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Characters: Boardwalk Empire Thompson Family
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Enoch Malachi "Nucky" Thompson
"If you wanna be a gangster in my town then you'll pay me for the privilege."
"We all have to decide how much sin we can live with."
The primary Villain Protagonist
of the series. Originally the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County, he ends up somewhat accidentally in the world of organized crime after he begins investing in bootlegging. Played by Steve Buscemi
(and Nolan Lyons as a child and Marc Pickering as a young man).
- The Ace: He's a high-flying politician with a double life as a liqour kingpin. He can trounce much younger and larger men when it comes to fisticuffs. And he can juggle like a pro.
- Affably Evil: Though it slips more into Faux Affably Evil as the series progresses. He seems to slide back towards the former in the late seasons.
- Affectionate Nickname: Billie Kent calls him "Gus," as in "Gloomy Gus." Nucky does not seem to mind.
- Ain't Too Proud to Beg: He's is ultimately willing to kneel down and promise Luciano and Lansky everything he owns in return for his nephew's life.
- Aloof Big Brother: To Eli.
- Ambition Is Evil: He always wants more, but it's downplayed during the present day, as he is not too greedy nor too amoral by the standards of the story. His backstory reveals that he wanted to get ahead, and in order to become sheriff, he delivered a 12 year old Gillian to the Commodore so he would rape her.
- Anti-Hero/Anti-Villain: Goes back and forth and toes the line thanks to the setting and his more nefarious antagonists. While certainly corrupt at the beginning of the series, Nucky was also motivated by a desire to help his constituents and a very sympathetic figure because of his kindness to others and tragic backstory. As the show progresses he becomes more and more evil and even gets his own hands dirty.
Gillian: Mrs. Thompson said you want to be good. But you don't know how.
- Arms Dealer: He becomes this in the second season, trading smuggled machine guns to the IRA for Irish whiskey. He gets briefly confused with the inventor of the Thompson submachine gun, "just a happy coincidence".
- Arranged Marriage: To Margaret, in order to avoid jail since she couldn't be forced then to testify against him.
- Badass Boast:
- "Want to see how I do business? Show your face in Atlantic City!"
- "I will ruin you. All of you."
- "I see you in Atlantic City again, I'll kill you myself."
- "I didn't ask for trouble. What was brought to my doorstep, I returned."
- Batman Gambit: Against Rothstein in "Margate Sands". Nucky has Doyle phone Rothstein and tell him that Nucky, now in the middle of a war against Gyp Rosetti, is running the biggest distillery of the US on behalf of the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. Rothstein catches the bait and phones Nucky to demand a 99% share of the distillery in return for convincing Masseria to withdraw his support from Rosetti and leave him hang, giving control of Atlantic City back to Nucky. Nucky accepts, and after he has Rosetti killed he rats out Rothstein to Mellon, who orders Rothstein's arrest.
- Bedmate Reveal: With Billie in "Resolution".
- Been There, Shaped History: It's safe to say that Nucky Thompson is a whole deal more influential in 20th century US history than Nucky Johnson was.
- Beware the Nice Ones: He can be a pretty nice guy, just don't cross him.
- Bling Bling Bang: After his second assassination attempt Nucky starts to carry a revolver... covered in gold and ivory.
- Calling the Old Man Out: One of them in the Old Man's funeral, no less.
- Cartwright Curse: The women he loves tend to suffer low life expectancies.
- His first wife, Mabel committed suicide before the story started.
- His mistress in season 3, Billie Kent is killed in an explosion meant to kill Nucky.
- His mistress in season 4, Sally Wheet is gunned down in Cuba by the army, while trying to perform a task for Nucky.
- The Chains of Commanding: His enemies think that his job could be easily done by anyone. They are so very, very wrong.
- The Chessmaster: Nucky is trying to become one following Rothstein's advice. If he has no real options left at the moment, he will retreat, put all his pieces back on the board, maneuver them into position and then strike back.
