Well, that was a total bummer.
Boardwalk Empire whacked arguably its most beloved character — Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow — in Sunday’s Season 4 climax, and series creator Terence Winter is here to explain why the legendary sharpshooter’s time was up.
It’s one of several burning finale questions Winter tackles in the following post mortem, which, as luck would have it, also includes a healthy preview of the drama’s forthcoming fifth season (with specific attention paid to who will be back).
TVLINE | First off, Richard did die, correct?
He is dead, yes. I’m sorry to say.
TVLINE | Why, creatively, was it his time to go?
We felt like we took his storyline as far as we could. By the end of the last season, he essentially felt unworthy, having picked up the guns again after getting away from that life and then going into a downward spiral; he basically felt that that was all he was good for. After he went home [this season] and had his moment with his sister where he says he doesn’t want any more of it and buries the guns, we just felt that if we ever do bring him back out of that — to the point where he’s gonna pick up a gun again — we can’t keep going back to that well. There had to be some conclusion to his story. The events of this year really brought him full circle as a man. He ultimately got what he always dreamed of, a family and a life and somebody who loved him, but [it ended in] a very tragic, unexpected way.
TVLINE | The sequence where we see him walking home without his mask on and his face is no longer disfigured was very powerful. And heartbreaking.
There was a lot of discussion about how to portray that, and how much to let on that, “Are you watching reality? Are you watching his dream? Are you watching the moment of his death?” Certainly, the idea of seeing him without the mask in that one shot is him imagining what his perfect life is… and it’s clear at that point that this is not actually happening.
TVLINE | You’ve killed off a lot of characters over the past four seasons. Where does this one rank in terms of personal difficulty?
Creatively, it wasn’t difficult at all. It was difficult in the sense that we love Jack Huston, and we love that character. So that was really hard. But I really felt like this was the right ending for this character at the right time.
TVLINE | Did you ever consider giving him, God forbid, a happy ending?
[Laughs] We did. We even laughed about it ourselves, “Come on, does anyone get out of here alive and happy?” But Richard had a lot of sins — not that we were trying to punish him. I lost count of how many people he’s killed. People forgive him for anything, because he’s so inherently likable and lovable. I used to laugh about that with Jack, “You really can get away with murder.” People just want to take him home like he’s a puppy. You’ve seen him do some unbelievably horrific things. And, again, not that we were saying Richard can’t have a happy ending because he’s done these bad things. It just felt, from a dramatic standpoint, it just felt much more weighty and, for me, satisfying.
TVLINE | Speaking of unhappy endings, as I was watching Gillian’s redemptive arc unfold this season I had a bad feeling it wasn’t going to end well.
TVLINE | This was the first season I actually felt sympathy for her. Talk to me about the decision to pull back those layers at this point in her story.
[We wanted to] get to the core of why she became who she was. And when the hammer did fall you wanted people to feel something for her. Or at least understand that character. If anybody has bad things coming to them, certainly Gillian has done some horrible things. I wanted to paint a more complete picture of who she was, and remind people that this is not somebody who was just born evil. She’s had a horrible life herself and is an extremely complicated, sad person. It also made things more complicated for Roy Phillips [Ron Livingston] doing his job. I think he really did truly care for her, whether or not it was love I don’t know. Certainly, when he says, “You’re a very strong woman,” [it's clear] he really does respect her. And has grown to at least understand her. But he’s extremely principled and had a job to do; and he did the job.
TVLINE | You put a lot of emphasis this season on Gillian’s year-old murder of one-night-stand Roger, while so many other murders — the majority committed by male characters — rarely get as much attention. What was different about this particular crime?
This guy was completely innocent. A lot of the people who get killed on this show are criminals themselves — not that that’s a justification for murder. Roger [was killed] merely so Gillian could move the chess pieces around. The worst you could accuse this kid of is greed… maybe he was thinking he was getting a good deal with this woman. He certainly didn’t deserve to be killed for it.
TVLINE | Is this the end of Gillian’s story?
No. She’s a terrific character and Gretchen is a joy to work with. We will certainly see more of her in Season 5.
TVLINE | Will all the progress she’s made be undone now that she’s been hurt and betrayed like this?
Remains to be seen. It will be a new chapter in Gillian’s story. We’ll learn more about who Gillian is and what makes her tick as Season 5 progresses.
TVLINE | Let’s say Will doesn’t walk into that room, does Nucky pull the trigger and kill Eli?
Absolutely. Will showing up saved Eli’s life.
TVLINE | This isn’t the end of Eli’s story either, is it?
TVLINE | Where does the Eli-Nucky dynamic go from here?
They will continue to have a relationship and they have things in common in their extended family. And they certainly have business interests in common. They will continue to be in each other’s worlds. How [what transpired in the finale] affects them emotionally and what the real feelings are remains to be seen.
TVLINE | Kelly Macdonald is essentially the female lead on the show, but Margaret wasn’t seen until roughly the midway point of this season. Why delay her reintroduction?
First and foremost for this show, it’s got to make sense for the characters. I don’t want to wedge people into stories that don’t necessarily feel like they belong there, and [Margaret] was a great example. By the end of last season when she and Nucky were estranged, it made perfect sense for us not to see her for a while. She rejected him and she rejected his money. I knew her reintroduction would happen at a time when it organically made sense for the show. And in the wake of Eddie’s suicide, I said, OK, this is when Nucky would probably reach out to Margaret. I also wanted there to be an air of mystery [to her absence] – for the audience and for Nucky as well. He had no idea what she was doing. The idea that she had a job, and had her hair cut, we all got to find that out at the same time. And I thought that was the stronger way to tell that story.
TVLINE | Will she get more airtime in Season 5 than she did in Season 4?
TVLINE | She got a bit of a happy ending.
She did, yes. She got the apartment she was promised from Arnold Rothstein, although I understand it’s rather drafty in there and the neighbors are very noisy. [Laughs] Margaret is one of the people who came out of the season with a fairly happy ending, or at least the best version of that that we do on Boardwalk Empire.
TVLINE | The fight scene between Eli and Agent Knox was epic even by Boardwalk standards. Was anyone hurt while it was being shot?
Luckily, we had the master of all fight scenes directing that, Tim Van Patten. He’s just done some incredible action and fight scenes over the course of his career, and certainly on our show. Shea Whigham and Brian Geraghty just really went for it. They both said to each other, “Look, I love you. But we’re going to really hurt rach other here.” And they went as far as they could without actually physically assaulting each other. And, even then, Shea showed me some bruises on his leg afterwards that he didn’t even know had. He was so pumped with adrenaline that [he got] hurt without even knowing, which is why you need a really well-qualified stunt coordinator, you need some actors who are comfortable with the physicality, and you need a director at the helm who’s not letting it go beyond anything that needs to be put on film.
TVLINE | How long did it take to shoot?
That was shot over two days. It was a long, brutal scene.
TVLINE | The rivalry between Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) was one for the ages. That must have been a thrill for you to watch.
Working with Jeffrey Wright has been a dream of mine for so many years. He’s an amazing actor and a terrific guy. And then adding Michael to the equation… putting those guys opposite each other was like putting two electric wires together and watching the sparks fly. It was just magic.
TVLINE | Will Jeffrey be back next season?
Yes. We will see Narcisse back next season. That storyline has not concluded.