Nucky started the series as a crooked politician, but as Prohibition continued he became more of the traditional gangster. Was it the law that unleashed the criminal in him?
People were made millionaires overnight by Prohibition. If you were willing to traffic in illegal alcohol and run the risk of getting arrested or hijacked by other gangsters, you had to be prepared to do things you hadn’t done before — like murdering people. That’s what Jimmy was warning Nucky about.
You know, there was no shame about it. People had been drinking beer their whole lives, and suddenly it’s illegal? It was pretty hard to convince anybody other than the temperance movement that alcohol was this bad thing. It was just illegal, not morally wrong. Your average man on the street had no intention of giving up his daily beer or scotch — he just had to figure out how to do it. So these guys weren’t looked down upon. It’s not like they were heroin dealers or murderers. They were providing a service, a commodity, that most people found innocuous.
There was also a collision of historic events that not only made the gangster world possible, but were tailor-made for it. You had a generation of young men coming back from World War I who spent the last two years in trenches killing people for free. Now, suddenly, all you have to do is guard a truck and maybe shoot somebody, and you could make a fortune. Guys lined up all the way around the block to do that, since they’d basically been doing exactly that for nothing. You had all these disenfranchised, disillusioned young men who were perfectly willing and able to get into that business.
There’s a character on the show who says: “The premise of fiction is that people have some sort of connection to each other. But they don’t.” Is that your conclusion as well?
I think it’s a matter of perspective. I’ve always thought that when they say ignorance is bliss, the converse to that is that knowledge is hell. The more you know, the bleaker things can get. Jimmy once said that all you have to worry about is when you’re alone at night. You run out of booze and you run out of company, and [then] you’re really alone with your thoughts.
I interviewed Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter about the upcoming finale, and his next project with Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Bobby Cannavale, for Rolling Stone.