- Clothes Make the Legend: Colorful shirts and suits, red flower and homburg hat.
- The red flower disappears after season three.
- Consummate Liar: It comes with the job description. A deceiving master of duality and of the Bastardly Speech. One notable example has him defending the black community and demonizing it in the next phrase thanks to the montage.
- Control Freak
- Cool Uncle: Willie and the rest of Eli's children see him as this, for different reasons.
- Deadpan Snarker: And a master of the Stealth Insult.
- Dark and Troubled Past: He had a poor, sucky childhood, and while he got better on the money part, he was never truly happy.
- Abusive Parents: His father was horribly physically and emotionally abusive to him.
- Dead Little Sister: A literal one, Susan, died of tuberculosis when he was 12. 30 years later, she was followed by Nucky's wife and only biological child.
- The Lost Lenore: His first wife, Mabel. She killed herself after the death of their first child. And while he gets over Billie's death pretty quickly, he still feels the need to avenge her by killing her murderers.
- Rags to Riches: From beggar child to one of the richest and most powerful men in the country.
- Start of Darkness: Told in flashbacks during the 5th season. In 1884, when Nucky was 12, he beat a disrespectful kid that earned more money than he did working honestly. This attracted the attention of the Commodore, who gave him a job as a hotel bellboy. There, he saw a client murder a prostitute, but instead of bringing him to justice the Commodore and his sheriff "solved the issue" in secret, so the incident wouldn't harm early Atlantic City's appeal as a tourist destination.
- The Unfavorite: His father constantly expresses scorn toward him, yet secretly feels that he's the only son who can handle himself.
- Death by Flashback: A lot of insight into his backstory is finally given in the last season, right up to his death.
- The Don: Firmly upgraded to this by the third season.
- Doom Magnet: Everyone he's employed as The Driver (Jimmy, Owen and Eddie) has met with an untimely end.
- Drowning My Sorrows: After he learns that Sally died, he goes to the seediest bar he can find to get drunk.
- Embarrassing First Name: When Margaret says that she would like to name her child after him, he responds: "Enoch? You couldn't possibly be that cruel." Nucky's own son, who died in infancy, was named after him, but only because his wife wanted that.
- Equal-Opportunity Evil: While not without prejudice, he's one of the least bigoted characters in the series.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Regardless of the current state of his relationship with Margaret, he genuinely loves Teddy and Emily like they're his own children. In "The Milkmaid's Lot", when he's suffering from a concussion and short-term memory problems, one thing that he keeps remembering (and mentioning) is that Emily was supposed to get a pony for her birthday.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Despite being fine with political corruption among many other crimes, he strongly disapproves of spousal and child abuse.
- In "Blue Bell Boy", he seems to be debating between letting a booze thief (whose death he ordered) go or taking him under his wing after he discovers that he is only 16. When the kid reveals that he is actually 19 and an epic con man, Nucky just shoots him in the head himself.
- Evil Mentor: To his nephew, Willie. Not that he tries to be, though, as he genuinely wants Willie to have a bright future.
- Fatal Flaw: Nucky has a tendency to take people for granted and has a fixation for professionalism - it includes both his close-ones and his business associates. He disengages emotionally from Margaret, Eli and Jimmy after a while. It also causes most of his problems with crime, since he's unwilling to throw anyone a bone and expects everyone to be as professional and unemotional as himself.
A.R.: Hubris. The Greeks call it.
- Even worse is his monumental hypocrisy. Most people drawn against him do because he is not an example of the professionalism he demands from other people. Nucky not only can't keep it in his pants (which is another fatal flaw of his in itself), he also becomes lovestruck with whatever woman catches his attention at the moment to the point of putting at risk his business and life itself, and the lives of those around him in turn. Worst of all is that when he is called on it, he acts as if it is perfectly normal and the other person is stepping his ground (Eli), overreacting (Margaret) or at worse fault itself for not being an open skirt chaser like Nucky (Rothstein).
