Boardwalk Empire is the odd man out of the classic HBO drama. It was never quite as successful as the network wanted it to be, though it did receive critical acclaim and awards notice. (And the ratings were never actually bad.) It lasted five seasons until Terence Winter got bored and ended the series to make Vinyl, another massive HBO project that turned out to be the kind of epic disaster Nathan Rabin drooled over. The show attracted a mix of the guys who loved whenever Tony Soprano shot someone and a passionate cult who saw what it was going for – a lavish recreation of a world long gone, and a tragedy of the sins of your past ultimately catching up to you.
I watched every episode even if I dropped off for a bit after the pilot which was directed by Martin “Freaking” Scorsese. At times, especially in the first two seasons, the show was a mess. Two cast members were written off when they were unprofessional nightmares to work with. (Though Paz De La Huerta was almost certainly dealing with severe PTSD related to sexual assault and I have nothing but empathy for her. Michael Pitt is just a dick.) The Prohibition agent turned crook played by Michael Shannon became 100 times more interesting in season three when the writers realized Shannon was hilarious. And aspects of the dramatic structure were undeniably flawed – for one, that Nucky Thompson as played by Steve Buscemi was just not as explosive or likeable as Tony Soprano or Walter White.
But what this meant was Empire rewarded attention and care; by the final scenes of season five, Nucky’s fate is important because you’ve spent this much time learning about the man and the little moments of kindness that occasionally mark his actions. It was a “slow burn” prestige show that actually knew how to use that style of plotting, the virtue of patience. You would think the plots were too disparate at first and then every character and plot element came crashing together beautifully in those final few episodes, like bumper cars whirling into one another.
One of those characters was Arnold Rothstein, beautifully played by Michael Stuhlbarg as cold, not without dry humor, and used to his intelligence being vastly superior to everyone else. The real Rothstein was arguably the greatest criminal of the 20th century in his transformation of crime into a thriving business akin to JP Morgan. (Though whether or not he actually fixed the 1919 World Series, as has been ascribed, is up for debate. Nick Tosches in his 2005 Vanity Fair article argues that Rothstein was asked to invest in the fix, declined, and simply bet on the “winning” team.) The Rothstein of the series is fictionalized but has a similar status. For four seasons, Stuhlbarg turned in subtle and charismatic work, and there’s no better scene than this one (from season four, episode four, “All In”) because he and the writers found the vulnerability in a powerful man. Most important to the character, you see, is that Rothstein is a gambler.
I’ve seen the scene three or four times, and it’s easy to watch without much context. Nucky and Rothstein play poker with a few men, one of whom taunts Rothstein with antisemitic insults. Rothstein continually needles Nucky, cares far more about the game than Nucky ever could. But most importantly he keeps losing until Nucky just leaves in disgust. At last at four o’ clock in the morning, the man still playing, Meyer Lansky (Rothstein’s apprentice) is able to appeal to Rothstein’s sense of image, that he’s coming off as the addict he is. And he leaves, simple as that. (Lansky beats the antisemitic bastard in an alley but that’s a whole other scene.)
What makes this really shine are the performance and filmmaking choices throughout. Throughout the scene Stuhlbarg is deliberately underlit so the shadows around his eyes and chin are much harsher than normal; he looks downright vampiric, feeding off of the game. Stuhlbarg deliberately keeps his face very still, moving his mouth into a twisted grin, his brows permanently furrowed in concentration. “There’s only the game you’re in now,” he tells Nucky, and he seems to live that.
The camera follows suit (ho ho ho) in terms of stillness. Tight over the shoulder shots, mid-close ups, and wide angles are the name of the game here, polished and edited well. (Empire‘s flaws may include that Scorsese directed the pilot – many excellent television directors followed but no one could match his ecstatic choices.) Then when Nucky leaves and Rothstein is lost in the grips of the game, the direction takes in stronger close-ups: the dealer’s hands throwing out a deck of cards, taking a new one from a pile. A great piece of editing occurs in the frankly terrifying scene when the dealer looks at Lansky trying to signal, and Rothstein snaps his fingers, pointing with the agitation of a teen in withdrawal: “Don’t look at him – look at me…I’m the player.” The cut synchronizes with the snap, and it’s genuinely jarring. The smile Stuhlbarg always gave Rothstein, like a satisfied house cat, was never more unsettling.
Until at last Lansky, as the camera elegantly pans from him to his boss, says in a whisper, “Wouldn’t it be best…people don’t see you like this?”I don’t think Stuhlbarg was ever better than the look he gives him here, one of absolute desperation, of “Oh God I wouldn’t stop, why couldn’t I stop?” It is a genuine revelation of character and hard-won. You think you know a person, and then there’s so much more.
At least a few of us on The Solute have written and critiqued the “slow burn” model of storytelling, including my own on why Westworld is so irritating to watch. And Boardwalk Empire was never a perfect show, but at its best it was leisurely pacing done right: meticulous, revealing layers of story and setting as it went along until we had a complete world in front of us, from New York to Chicago to Atlantic City. That meant too that the season finales were great because they were cathartic bloodbaths, but also that characters could gradually become more and more to the viewer. Like Arnold Rothstein with the poker game, the point of fiction can be that we just want to know a little something about everybody.