monster-with-a-heart-of-gold who viewers had been painstakingly been groomed into loving and empathizing with, Winter and the writers from “Boardwalk Empire” killed him off.
They f%^king killed Jimmy Darmody.
In the pivotal scene. Jimmy faces Nucky on a beach, unarmed and fully prepared to be killed, saying “This is the only way we could have ended, isn’t it?”
Nucky replies “This is your choice, James.”
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Winter explained the choice rather precisely:
“In the pilot, Jimmy told Nucky: ‘You can’t be half a gangster anymore.’ We wanted with the first two seasons to follow that trajectory, where he goes full season from being the guy who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty to actually pulling the trigger himself,” said Winter.
“And what’s the strongest version of that? To pull the trigger on the very guy who told him, ‘You can’t be half a gangster anymore.’ It’s like, ‘Guess what? You’re right. I can’t. And here’s me now fully becoming a gangster.’ Anything short of Nucky doing it himself wouldn’t feel real, it wouldn’t be real. And it would be a cheat for us to say, ‘We want to keep our beloved character Jimmy Darmody alive,’” said Winter.
As if to emphasize the point, in the series’ most memorable moment to date, Nucky tells Jimmy, the gangsters surrounding him and the audience, that for all his sins, "I. Am not. Seeking forgiveness."
And, much like Floyd Mayweather, neither is Winter.