- Flashback: Several in the fifth season, in order to wrap up the show's story before its early cancellation.
- Friend to All Children
- Gondor Calls for Aid: Asks for the support of his old associates in the upcoming war against Rosetti-Masseria, but he's considered a liability and only Al-Capone and Chalky join his camp.
- Grammar Nazi
- Happy Marriage Charade: In the third season, to Margaret.
- Anti-Heroic BSOD: Big-time in "The Milkmaid's Lot", resulting from a concussion sustained in the explosion that killed Billie.
- Honorary Uncle: To Margaret's children, before getting a Promotion to Parent.
- Played best in his interactions with Eli, where he always commands him to toughen up and take responsibility, yet Nucky always denies any wrongdoing on his part, even when he knows that the person he is talking to also knows about them. Eli's Hazy Feel Turn comes precisely after he points out how resentful Nucky is and how he can't let any slight go unpunished no matter how small or far away in time it is, yet he expects other people to forget his own slights to them right after handing them a wade of cash.
- Multiple examples in his relationship with Billie, in which Nucky crosses his own lines by mixing business and personal priorities. Rothsein even calls him out for it.
- He criticises Chalky for letting his affair with Daughter Maitland interfere with his business. It's not like Nucky would do something like that!
- I Own This Town: Atlantic City, inherited from the Commodore. Nucky venturing into organized crime makes for a stronger but more dangerous grip.
- In-Series Nickname: Nucky or Nuck.
- It Gets Easier: When he's about to shoot Jimmy, Jimmy tells him: "My first time I vomited after Two days straight. Second time I didn't even think about it." Indeed, Nucky becomes much more ruthless after his first kill.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Although sometimes the heart can be really deep.
- Karma Houdini: The show's plot could be summed as "watch Nucky Thompson weasel out of the problems he's getting into". Subverted at the end of Season 5. He doesn't get out of his situation with Lucky Luciano, losing Atlantic City and all his power to him. And he gets killed by a Chekhov's Gunman for making the choice to give pre-teen Gillian over to the Commodore, which began his rise to power.
- Karmic Death: Ends up shot by Tommy Darmody, the ultimate end result of his first great sin which was giving Gillian over to The Commodore.
- Kavorka Man: Like many older men of the time period, it's astonishing how much tail he gets.
- Kick the Son of a Bitch: When Eli comes crawling back to him in "Gimcrack and Bunkum", Nucky tells him to "get on [his] knees, bend down to the ground, and kiss [his] fucking shoes, you piece of shit". They then get into a knock-down, drag-out brawl. It's a long time coming.
- Like A Daughter to Me: He and Mabel seemed to have this dynamic with Gillian before he sold her to The Commodore.
- Lonely at the Top: While he has wealth and prestige and is known for his charm, he manages to alienate Jimmy, his brother Eli, and even Margaret... right after marrying her.
- While he manages to make amends with Eli in Season 3, things get worse for him when Margaret gets fed up with him and leaves with his children.
- In Season 4 Nucky confides to a bartender that he used to be happier as a humble corrupt politician, since Prohibition has basically caused him to lose his trust in even his closest friends.
- Love Makes You Dumb: His relation with Billie makes him neglect his business affairs. A.R. calls him out on this "cavalierness" and labels him a liability.
- The Man Behind the Man: Mayors, senators and even presidents owe him their position in some way.
- Mangst: Childhood abuse, dead wife and infant son. Season 3 adds the death of Billie to the mix. He does not indulge in self-pity or let others do it for him.
- Manipulative Bastard
- Mean Boss: He feels Surrounded by Idiots and always has quips towards any underling who drops the ball or steps over the line.
- Never My Fault: As detailed under "Hypocrite".
