If you’ve seen the promo posters for Boardwalk Empire Season 3, you know that no one can be “half gangster.” So just how far will Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson go this season, and what can we expect this season as the show heads into 1924?

Showrunner Terence Winter says that Boardwalk Empire’s new tagline depicts where Nucky is right now. “We’re kind of jumping ahead 14 months or so into the future from where Episode 12 [season two] ends,” Winter told the Atlantic City Weekly. “It’s early 1923, actually the very beginning of 1923. And, you know, the game has changed quite a bit. Things have gotten a lot more violent, a lot more competitive, and Nucky has sort of had to up his game as well in order to survive.”

The new season’s first five episodes reveal how Nucky has coped with Jimmy’s death and also progresses with four new and interesting characters including Stephen Root as Gaston Means, Arron Shiver as Chicago gangster Dean O’Banion, Meg Chambers as Nucky’s new mistress, Billie Kent, and especially Bobby Cannavale, as Nucky’s new nemesis Gyp Rosetti.

Boardwalk Empire showrunner and executive producer Terence Winter talked to Atlantic Weekly about what to expect in the much-anticipated Season 3.

When did you determine that Jimmy would be killed?

Pretty early on. As we started plotting out the season, it became evident to me that the only logical conclusion to that story line was that Jimmy was going to die. I mean I knew that Jimmy was going to die from the beginning of the series, when I started plotting it out. It’s almost foreshadowed in the pilot when Jimmy tells Nucky: “You can’t be half a gangster anymore,” and I knew that at one point Nucky would cross that line and fully become a gangster. I knew he would do it by killing the guy who said that to him, which was Jimmy. I didn’t know when that was going to happen, of course, but as Season Two started playing out it became evident that if we were going to tell that story honestly, the way to do it [was] for Jimmy to die.

“You Can’t Be Half a Gangster” is now the tagline for Season Three.

Yeah, it kind of lent itself to our whole ad campaign and that’s where Nucky is right now. We’re kind of jumping ahead 14 months or so into the future from where episode 12 [Season Two] ends. It’s early 1923, actually the very beginning of 1923. And, you know, the game has changed quite a bit. Things have gotten a lot more violent, a lot more competitive, and Nucky has sort of had to up his game as well in order to survive.

Nucky looks rather sick and is hallucinating through the first five episodes of Season Three. 

Yeah, I mean [killing Jimmy] was a major step for him. So, we sort of felt like we wanted to see some of the psychological remnants of having done that. I mean the guy was like a surrogate son to him so he can’t be — even if you ask him the question to his face he’d say he doesn’t give a shit, but I think deep dark secrets, being what they are, I think late at night, and when you’re sleeping these are the things that come back to haunt you. And we were interested in exploring that.

We see Eli come back from jail early in the third season.

Eli did his time in jail. He was in jail during the off-season, so that worked out. [And he’s just getting out of jail in episode two.] It’s interesting, Shea Whigham really committed [himself to the part]. He called me up even before we started shooting [Season Three] and said, “So, was I in jail jail or was this sort of like Goodfellas jail, nice and cushy because I was the sheriff?” And I said, “No, this was really jail.” And he says, “OK, I’m going to drop a little weight then.” And I said, “All right,” and then he came back and I was like, “Holy shit!” He dropped like 15 pounds. And he was already thin. And you can just see it in his face — he really looks like he went through the wringer. I mean I can’t lose five pounds; I don’t how these [actors] do it!

The new showgirl on the show, Billie Kent — was she a real-life performer of the era?

No, she is fictional, someone of our own invention. We just sort of came up with her to give Nucky a new mistress. There was a showgirl who rented an apartment from Arnold Rothstein who was actually murdered in 1921 and found dead in her apartment. But we basically stole the idea that she was a tenant of Rothstein’s, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. She’s not really meant to be that other person.

One of the new characters, Gyp Rosetti, is a real monster. How will he change the dynamics of the show? 

Well, he’s certainly a different energy and really a different challenge for Nucky. This guy is unlike Johnny Torrio or Arnold Rothstein, who are fairly reasonable gangsters. This guy can get set off by the slightest thing. So, anything can happen. The level of violence could go to the extreme and happen any time. There’s really no reasoning with a guy like this. Even when you think you have a deal [with him] and think you’re on the same page, it turns out you’re not. If you say one wrong thing, or even something that he perceives as the wrong thing, and suddenly you’ve got a big problem. I think the uncertainty and the fact that everything sort of feels off-kilter when he’s around is really a fun energy for us to play with.

Both Gaston Means and Dean O’Banion were real people.

Yeah, Gaston Means, and, of course, Dean O’Banion was a real-life gangster in Chicago who was Al Capone’s nemesis on the North Side for a couple years and actually did own a florist shop.

Speaking of Al Capone, Stephen Graham is just so amazing. What a stellar actor.

Yeah, he’s great. Just incredible. And it’s so fun to sort of have the luxury of going home with Al Capone and seeing that relationship with him and his [deaf] son. These are the kinds of things that we normally don’t get a chance to explore. Even when there is a movie on Al Capone, it’s when Capone is at his most powerful. So this is great for us to play with the young Capone, who’s not really the guy yet. And to get to actually see how he became that person is really, really interesting.

It’s 1923 in Season Three. Any real-life events from that year that will play a part in the upcoming season?

Yeah, there is some political stuff that happened [that year]. There were scandals in the White House [and] the President did die in late 1923. Even right out of the gate [in the debut episode of Season Three] with the New Year’s party and the whole King Tut theme. King Tut’s tomb was just discovered two months before that — I think it was November 1922 — so we did the whole Egyptian theme, which was a big craze back then. Margaret is very much on the cutting edge, you know, having a New Year’s party with an Egyptian theme. So, yeah, less with specific events that happened and more general cultural [things]. People started to stockpile alcohol when Prohibition was enacted and then by 1923 it was starting to run out, so you got more guys like Gyp Rosetti around who were competing and the level of violence increased, the level of competition increased, there was a lot of that stuff. I think those are the changes that you’ll see more so than necessarily historical events.


Boardwalk Empire premieres Sunday, September 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Canada. Stay tuned for weekly recaps of the show.





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