This little ditty is “Straight Up and Down,” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s somewhat in the grand tradition of the Mad Men theme (both period shows were created by writers for The Sopranos) that a show taking place in the past should have a modern theme song, so we understand that we’re dealing with contemporary themes. It’s a nice song, and definitely makes one feel a little uneasy as it goes on, which is the idea.
But let’s talk about what we see, because this is an extremely dense video. First, watch the sun. When the video begins, Nucky is walking toward it - it’s in the sky, at about 10am. At the end of the video, he again walks toward it as it sets. It’s a subtle way to suggest a LOT of time passing. Obviously about a day isn’t a lot of time, but it is a lot of time to stand in one spot on the beach. What we’re meant to understand is (The amount of time one usually spends on a beach):(The amount of time Nucky Thompson stands on this beach)::(The amount that can change in the world over the course of a TV series):(The amount that will change in the world over the course of Boardwalk Empire). That clear? You’ll be tested.
I’m going to start another thread here, but I promise we’ll return to the time thing. Now, in storytelling, there’s always a character called the audience surrogate (sorry if I tell you things you already know). This is especially important in a television pilot, as we’re being introduced to a new world; we need a character who is also new to this world through whose eyes we can see it. Think of any television show you’ve ever watched. Who’s the new character in this environment?
When Boardwalk Empire begins, Michael Pitt’s character Jimmy has recently returned from World War I. He’s getting promoted within the ranks of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), and we see ourselves in him. When you want someone handsome to take in a world, you can do a lot worse than Michael Pitt.
But then Jimmy begins committing acts of violence that surprise and upset Nucky. Nucky has been bootlegging for a while, and does not run his business this way. But, as Jimmy explains, this is how business is done now.
Now watch the opening credits again, and focus on the bottles, and on Nucky’s eyes, and on the weather, and on the water levels (SORRY THAT’S A LOT). When Nucky walks down to the beach it is a gorgeous day (the kind of beautiful day that it almost always is on the boardwalk, god they have fantastic set designers on this show). He stands in the dry sand and lights a cigarette. Then some dark clouds form. Nucky sees a couple of bottles in the water. The weather gets worse, more and more bottles start to appear as the tide comes in. At around 1:10 we get what an old friend used to call “the Gone with the Wind shot”; we pull back to so we can see just how devastatingly many bottles there are (in Gone with the Wind, it was injured soldiers):
Through all this, our takeaway should be that Nucky sincerely had no idea what it would take to run a successful bootlegging operation. I don’t think anyone in America really understood how much unspeakable violence would be committed in the name of getting people drunk. A red flag for us is meeting a young and friendly Al Capone; an emblem of the violence that is to come.
All of this is to say that Nucky, not Jimmy, is our audience surrogate. Jimmy’s not new to this world, he is OF this world. It’s Nucky who has to learn the ins and outs, and we in turn learn to be comfortable with moral compromises (in that way, the series is very much like Breaking Bad). At the end of this video, the tide comes out; Nucky’s shoes are dry again. I don’t know the fate of Nucky Thompson (none of us do), but prohibition did end, and with it most bootlegging. It must be nice to get away from that world, but the sun may be setting on our home town by the time the tide’s gone.