A Conversation With Terence Winter

The Boardwalk Empire showrunner on Season 3, Nucky’s pathology, and the Sopranos connection.

Kelly Macdonald, Steve Buscemi in the Season 3 premiere of Boardwalk Empire.
Kelly Macdonald, Steve Buscemi in the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire.

Photo by Macall B. Polay/HBO.

When the credits rolled on the final episode of Boardwalk Empire’s second season last December, Atlantic City’s Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) was still the exclusive supplier of Irish whiskey to bootleggers and gangsters from Philadelphia to Chicago, but almost everything else in his life had been upended. His rival and former mentor Commodore Louis Kaestner was dead, as was his young protégé Jimmy Darmody. He’d married Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), who then sabotaged a long-hatched property scheme by signing thousands of acres over to the local Catholic church,  and his brother Eli was sitting in jail.

Slate spoke with the show’s creator and showrunner—and former Sopranos writer—Terence Winter, about the new season, which premieres on HBO this Sunday at 9 p.m.

Slate: Is there an overarching theme for Season 3?

Terence Winter: It’s the night before the morning after. Like a wild party, before the chickens come home to roost and there’s a reckoning.

Slate: Why did you jump so far ahead in the future in Season 3?

Winter: If we picked the series up the day that Nucky got home and found out Margaret gave his land away, I knew everything that happened. There’d be a huge fight—“How could you do that?” And then there’d be the fallout from Jimmy’s death. I just feel like I’m not all that interested, because I already know it. So I said, “All right, where are these people a year from now?” I don’t know. They could be anywhere. That was interesting to us as writers. It was much more challenging, because we had to sit around and say, “Well, it can be anything.” Settling on one thing took a while of us sitting around and eating potato chips and talking.

Slate: I’m fascinated by Boardwalk Empire’s tagline, “You can’t be half a gangster.” In the Season 2 finale, Nucky Thompson crossed a line, and killed Jimmy Darmody, but he still seems to be holding back from being a full gangster. And he’s especially prone to being undone by love. In Season 2, he married Margaret, and she gave away all the property he’d spent years accumulating. In Season 3, he’s again distracted by a woman. Are you saying that romantics can’t be “real” gangsters?

Winter: Not necessarily. Any distraction tends to get in the way of being an effective gangster. Nucky’s still carrying around a lot of psychological damage from having killed Jimmy, who was essentially a surrogate son. In Season 3, there are some psychological ramifications that show he’s still haunted by this. I think people, whether they realize they’re doing it or not, seek out distractions to take their minds off what they know is bad behavior. And Nucky does that with women.

Slate: Nucky is the only male character who doesn’t seem to be a psychopath. Am I wrong about that?

Winter: Certainly in that world, being a psychopath is a big benefit. There are varying degrees of social dysfunction, raging from psychopath to sociopath to just plain idiot thug. Even the politicians aren’t a whole lot better than the blue-collar criminals. It’s a world inhabited by colorful and often ugly personalities.

Slate: Speaking of which, in Season 3, you introduce a fabulous but terrifying character, Gyp Rosetti, who is definitely a psychopath. Was there really a Gyp Rosetti?

Winter: No, he’s completely fictional. Gyp represents a new breed of gangster. Things got progressively more competitive and more violent as the 1920s progressed. When Prohibition was first enacted in 1920, most people stockpiled alcohol, thinking they’d have enough to last them for years. By 1923, that was starting to run out, so your average person started to rely more and more on criminals. Hence the profits in the alcohol game went up, and the competition and the violence increased as well. You had people like Gyp Rosetti, who were essentially low-level criminals starting to work their way into the game.

Terence Winter, the creator of the hit prohibition-era television show 'Boardwalk Empire.'
Writer Terence Winter, creator of Boardwalk Empire

Pierre Verdy/AFP/GettyImages.

Slate: This seems like the last time criminals could succeed on their own. A guy like Nucky would need more of a family or ethnic or tribal support system just a few years later. Am I wrong in seeing Prohibition—or this particular part of it—as the end of the gangster meritocracy?

Winter: Yeah, the gangster world has changed quite a bit. This season, Joe Masseria is really frustrated that Lucky Luciano works with the Irish and Jews—Lucky’s really an equal-opportunity gangster. It’s not about ethnic lines for him. I think things got much more ethnocentric as time went on. It really became more about the Italian mob, and the black mob, and the Irish mob. Back then, people hadn’t affiliated themselves exclusively along ethnic lines, though it was certainly moving in that direction.

Slate: Are there any female characters in Boardwalk Empire who are happy?

Winter: It’s not a very happy world that we’re depicting, so I don’t know that that’s exclusively about women.

Slate: But the only way for women to get anything is by manipulation and deception.

Winter: Women had just gotten the right to vote. I think the world that they have to negotiate often includes trying to figure out how to work your way around the male-dominated society to get what you want. Also, a lot of our female characters aren’t exactly role models. They’re showgirls and whores, so they’re already people who are prone to bad behavior. You’ll get some manipulation and skullduggery there, just as part and parcel of who they are and what they do.

Slate: There are some obvious similarities between Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, the success of which you played a big part in. They’re set in New Jersey, they involve mobsters and illegal activity, they focus on the criminals’ family and interior lives. What drew you to return to that territory, and how do you distinguish the two stories?

Winter: One of the first lines, if not the first line, that Tony Soprano says in the entire series is, “I feel like I came in at the end of something.” This is the beginning of that something.

This interview has been edited and condensed.