At first, I didn’t quite understand why the final season of Boardwalk Empire would leap seven years into the future, into 1931, because where it concerned the real-life Nucky Thompson (i.e., Enoch Johnson), that wasn’t a particularly memorable year in his life.
But the reality is, the inspiration for Steve Buscemi’s character, a relatively minor historical figure, bears little resemblance to the real Nucky Johnson. On the other hand, some of the gangsters that we’re all familiar with from history books, television shows, and movies — like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano — have been far more consistent with their real-life counterparts. It makes sense because historical fiction works best when it works within those fixed points. It’s like a Doctor Who episode: You can fuck with minor moments in a timeline that no one cares about, but you don’t mess with those fixed points.
(Real-life spoilers, ahead)
There were a few fixed points in the lives of the Boardwalk Empire characters in 1931. Specifically, it was the end of Al Capone’s seven-year reign, thanks to tax evasion charges and an incompetent lawyer, and it was the real beginning of Lucky Luciano’s rise as the father of modern organized crime. Luciano and Meyer Lansky planted the seeds in 1931 for the National Crime Syndicate, aka, Murder, Inc.
The final season premiere didn’t provide much context for it beyond “Maranzano, fuck that guy!” but it featured the scene that really began it all: Luciano knocking off Joe Masseria. At the time, Luciano was a top aide to Masseria, and Masseria was in a gang war with Salvatore Maranzano’s gang (as you might know, Luciano’s old boss, Arnold Rothstein, was murdered in 1928 over gambling debts).
In an attempt to move his way up the ladder, Luciano actually switched allegiances to Maranzano to take out Masseria, which is what we saw last night. Accounts differ on how Masseria was actually killed, but the leading account suggests that Luciano and Masseria were playing cards at the time, Luciano went to the bathroom, and his assassins — including Bugsy Siegel (currently known only as “Benny” in the series) — came in and killed Masseria. (The New York Post stated that Masseria died “with the ace of spades, the death card, clutched in a bejeweled paw.”
Maranzano (played by Giampiero Judica) will be introduced to the series next week, although don’t expect him to stick around too long. After Maranzano organized the five-family crime syndicate and gave Luciano his blessing to take over Masseria’s gang, Maranzano essentially appointed himself the head of the crime syndicate, which didn’t sit well with Luciano and Lansky. Maranzano attempted to have Luciano killed, but Lucky found out and had Maranzano killed first.
In fact, several more old gang bosses were eliminated that year, and rumors had it that Lansky and Luciano were behind those deaths. It would also explain last night’s episode, and why Lansky apparently tried to have Nucky Thompson killed: He was just another old boss that Lansky and Luciano were trying to purge as they sought to take over organized crime and modernize it.
Expect that tension — between Luciano/Lansky and Thompson — to be the major plotline this season, while Capone’s fall from power and Chalky White’s attempt to get revenge of Dr. Narcisse will be the B and C storylines. I’m excited to see how it turns out, and given Terrence Winter’s statements to the effect that there will be no ambiguity in the end, I strongly suspect that — though Nucky Johnson didn’t die until 1968 — Nucky Thompson may not make it to see the end of Prohibition.