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“Boardwalk Empire” by Terence Winter Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022


‘Boardwalk Empire’ is a television series program set in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the time when sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol and its components were prohibited by the federal government. This was between the years 1920 to 1933. However, despite the ban, clandestine brewers and alcohol sale outlets were operating with the blessings of corrupt police officers and state officials who were extorting money from the owners of the business units. The show stars Steve Buscemi as Enock ‘Nucky’ Thompson who is a corrupt treasurer in the North Atlantic County in New Jersey, this position made him the most powerful political figure in his county and therefore he played a major role in deliberating on matters concerning his community.

As per the movie, this made him a much sought after politician in the region and he meets several ‘important’ figures in his work including mafia groups who ruled migrant communities at the time, politicians, security and federal agents. These people had to look for him because he aided them in ensuring that their businesses ran smoothly in the county.

In season 2, episode 2 titled ‘Ourselves Alone’, Nucky gets out of jail and detects major realignments and merges among various mafia heads for power. He finds that Commodore has emerged as the kingpin in the county with major defections happening in his favor, though Chalky is still serving his time in county jail. He immediately embarks on bringing up his business which had been grounded because of his absence helped by Margaret.

Several concepts or themes are highlighted in this episode of the show, the main one being violence. Other themes are race, corruption, ethnicity and moral decay. The 1920’s was considered as a confused decade because of the lifestyle that was characteristic at the time. With relative peace being achieved at the end of the First World War, the society especially the youth gained some level of freedom and they could easily voice their concerns. This era was characterized by increased drug and alcohol use by the masses; clubbing was the order of the day as various rock and musical groups came up to fuel these developments. All these led to moral degradation as illegal drug traders could easily do their trade with the knowledge of the police and federal agents who they bribed handsomely.

Concept definition and explications in the Movie (Season 2, Episode 2)


Race is simply defined as a group of people in a specific geographical setting who share common genetically-passed features which distinguishes them from other groups. It is a group of people sharing common history or nationality. Boardwalk Empire is set in a cosmopolitan part of America where the migrant population had taken root and controlled clandestine businesses in the area. The mafias of New Jersey were natives of Italy and Sicily, they moved to America with their families to do their businesses.

Racial composition in a given geographical region is measured as a percentage of the total inhabitants. America is a multi-racial society composed of whites, African- Americans, Hispanics, and the Mexican community. All these divergent groups lead different lifestyles and demand total recognition from the government. The 2nd episode is a slower version compared to other episodes; the violence cools down though it’s still sporadic in some areas. The director takes this time to delve on the relationships among characters and their groupings within their racial groups.


Violence is the use of physical force to cause an injury on another person or a group of people. The mafia groups used violence as a symbol of dominance and control over their adversaries and they could kill to protect their businesses and families. The society in the early 1920’s saw the legalization of gun ownership by citizens for self defense and hunting but the criminals used it to finish their enemies.

Violence is measured by looking at the crime rates in a given area and comparing it with previous statistics. It is a symbol of discontent of a person with another individual or the authorities. In the context of the show, it is prevalent in cases where different groups are fighting for dominance and power over others.

Elements of the show relevant to violence

Jimmy took a trip to New York to meet his business associates, on arriving there; he takes out his frustration on a pair of well connected Mafia heads who were against his business advancements. In the 2nd episode, Chalky is still in county jail and he uses violence to exert his dominance over his assigned cellmate who proved hard to live with at the beginning because he considered him a ‘snitch’. Alderman George O’Neill, who was one of Nucky’s political associates and ward representative, was brutally murdered in season 2 by Eli who is Nucky’s younger brother and Atlantic County sheriff.


Corruption is the abuse of office or use of entrusted power for individual benefit. It takes different forms depending on the nature and positions of people who are involved in it. The simplest form of corruption is the taking and giving of bribes in order to evade a process, hasten a process, or allow an illegal business or trade to operate.

In Boardwalk Empire, Nucky who is the County treasurer is depicted as a corrupt state officer allowing illegal establishments to operate in his county at a fee. He also allows illegal federal businesses to run without the knowledge of the authorities. The life of a mafia is characterized by many crimes committed to enable smooth running of affairs and these murders are always protected and the culprits go scot free or given shorter jail terms because of their status in the society. Money given through bribes is used to protect their identities.

Corruption occurs as a result of a governance vacuum where public officers do not live up to their code of conduct and accept bribes to allow clandestine brewers like Jimmy to continue producing bootleg alcoholic drinks. It is measured by corruption index which is an indicator of the level of integrity among officials in any country or region.

Al Capone was known as a tax evader and whenever he had ‘a little difficulty with the taxman’, he could go and sort it out without going through the right channel.


Ethnicity or ethnic affiliation is the affiliation to a particular group of people having or sharing common racial, religious, language, and certain other defining traits. Negative ethnicity can exist within a particular race or across two or more races. The mafia heads represented different regions in their homeland and their main duty was to keep their status high. This explained their fights and mergers with other mafia heads in order to be at the top of their bootleg businesses.

Ethnicity is not a bad concept but negative ethnicity is not allowed in modern democracies. Negative ethnicity is the tendency to favor a particular person over others because he or she belongs to your ethnic group. Elements of ethnicity are shown in the episode by highlighting the different lifestyles locals lead depending on where they come from. The Italians have closely knit families with the father being the head of family and businesses while the wives are not allowed to engage directly in business dealings. The Italians and other mafia groups are a religious lot mainly in the Roman Catholic Church.

Moral decay

Moral decay or decadence is the gradual decrease in the level of values in a given society. It is the impairment of standard living principles in any setting and in most circumstances fueled by the youth for example, indulgence in drugs, alcohol and violence. The society in New Jersey and the rest of America in the 1920’s was characterized by a decrease in the standards of good and acceptable behavior with corruption taking the place of good governance.

Moral decay is an easily noticed phenomenon in any given society and is as a result of laxity in laws, and, or general decrease in value levels. It is caused by poor parenting and infiltration of drugs and substances to the society. Lansky and Lucky are the ones that are involved in the heroin trade and they want Jimmy to join them. They import the heroin from South America and sell to vulnerable youth through their middlemen and distributors in the streets.


The society that lived in the 1920’s was existing under trying moments when America and the rest of the developing world were experiencing difficulties managing their population which was increasingly growing vertically and horizontally by rising immigration.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "“Boardwalk Empire” by Terence Winter." January 15, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/boardwalk-empire-by-terence-winter/.


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