HBO’s Boardwalk Empire series has taken us on a wild ride through the roaring 1920s of Atlantic City since premiering in 2010. With the final season (#5) coming in just weeks, we take a look back at the first four to catch you up to speed.
The first episode of Boardwalk Empire began on the eve of Prohibition. As the U.S. government passed a nationwide ban of all alcohol sales, the series’ main character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (the then Atlantic City Treasurer) hatched a scheme to make himself and a number of associates rich — including New York City businessman/gambler Arnold Rothstein and notorious gangster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano — all by getting into the bootlegging business, kicking off what would turn out to be a hit series.
Through the inaugural season, Nucky builds his status and influence, making powerful friends who he cuts into the pie of his bootlegging profits. He enlists a Black gangster known as Chalky White, who helps him pull together the city’s Black citizens to rally votes, and later, with the distribution of his bootlegging business. However, Nucky runs into obstacles — one being Jimmy Darmody, his former protégé who has returned from World War I with his own ambitious ideas of rising to power.
It’s not all drama for Nucky though. He also meets a woman named Margaret, whom he frees from an abusive husband, and makes her his mistress… and eventually his wife much later on.
By the end of Season 1, Jimmy and Nucky’s brother, Sheriff Eli Thompson, have built up a growing resentment for him, and align themselves with an equally embittered Commodore (who once ran the city) agreeing on a plan to take back control of Atlantic City at Nucky’s expense.
Season 2 picks up with Nucky’s power is being tested by the new alliance of Jimmy, Eli and the Commodore. The trio set their plan into motion by using the Ku Klux Klan to attack one of his bootlegging operations, run by Chalky. This sets off a chain of events, which lands Chalky in jail and ultimately results in Nucky being arrested for election fraud and putting his freedom, power and finances in jeopardy.
While it seems the Commodore’s plan is falling into the place, and the balance of power begins to shift, it hits a snag when he falls ill, due to a stroke, and Jimmy must take the reins and see the plan through. However, it proves to be more than the young man can handle. He eventually orders a failed hit on Nucky, who comes back with a vengeance.
He allows Chalky to lead a Black labor strike to put the city in disarray, and will later beat his trial with the help of Jimmy, who tries to make amends after admitting to being behind his attempted assassination. He silences a main witness, and after Nucky’s charges are dismissed, it seems as though the pair finally bury the hatchet. But in the season finale, Nucky kills Darmody…who somehow seemed to know it was coming.
At the end of the season, Nucky’s enemies seem to be silenced, while Chalky finally gets retribution for the Ku Klux Klan attack and is back in business.
Season 3 starts with Nucky no longer as Treasurer, but remains a powerful figure, referring to himself as a philanthropist, though his main business remains bootlegging. While things seem to be on the up and up, a violent and easily offended NYC Sicilian mobster named Gyp Rosetti is introduced…and becomes Nucky’s main problem.
After Nucky tells Rosetti and all his other associates that he will only provide liquor to one man moving forward (Arnold Rothstein), Rosetti takes it personal and becomes focused on taking down his business.
The New York gangster sets up shop in the small town called Tabor Heights, a halfway point between New York City and Atlantic City. Being that it’s the last fueling station on route to NYC, he uses it to block Nucky’s trucks from delivering liquor shipments to NYC (specifically Rothstein), thus putting a damper on both Nucky and Rothstein’s operations…and money.
Things heat up later, as Rosetti gets the okay from his boss Joe Masseria to take control of the bootlegging operations, and eventually, makes an attempt on Nucky’s life…who survives and promises war.
By the season finale, Nucky is forced to operate out of a lumber yard as Rosetti moves into Atlantic City. So, he seeks the help of Chalky, and later Chicago gangster Al Capone, to help take on Rosetti/Masseria, turning the city into a war zone with bodies piling up. Nucky eventually prevails, but his wife Margaret leaves him… and though depressed, he’s regained Atlantic City.
Nucky’s world was almost torn apart in Season 3, but the following season is about rebuilding what he lost. Following Rosetti’s death, he’s able to form an uneasy truce with Masseria and new bootlegging prospects open up in Florida, growing his booze business like never before.
However, a lot goes on around him… and things begin to fall apart. Eddie, Nucky’s longtime assistant Eddie demands a promotion after 11 years of service, which he gets, but ends up at the losing end after betraying his boss; Chalky White clashes with a new associate named Dr. Valentin Narcisse, both of whom face off in the finale; Al Capone is granted control of Johnny Torrio’s territory in Chicago, becoming a powerful figure; Nucky’s brother Eli stabs him in the back once again, and is almost killed, but oldest son Willie saves his life, and also becomes Nucky’s new protégé.
An agent Warren Knox is also introduced, and is working hard to take down Nucky’s empire and comes very close.
By the end of Season 4, Nucky employs Richard Harrow (the one-time right hand man of slain Jimmy Darmody) to hit Narcisse, after Chalky demands he be killed. However, from a sniper position, Richard is unable to get off a clean shot and mistakenly kills Chalky’s daughter. Shot and bleeding, Harrow — who had become one of the series’ memorable characters — dies under the boardwalk.
Things end with Narcisse being arrested and turned informant by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover; Chalky retreating to Havre de Grace, Maryland; and Nucky sending Eli off to Chicago.
This leaves things wide open for Season 5, which is set seven years after the previous season in 1931, as the nation endures the Great Depression. Carrying the slogan: “No one goes quietly,” the upcoming episodes are sure to be packed with more drama, more struggles for power, and as Nucky promises in the teaser trailer, more blood shed. “I will not rest until I see you in your graves,” he tells someone over the phone, setting the stage for what appears to be an epic ending.
Boardwalk Empire: Season 5 returns to HBO on September 7th.