- Nice to the Waiter:
- He is nice to constituents who he patronizes, but he's a pretty big jerk to Eddie. In "Family Limitations", Margaret asks Eddie if Nucky is nice to him. Eddie loyally responds that he is. (In the same episode, Nucky berated him first for not knocking loudly enough, then for knocking too loudly). In "Two Imposters" he realizes that he has known Eddie for years but never bothered to find out whether Eddie has any family (he is actually married and has two children) or where Eddie lives.
- He also gets more and more jerkish to Harlan after he begins working directly for him.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Inspired by the real historical figure Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, with the name changed so the writers have more leeway for telling his story. The character also seems to be older than his real counterpart, who was 37 in 1920 - and his hands a lot bloodier.
- The Obstructive Love Interest: To Billie in Season 3. Unusual in that he is a man and the main character.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Everybody calls him "Nucky" or "Nuck", though Margaret addresses him as "Enoch" a few times in season 3.
- Open Mouth, Insert Foot: His first reunion with Margaret in Season 4 ends with possibly the worst thing he could have said, evoking Owen's demise.
Nucky: I wouldn't put something alive in a box.
- Parental Substitute: First to Jimmy and later to Margaret's children.
- Pragmatic Villainy: Generally, he tries to avoid violence when peaceful solutions will make do (which often consist of cash payments). Moreso in Seasons 3 and 4.
- Promotion to Parent: In "Two Boats and a Lifeguard", when he asks Teddy to call him "Dad", and in "Georgia Peaches", when Teddy casually does.
- Raised Catholic: Lucy says this about him: "They raised him a good Catholic boy. And every once in a while, he starts thinking that he might go to Hell, and that he better change before it's too late."
- Really Gets Around / Your Cheating Heart
- Redemption Rejection:
- Just a few scenes after basically telling Margaret he'll make a Heel-Face Turn he tells Jimmy "You don't know me. I'm not seeking forgiveness". Right before shooting Jimmy in the head.
- In the finale, he's given the chance to atone for his greatest sin, sending Gillian to the Commodore. She ends up in a horrific Bedlam House and writes a letter to him, begging for help. Nucky visits her, but refuses to get her out. Not much later, he's murdered by Tommy Darmody.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Blue Oni to Eli's Red.
- The Resenter: His speech to his nephew Willie in Season 4 makes clear that this has been a huge part of his motivation in the past. He grew up and later went to college resenting all the rich children of privilege who looked down their noses at him. He talks about that anger and resentment having been driving forces behind his success.
- Satellite Character: Strangely enough, he has become more of a lynchpin that ties together multiple character arcs than the main character of a central story.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: This has become something of a personal philosophy as a result of all of his experience with corrupt pols and the benefits of graft. It's also probably Nucky's Fatal Flaw, as he's very prone to throwing money at friends and loved ones in circumstances where he should be taking an active emotional interest.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Usually Nucky is the connection that people call on to get out of trouble. However, when he gets into legal trouble himself, he is not shy calling up his connections in the White House and later, New York, to get out of it.
- A bit of a running gag is that he tends to solve most of his problems by pulling a wad of cash out of his pocket.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: By the end of Season 4, Nucky is growing tired living a life of crime and plans to move to Cuba with Sally.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: In S3 with Billie, and in S4 with Sally Wheet.
- Sleazy Politician: Before turning full-gangster, Nucky made a living by exploiting - if not outright invoking - Democracy Is Bad, or "Not voting Republican is worse", to be precise.
- Start of Darkness: Giving Gillian over to The Commodore. Mentioned in previous seasons, shown in flashbacks in season 5.
- Thicker Than Water: Proves that Eli means more to him than Jimmy. It helped that Eli was also more useful and manageable. One of the few and most important lessons than Nucky learns during the show, to the point of teaching it to Willie.
The only thing you can count on is blood.
- This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: Nucky himself pulls the trigger to end Jimmy's life.
- Timeshifted Actor: Season 5 contains flashbacks to Nucky's childhood, where he's played by Nolan Lyons.
