Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Arts

Binging: Boardwalk Empire

Big on unnecessary tit-shots and staggering violence, but still undeniably brilliant: Hannah Dunleavy talks Terence Winter’s Prohibition-set drama.

A broad selection of characters: Boardwalk Empire‘s Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) and Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham). Photos: HBO.

You’d think there was a very clear difference between something which is showing sexism and something which is being sexist. And yet, so often, with TV drama, I seem to find myself on a different page to other viewers.

I see sexism in Game of Thrones defended for being somehow “historically accurate”, despite it being based in the Year Nope, Never Happened. And then I wonder, “Hang on, you think the mind would baulk at the idea of a world where women aren’t treated like fuckmeat before it’d baulk at princesses riding dragons?”

Conversely, Mad Men, a series which treats women like diverse, complex, fascinating and flawed human beings, is routinely labelled sexist, because Don Draper. Sexist, my ungrabbed pussy; I could give you another 1,000 words on how Joan and Peggy differ on what a woman needs to do to succeed and how people are still having that very same argument 50 years later.

But I’ll save you that, because I’m supposed be talking Boardwalk Empire, which itself offers ample opportunity to ask: when is something an accurate representation of the sexism that existed when it was set and when is it an accurate representation of the sexism that existed when it was made?

In truth, Terence Winter’s extraordinary Prohibition-set drama often fails to separate the two. Does it have interesting, three-dimensional female characters? Yes. Could it replace 50 per cent of the women in it with stock footage of some jiggling tits? Affirmative.

Does it show women living with the decisions society makes for them? Oh yes. Does it imperil and even kill them to move the plot along? Of course it does.

Does it acknowledge that women have banded together to become a rising political force? Certainly. Does it give the distinct impression that all women (kindly whores excepted) hate each other? Come on now, what else?

Because, you know, I’m pretty confident it’s historically accurate that middle-aged gangsters groped pert young women. But when I’m shown it for the umpteenth time I start to wonder if I’m actually supposed to be cheering them on.

“It’s surely the bloodiest television series ever made, featuring huge gunfights, mass beatings, close-up repeated punching and a subterranean toilet fight with future Daredevil Charlie Cox in which I practically chewed through my fist.”

Nudity might not bother you and, fair enough. Although you should probably also never complain about seeing Lena Dunham naked ever again.

Personally, I’ve no objection to the human form but in Boardwalk Empire it’s so omnipresent it loses all meaning. So, when Paz de la Huerta’s Lucy power-strips in front of Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, what should be a scene worthy of the (reasonably short) list of totally earned cases of HBO full frontal nudity*, it falls utterly flat because by this point the viewer has seen that body so often they could build it in Lego from memory.
*You know: James Purefoy’s cock-out lecture to Kevin McKidd in Rome; Christopher Eccleston in the stocks in The Leftovers. Etc.

But it’s not just the T&A that brings all the boys to Boardwalk Empire‘s yard, it’s also its commitment to shit-splintering violence. It’s surely the bloodiest television series ever made, featuring huge gunfights, mass beatings, close-up repeated punching and a subterranean toilet fight with future Daredevil Charlie Cox in which I practically chewed through my fist.

Series three is near-apocalyptically violent, but, importantly, keeps its most significant death off-screen, leaving only the desperate aftermath to full-on punch you in the heart.

Having said all that, you might well be thinking, “So, why the hell should I watch Boardwalk Empire?”

Well, it’s set during one of the most disastrous (and therefore one of the most interesting) social experiments in history. It’s beautifully scripted. And gorgeously shot. And costumed. And scored.

Michael K Williams as Chalky White

Michael K Williams as ‘Chalky’ White.

It’s got a staggering array of decent characters and has probably the best cast of any television drama. Ever. (No, but really. The list of actors I could hand-on-heart say I’ve never once seen put a single foot wrong is quite short and three of them are here: Stephen Root, Stephen Graham and Michael K Williams.)

But before we get into all that, let’s talk Macdonald’s Margaret Schroeder, the most underrated BE character and, quite possibly, one of the most underrated female characters on TV.

Margaret’s overlooked for a few reasons. She’s often not part of the marquee action and since there is always so much going on, reviews tend to not even get to the womenfolk. And if they do, they usually stop at the great Greek tragedy that is the hopelessly damaged Gillian Darmody. (And fair enough, Gretchen Mol is terrifyingly good; at once serenely restrained and a firework about to go off.)

Margaret’s also often seen as the Carmela Soprano of the piece, not least because she shares a number of similar storylines with her predecessor. But with all due respect to the mighty Edie Falco, Margaret is a way more interesting and sympathetic character. While most of Carmela’s problems exist in her head, Margaret’s problems are in the real world.

As such, she is our guide through the social history in the early 20th century and all the horrors that held for her sex. And Kelly Macdonald aces it all, from soul-crushing grief to light-touch comedy. (My favourite bit of Boardwalk Empire will never not be the bit where Margaret offers the Mother Superior a free packet of sanitary towels.)

And the positivity about women doesn’t end there. There’s smart and witty Esther Randolph, played by Julianne Nicholson and based on real life Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt. And there’s Sally Wheet, the Florida bar owner, played by Patricia Arquette, who is the only female character allowed to be over 40 (and over a size 10) and still be sexy. Which is progress, and for this series, huge progress.

I suppose, I ought to talk about the blokes, what with them being omnipresent and, to a man, rather brilliant.

Jack Huston as Richard Harrow.

There’s William Forsythe as a nerve-wracking butcher (in every sense of the word), and a literal swinging dick of a performance by Bobby Cannavale. Jeffrey Wright turns up in series four and frigging owns it, and Michael Shannon is both baddie and comic relief as Prohibition agent Van Alden. Then there’s Jack Huston, as the tin-faced war hero Richard Harrow, a role so splendid the Brit seems doomed to never repeat that performance.

There’s also history in abundance – and to varying degrees of accuracy – with real-life uber-personalities like Al Capone (Stephen Graham being completely awesome), George Remus and the US’s most famous gambler Arnold Rothstein (played with cool detachment by Michael Stuhlbarg). There’s the culturally significant ‘interracial’ bromance between real-life gangsters ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Meyer Lansky.*
*There is also a piece, if not several, to be written about Boardwalk Empire‘s portrayal of the experiences of American Jews and African Americans, but I’m not the person to do it, obviously.

And, of course, there’s the two marquee names, Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt, the solid centre of the series, which means they often get treated like the parent who puts the food on the table. We’re grateful, but it’s hard not to get all over-excited when the parent who doesn’t swings by once a week to takes us somewhere exciting.

And finally, Boardwalk Empire is often super funny, in a way that can best be demonstrated by this excruciating and only mildly spoiler-y scene where Michael K Williams’ ‘Chalky’ White is sent to intimidate a Broadway star.

A sometimes deeply flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. If you can get over all those tits.

@thatdunleavy

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.