Something In The Heir
Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson, Steve Buscemi’s venal antihero, may have hogged the DVD packshot from the start. But it was his protégé Jimmy Darmody — played by now-Prada-model Michael Pitt — who aroused the stylistic smarts of a new generation. Two years after the character’s death at the hands of his mentor, the rake laments the demise of a fictional fop for whom the boardwalk was more of a catwalk.
Like all the great series of this new Golden Age of television, Boardwalk Empire is a multifaceted and multihued piece. Among other things, it’s about the human capacity to live with evil, the criminal history of America and the importance of style. This last motif is evident in the show’s opening credits, as the Atlantic tide washes over a pair of co-respondent brogues worn by Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the gangster boss of Atlantic City in the ’20s. It’s clear, too, in the casting of Steve Buscemi — a brilliant actor, but one with a career built on parts such as the weasel, creep or geek — in this role. Buscemi is no one’s idea of a leading man, but he’s the Big Guy here because it’s a show about reinventing yourself; about the flipside of the American Dream that says you can be whoever you want to be. It’s a show about presentation: one in which clothes are essential in ways that go far beyond historical reconstruction.
However, the Boardwalk Empire character who has inspired a new generation is not Nucky, but his protégé-turned-rival Jimmy Darmody, played by Michael Pitt. In London’s trendy Shoreditch, New York’s East Village and other enclaves of style-conscious youth, the current vogue for moustaches and tweed has been joined by Darmody’s distinctive haircut and his sharp, thin-lapelled three-piece suits. It’s a look that seems imbued with tragedy — the romance of youth cut down in its prime, both by World War I and by the show’s writers. Because — and we should slip in a spoiler alert in here — since the final episode of season two, Darmody is no more. But at least he departed a beautiful and very well-clothed corpse.
Darmody is all about youth, beginning with his position as Thompson’s apprentice and, in many ways, his surrogate son. His real father is ‘The Commodore’, the former boss of Atlantic City; his mother is the showgirl Gillian Darmody, who was just 13 when she gave birth to him. But it was Nucky, then The Commodore’s lieutenant, who took care of him. Their relationship is a history of coercion and rebellion, not without love but with its fair share of rage and resentment. Jimmy drops out of university and enlists in the US Army, spending two years in the trenches in France, leaving Nucky disappointed and his girlfriend pregnant. When he returns in 1920, with an injury that has left him with a permanent limp, it’s to a four-year-old son and a protector who no longer sees him as his heir.
Nucky and Jimmy are a study in contrasts. Together, they might be unbeatable, a combination of old ways and new blood that would defeat all comers, but they can’t fit together; they rub each other up the wrong way. It’s all there in the clothes. Nucky is the Jazz Age dandy, the classic gangster, always spruce. Time and again, we see him in his dressing room, laboriously twisting on a collar stud and fixing a buttonhole to something with loud checks, double-breasted and wide-lapelled. When we first meet Darmody, the young pretender, he isn’t even wearing a suit. He’s in a shirt and tie, matching his status as Nucky’s driver, forced to start again at the bottom of the heap. Slowly, though, as he takes charge of his life and gains power, he develops his own dress code. A watershed is reached when he is forced into exile in Chicago and heads to the tailors with his new pal, Al Capone. There he has himself fitted for a navy three-piece, single-breasted and sober — a new style that’s far removed from Nucky’s.
Boardwalk Empire is meticulous in its attention to detail in all things, basing characters and plotlines on historical fact, and it’s just as sure on its costume design. Jimmy dresses as a young man in his position would have at the time, even down to the use of narrow trousers, and soft-collared and button-cuff shirts, rather than the cufflinked and studded ones Nucky wears; and his choice of ankle boots instead of brogues, and a soft felt hat instead of a bowler or homburg. It’s also, though, a way to underline the gap between him and Nucky, and between his generation and the one above. It’s a challenge he is forever laying down, just as when he says to Nucky in the first episode of season two, “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” Jimmy has seen all too clearly how the world has changed, and he’s returned to tell Nucky the news. It’s there in his haircut, clippered on the sides with its military edge a vaguely threatening reminder of his wartime experiences, and its length on top like the crest of a young warrior: a ’20s mohawk.
Key to Darmody’s character is the air of doomed romance that hangs about him like a tubercular poet; series creator Terence Winter describes him as “a walking dead person”. From a miserable start in life, he seems driven to destruction, both of himself and of those who love him. He even reflects back to the myth of Oedipus, with his limp, his mother-love and desire to overthrow his father. There is the weight of tragedy in Jimmy’s end, particularly in Nucky’s final words to him: “This is your choice, James.” It really wasn’t.
It’s tempting to see in the powerful appeal of his style — and let’s not forget that Boardwalk Empire shows us such things really can be powerful — something about our own desires and aspirations. To overthrow our own forefathers and their moribund ways, perhaps, like the Occupy movement? Of course, it could just be that the high-cheekboned, intense Pitt looks elegant and dangerous. Since playing Darmody, the actor has been hired by Prada as a model. He describes his own style as “very classic”, explaining, “If I’m going to wear a suit, it’s going to be classic, black and fit very well.” Clearly Darmody fit him pretty well, too.
Season four of Boardwalk Empire premieres October 2013 on HBO.