'Boardwalk Empire' showrunner explains shocking finale, talks season 3

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Do you have any concern about losing such a popular character?
Huge concern. As we go about the business of TV, you’re constantly looking for ways to keep ahead of the audience or defy expectations. It’s a big gamble creatively, you’re killing off a major, major character very early on. But you want to be true to the story and to do the most unexpected thing. The audience is used to seeing bodies start to drop in season 5. People won’t believe [Jimmy’s dead] until the last second and even then some will wonder if it’s a dream. People didn’t believe it when Adriana was killed on The Sopranos and that was in season 5.

Because so many people thought Adriana was still alive, I was wondering if that’s why you showed Jimmy’s gunshot wounds.
That wasn’t conscious, but it never hurts to be definitive. He’s not getting up.

When did you tell Michael and how did that go?
We talked about it during the year. I generally don’t like to give actors a lot of advance notice about what’s happening on the show, because what [the writers] think is going to happen can change. The other thing is a lot of actors don’t want to know what’s coming. If they know the future of their characters, that information might [influence] their performance.

Michael saw the way it was shaping up and he came into my office and he was all, “Are you guys considering where this is heading? Is Eli going to die? Have you thought about killing me?” And I said, “Yeah, we actually have. All I will tell you is everything is on the table. It could go this way, it could go that way. I don’t know.” Up until episode 9, I wasn’t 100 percent sure this is where we were going to go. I was pretty sure. I wanted to reserve my right to change my mind up until the last minute so I didn’t want to tell him. So he didn’t know officially until right before the script for [the finale] came out. He had a very strong suspicion and I was certainly preparing him for it. But Michael is an artist. He’s a phenomenal actor, and part of the challenge is to keep reinventing the series. He’s very much about doing what’s best for the show and the character. In terms of the storytelling, he totally got it. He really loved doing the show, but he’s also a guy who likes to do different things. I think he understands this was the single most powerful thing you could have done on the show.

Was that a slight Godfather nod, cross-cutting the wedding and the whacking?
Yeah, always. I’m not ashamed to say Godfather is one of my favorite movies of all time, and any time I can steal from it, I always do.

With Van Alden having run off to Cicero, is he going to still be in our story?
Yeah. People who are really students of Mob history will pick up on the fact that Cicero, Ill., is the place Al Capone became headquartered in 1924. So we put him in a place where he theoretically could interact with other characters on the show.

So can we expect to see Al Capone come into his own as a formidable force next season?
As time goes on. The plan is now is we would come back in season 3 a little further into the future and start to really track Al Capone’s rise and — God willing — through the course of the series. By 1925, Capone was the guy everybody recognizes — the guy in the white fedora who’s firmly in charge of Chicago. Hopefully we’ll be on the air long enough to see that guy. Certainly in [season 3] we’ll start to see Capone on pretty much equal footing as Johnny Torrio in terms of who’s running the town.

You mentioned jumping forward in time for season 3. How long will that be? [Note: Season 2 was set in 1921]
We’re thinking about 16 months and starting the [third] season around the beginning of 1923, then maybe run through the end of 1923. It was an exciting year. All the people who stockpiled liquor started to run out, so competition between bootleggers became really fierce.

I can’t imagine Nucky is going to be very pleased with Margaret donating all his land to the church.
I don’t think that will make anybody happy. The ramifications of that will be explored as the series progresses.

And I’m assuming Richard Harrow will continue as a key player?
Yes, Harrow will continue to be part of the show, absolutely.

One thing that impacted me this season was the polio story line — a really heartbreaking move. It’s easy to forget nowadays what a horrible disease that was.
Especially with that little girl. That actress is really so sweet. It was hard for us. My wife read that script and punched me in the arm. Steve Buscemi read the script and said he threw it across the room. We did a lot of research on the subject and it just ravaged children in this country, and adults too. It was a horrific disease.

So for season 3, I hear you’re looking to add a new character, Bud Matheson, described as a young James Cagney type. Might that be Boardwalk‘s new up-and-comer?
Yeah. As the ’20s progressed and became the Roaring ’20s, it was very youth-oriented culture. Young people really came into their own, with access to automobiles. They had influence on popular music and fashion trends. We really wanted to infuse the show with some exciting young sexy energy and this guy is the sort of embodiment of that new sort of go-getter who wants to grasp things with both hands. Cagney was a great prototype — the fast-talking brash young guy who wants it all and wants it now.

NEXT: EW’s exclusive interview with Michael Pitt on his Boardwalk Empire exit

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