- Took a Level in Badass: His development as a whole, from power broker and kingmaker to half-gangster and then full-fledged kingpin. By season 3 his Non-Action Guy persona is gone, in "Two Imposters" he singlehandedly kills three of Rosetti's men in a firefight. With a shotgun. Through a closed door.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Wives and lovers; first with Lucy, then with Margaret, and then with Billie. In flashbacks we see that Mabel was quite beautiful.
- Underestimating Badassery: People do this with Nucky constantly, at least in terms of his physical prowess. Yet Nucky keeps winning in fist fights and shootouts.
- Villainous Breakdown: See Heroic BSOD above.
- Villain Protagonist
- Villain with Good Publicity: As far as the people are concerned, Nucky is a pillar of the community and a social celebrity in Atlantic City. In season 3 he also becomes a philanthropist and a Knight of the Church, albeit involuntarily.
- Wanting Is Better Than Having: One of his major malfunctions in the present day, his ambition is like an unquenchable thirst.
I recall that I was once [alive, before Prohibition]. Till then, I was a simple, run-of-the-mill crook... a corrupt city official. And I was happy. Plenty of money, plenty of friends, plenty of everything. Then suddenly, plenty wasn't enough.
- Wicked Cultured: Enjoys all the perks that an upper social class can offer and is well-read, he also happens to be a corrupter and a gangster.
- Wife-Basher Basher: Played with. When he called the hit on Hans Schroeder, he was partly motivated by outrage at Hans's savage abuse of Margaret. Then again, Nuck needed a fall guy, and Hans was a convenient one.
- Would Not Hit a Girl: Although he comes perilously close to it in "Under God's Power She Flourishes". In "North Star", after Sally Wheet punches him several times, he eventually hits back, though not nearly as strongly as she hit him. They end up having sex.
- Would Not Hurt A Child: Ordering it is not off-limits, though.
- Your Cheating Heart: Has an affair with Billie Kent while married to Margaret.
Sheriff Elias "Eli" Thompson
"What am I? The repudiated?"
The corrupt sheriff of Atlantic County and Nucky's younger brother. Through the first two seasons he develops an increasing desire for recognition which he feels denied because everyone else only sees him as Nucky's muscle, and that eventually leads him to betray Nucky for the Commodore. This conspiracy is defeated, and Eli loses his sheriff position and goes to jail for a year and a half in payment for his betrayal. Played by Shea Whigham (and Oakes Fegley as a child and Ryan Dinning as a young man).
"Look who's here: the big shot."
Nucky and Eli's old and progressively more senile father. He was abusive to the first and protective of the second during their childhood, and still remains more attached to Eli in the modern day - in part, however, because he knew that the more intelligent Nucky was more capable of making his way into life. Played by Tom Aldredge in his last role, and by Ian Hart in flashbacks.
Nucky and Eli's mother. She died in 1903, years before the start of the series, and appears only in flashbacks during the fifth season. Played by Erin Dilly.
Nucky and Eli's younger sister. She died in 1884. Played by Onata Aprile in flashbacks in the fifth season.
"You had enough to worry about."
Eli's wife and mother of his eight children. Played by Nisi Sturgis.
William "Willie" Thompson
"My dad said he'd kill me if I got in trouble like this."
Eli and June's eldest child. Played by Kevin Csolak in Season 3 and Ben Rosenfield in Season 4.
- Accidental Murder: Kills a college mate when his chemically spiked alcohol becomes a Deadly Prank.
- Advertised Extra: He is a series regular in season 5 after playing a major role in season 4 but only appears in 2 episodes while characters like Meyer Lansky who has been on the show since season 1 and appears in 5 episodes of the season remains a guest star. He's also, quite oddly, the only living major character to be completely absent from the series finale.
- Ascended Extra: Plays a very small part in Season 3, gets his own arc (and a lot of screentime) in Season 4.
- Been There, Shaped History: Implied in "Friendless Child," the last episode he appears in; his boss, a U.S. attorney, tells him to fetch him files on prostitution, suggesting he is involved in Charlie Luciano's 1936 pimping conviction.
