How Boardwalk Empire Became a Critique of Toxic Masculinity
Also Margaret and Richard were the best characters, don't @ me.
Of all the prestige dramas that have dealt with toxic masculinity and white men behaving badly, by far the most underrated is HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a five-season drama centered on Prohibition, the perils of the American Dream, and how the entire concept has always been wrapped up in the xenophobic, racist, Christian-hetero patriarchy. It’s certainly my favorite of the subgenre of White Men Behaving Badly, mostly due to my own private fixation on the history of American organized crime and some top-notch performances by Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael K. Williams, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jack Huston.
The main plot of Boardwalk is centered on the character of Nucky Thompson (Buscemi), a fictionalized version of the crime boss who ran Atlantic City for years. He comes into contact with famous real-life figures such as Arnold Rothstein (Stuhlbarg) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), as well as original characters such as Chalky White (Williams) and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
As a warning, this piece will deal with spoilers from the entire series. If the first two paragraphs have teased your interest, consider looking away. The series tackles discussion of sexual assault, murder, racism, and xenophobia.
Nucky, as a protagonist, is a great vehicle to examine the way toxic masculinity and “the American dream” can warp even those with the best intentions—a far better vehicle than his peers in fiction, even Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Walter is ultimately given an antagonist that makes him look better in comparison: the neo-Nazi gang he faces in the final season. He gets to go out as a heroic character because he’s making things right and also fighting neo-Nazis to free Jesse. He gets atonement and maybe even redemption, though I personally found him irredeemable.
But as Nucky says in season two’s finale, he is not seeking forgiveness, and though he tries to make things right when it benefits him personally, he’s not good at it because he doesn’t really care about anything other than his own success. He’s a petulant brat masquerading as a “tough guy,” a politician and consummate Slytherin. He got his leg up by literally selling a young Gillian Darmody (played by Gretchen Moll as an adult) into sexual servitude when she’s barely a teenager, and that was the moment when he lost his soul. All his actions after that, from executing Gillian’s son Jimmy (Michael Pitt), to sending his own brother Eli (Shea Whigham) to prison, are merely signs of his wasted moral compass.
And it is this original sin, this sacrifice of a young woman, that comes back to haunt him in the form of Gillian’s grandson Tommy, who shoots him in the series finale. The last thing Nucky sees is a memory of young Gillian offering him her hand as he slips away, driving home the point that Nucky Thompson lost his soul and is dying for all the lives he ruined by that single action. He was not seeking forgiveness, and forgiveness was never offered. He died a lonely, broken monster.
White masculinity, particularly masculinity marked by bigotry and a desire to be a “man” in the patriarchal, toxic sense, drove many of the show’s white male characters, as well. In particular, Nelson Van Alden was driven by a particularly vile sense of religious fanaticism and belief. He murdered his Jewish partner in a violently anti-Semitic attack. He cheated on his wife and then locked his new girlfriend away, so she could have their baby out of sight and not besmirch his reputation.
When his crimes caught up with him, he ran to Chicago and became a gangster, suffering from emasculation as he tried to live under Al Capone’s (Stephen Graham) rule. Ultimately, he dies as he lived, trying to murder Capone when his cover and past are exposed. He dies trying to smite the wicked in a frenzied state, which Shannon embodied perfectly over the course of multiple seasons.
Nucky’s brother represented the fragility of the male ego when the role of patriarch and provider is threatened. Eli, after his stint in prison, found his role in his family threatened by both Nucky stepping in as a provider and his oldest son taking over the role as man of the family. Always a little prickly and quick to insult thanks to years of living in Nucky’s shadow, Eli begins to combust, leading to him murdering someone and fleeing to Chicago (all roads lead to Chicago for most characters). There, he lives in a drunken, disorderly stupor, partnering with Nelson and ultimately finding his way home again. The portrayal is amplified by Whigham’s nuanced and subtle work.
There are other characters who also embody a patriarchal danger and the perils of the American Dream. Paul Sparks’ Mickey Doyle represents assimilation as he changes his name and tries to embody a more American circle. Bobby Cannavale’s Rosetti was a mix of sexual repression and violent temper, symbolizing the violence inherent in toxic masculinity. Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody was the Lost Generation personified, a shell-shocked veteran who was struggling to live up to what society demanded of him.
The answer to white toxic masculinity is presented through two characters: Williams’ Chalky and Huston’s Richard Harrow. Chalky is the only black protagonist in the series. He’s given multiple arcs about protecting his community and family from the racism in society. Season four sees him pitted against Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Narcisse, who symbolizes respectability politics and looks down on Chalky. Othered by race, Chalky’s story is ultimately a tragic one. He is unable to achieve his dream due to being excluded from it by being black, and all he can do is protect his second family with his own life in a final sacrifice.
Harrow is another member of the Lost Generation, a veteran who suffered from severe disfiguration. Othered by ableism, he is forced to work for criminals as he is given no other choice. He is defined by his loyalty and courage, even if his life ultimately leads to his early death. He cannot get a happy ending because this series is about how those affected by white men gambling with others’ lives will suffer until the system changes, but as a character, Richard embodies non-toxic masculinity in his treatment of women and others. Marked by his own journey, he cannot fully be part of society, despite being the best of it.
It’s telling though that, despite many women, including LGBT+ women and women of color, being caught in the crossfire, a woman is shown as the heroine of the story and gets the most unquestionably happy ending. Margaret (Macdonald) goes from Nucky’s love interest, to wife, to her own person. She is allowed to get an abortion without handwringing. She learns how to play the stock market thanks to an odd friendship with Rothstein, and in the end, she emerges as a powerful leader with a Kennedy in her back pocket. She gets to thrive as Nucky dies and the men around her crumble and engage in a circle of violence. It’s a profoundly hopeful ending, especially compared to how other women in similar shows tend to have more downbeat endings.
For me to fully go into this series as a criticism of toxic masculinity would require about 5,ooo more words, some serious citations, and actually starting the rewatch that I’ve been considering doing lately, but as it stands, Boardwalk Empire was an academic criticism that—despite narrative missteps, confusing racial politics, and problematic elements—emerges as a powerful return to the social commentary roots of the gangster film, and as a telling political manifesto on the dangers of the patriarchy.
Nucky is not a male power fantasy but a nightmare, and his downfall is something we should cheer for. If you’re able to stomach the worst of it, the best will leave you breathless.
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