'Boardwalk Empire' creator Terence Winter on Nucky's fate and the series finale
"Boardwalk Empire" has come to an end. As I've done after each previous season — and as I also did at the start of this final one, just because of the big time jump and the decision to end the show — I spoke with the show's creator Terence Winter about everything that went down, and how he arrived at the various fates for Nucky, Margaret, Chalky, and his other creations, in addition to how he intertwined them with the real-life stories of Lucky Luciano, Al Capone and company.
My finale review is here, and the Winter interview is coming up just as soon as I ask you an important question about Marlene Dietrich...
How does it feel to be only a few days away from the finale airing?
Terence Winter: Really bittersweet. It's funny; there's still "Boardwalk Empire"-related business that I have to do. Doing interviews, obviously, but little things for post, like approving synopses and doing the DVD commentary. So it hasn't really settled in yet that it's finished. At some point in the next week or so, it's going to be, "Oh, right, there's nothing else to do," and then it'll really settle in that it's over. But I feel enormously proud, first and foremost, that we pulled off a show that we were all very excited about to begin with, and we delivered a series that I don't know that I would do anything differently, if I had to do it all over again — I wouldn't make any different choice creatively, and the team I've had with me from the beginning, every single one was a great choice. It was a great ride, and I'm going to miss the relationships more than anything. But we did exactly what we set out to do. I'm enormously proud of the series, and I'll miss it, but I haven't had time to properly mourn, and maybe I won't. I'm moving right along with other stuff. Maybe a year from now, I'll go, "Yeah, 'Boardwalk Empire.' That happened."
Was there ever a point in your mind or Howard (Korder)s mind where Nucky was going to survive the series?
Terence Winter: Yeah. Going back and forth over the years, that was a possibility, but if you wanted to give it a percentage weight, it was always 80 percent that he would die somehow. At whose hands, we weren't entirely sure until about a year ago, maybe sometime during season 4, we were positive how it would happen. I think we ran every possible permutation of an ending, including Nucky going into the sunset, which might in some ways have been worse: to just be that guy, having lost everything. The real Nucky, of course, lived a full life, but he was a shadow of his former self. Depending on your take on some things, that could be a fate worse than death in some cases. In this case, we felt it had to come full circle in terms of the Gillian/Jimmy/Tommy dynamic.
Do you recall exactly how you guys came to the decision in season 4 that this was how it would end?
Terence Winter: I don't precisely, but the clearer that the Gillian story became, and that Harrow's ending became, in terms of the legacy of sending Jimmy's son off to live with Julia on the farm, and Gillian's own tragic story — we knew it had to come back to that relationship. Tommy Darmody, growing up hearing stories about this guy Nucky and his father, and not really sure whether this guy Nucky was a good guy or a bad guy, and needing to see for himself seemed to us the most powerful version of it.
He was pretty young when he got packed off to the Midwest with Julia. What did he actually know about Nucky? And was his intention all along in Atlantic City to wind up working for this guy, or was it some cosmic stroke of fate?
Terence Winter: He came there specifically to get within Nucky's orbit. The way in which it happened was a cosmic stroke of fate. I think he wasn't sure. He'd heard stories about this man, and as he says on the boardwalk at the end, "I heard Mee-Maw talk about you, and I couldn't tell if it was with love or with hate." He needed to make up his own mind. I think he was surprised that Nucky wasn't a monster, and he was a very complicated man, and maybe the things he heard weren't true. And once he got within Nucky's orbit, I think he was extremely conflicted about what to do. You think if he was hellbent on revenge, he'd have killed him the second he was there. But that's not an easy thing to do, even for a guy who does that all the time, and certainly not for a 15-year-old kid. Even if you're full of bravado and bluster, when you get into the zone of where that could happen, I don't know if it's that easy to pull out a gun and kill somebody. Particularly when that person's treating you fairly decently. So I think there were a lot of conflicting emotions before that came crashing down.
What do you imagine happened to Julia? Tommy/Joe keeps saying he has no family, but he could just be referring to his biological parents.
Terence Winter: Tommy was raised on the farm with Julia and her Dad (until he passed away) as well as his aunt Emma, Harrow's sister. During the course of his growing up, they grew distant as he sought to learn more of his "real family", about which there was only sketchy information.
What were those cops doing on the boardwalk? Trailing Nucky for some reason?
Terence Winter: The cops on the boardwalk were actually from the Bureau of Internal revenue and had been tailing Nucky. (Once that became a successful strategy in bringing down Capone, the bureau began keeping tabs on other gangsters as well.) Of course the mislead is that they were the "two shooters, in public" who Luciano ordered to go after Narcisse.
Since we see Tommy being pulled away by cops, Nucky has destroyed three generations of this family, which is underlined by the flashback at the end.
Terence Winter: Yeah. That is the pivotal moment for Nucky. That is the moment where his entire future changed, that one act of betraying Gillian. I watched that scene — and we wrote it, obviously, so I know what's happening, and I created this universe —and I want to yell at the screen, "Don't do it! God, don't do it." It's the line in the sand in which he crosses, and everything goes to hell after that, including, as you say, three generations of that family, and Nucky's own life.