- Calling the Old Man Out: After Willie drops out of college, Willie tells the furious Eli that it was him who was took a job to keep the family afloat while Eli was in jail.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster : Willie is blinded by the glamour of his uncle's life and wishes to be part of the family's business, to his father's exasperation.
- He's All Grown Up: Played for Drama. Eli missed two of Willie's birthdays and had trouble dealing with the idea that he had left school to support their family in Eli's absence.
- Karma Houdini: "Erlkönig" explores this trope extensively in Willie's arc. After Willie is arrested following Henry's death, Nucky bribes the DA and advices Willie to frame his college roommate, Clayton. At the end of the episode, Willie is free and "rewarded" with the girl he knocked heads with Henry for.
- Last Name Basis: While in college, everyone addresses him as "Thompson".
- The Mole: After Willie drops out of college, Nucky plants him in the Mayor's office to have him informed.
- Morality Pet / Protectorate: In "Two Imposters", the supreme Jerk Ass Nucky Thompson redeems himself by putting himself between Willie and what he though at the time were Rosetti's men. Eli is also angry with Nucky for putting Willie in the line when he decided to seek refuge at the lumberyard Willie worked at.
- Nice Guy: At least when he Used to Be a Sweet Kid, in Season 3.
- The Other Darrin: Very obvious. Csolak has blonde, straight hair; Rosenfield has red,curly hair. The fact that his brothers have been consistently cast only highlights it.
- Promoted To Parent: "Man of the house" while Eli is in jail.
- Remember the New Guy: In Season 3. Season 2 implied that his brother Michael (or Patrick) was the eldest of Eli's eight children.
- Revenge Before Reason / Nice Job Breaking It, Hero : In the fourth season, Willie's college mates crash his attempt to make out with a girl and laugh at the raging boner he got. Willie blows it completely out of proportion and seeks revenge on college mate Henry at all costs, deciding to dose his cup with laxative and make him crap his pants in public. In the process, he alienates the girl by claiming that she was in the prank, resulting in her deciding to flirt with Henry instead, and this angers Willie so much that he puts enough laxative to accidentally poison Henry to death.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: In "Erlkönig" Nucky keeps him away from jail and a charge for manslaughter.
- Self-Inflicted Hell: As detailed in this interview with Ben Rosenfield, Willie's "problems" at college stem from the fact that he wants to hang out with the popular, old money kids, but feels intimidated because he's not old money himself.
- Something Else Also Rises: Inverted in "Acres of Diamonds". When his college pals crash his attempt to make out with a girl, one comments that his "anger is not the only thing that arises".
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: He's very much like Jimmy was before the war messed him up. In Season 4 he's even going to college.
"She completely broke with reality."
Nucky's first wife who committed suicide seven years before the start of the series. Played — sort of — by Molly Parker
and Maya Kazan in flasbacks.
- The Cameo: Although "played" by a big actress the character only appears in some photographs during the first season. In season 5, however, she appears in flashbacks.
- Driven to Suicide: She slashed her wrists with Nucky's shaving razor roughly a month after the death of their newborn first son, in January 1913. Nucky can't cope with the guilt and prefers to tell strangers that she died of tuberculosis.
- First Girl Wins: She met Nucky when he was 12, and is the only woman he has truly loved.
- The Lost Lenore: To Nucky.
- Of Corpse He's Alive: Mabel's first and only child, Enoch Jr., died shortly after birth. Mabel fell into denial and continued to bathe, dress and care for him as if he was still alive, until she was discovered by a busy Nucky days later.
- Posthumous Character
- Shout-Out: Parker's casting is a Shot Out to Deadwood, the third HBO show Boardwalk Empire is often compared to, after The Sopranos and The Wire.
- What Could Have Been: It has been said in at least one interview with TV Guide that Parker's photograph was a prelude to her appearance in flashback during season 2, but that never materialized.