Starting a new season is always hard. But when the creators of HBO's Boardwalk Empire sat around a table to plan season three, they were stumped. ''We all stared at each other, then [said], 'Let's eat lunch,' 'Let's take naps,''' says the show's creator, Terence Winter, who made his name as a writer on The Sopranos.
Winter is a Brooklyn-raised motormouth with a greying beard, a friendly manner and a habit of turning thoughts into dialogue. He was clearly born to make TV but that didn't make it easy. His problem was the season two climax. Young, ambitious Jimmy Darmody - the core of the main storyline for the first two seasons - died in a gripping finale that lifted the Prohibition drama to new heights: slain at the hand of father figure Nucky Thompson (played to icy perfection by Steve Buscemi). It was one of those moments for which you watch TV. So now what?
''Originally we talked about, 'Right, what if it's the next day?''' Winter says. ''And as we talked about that it became apparent to me that I felt like I know what happens. Nucky comes home and he finds out that Margaret [Nucky's wife, played by Kelly Macdonald] gave away his land, they have a big fight and then people realise that Jimmy Darmody is missing, and he was dead, and I understood how that would all play out. But I thought if we go a year or so or more into the future, anything could happen.''
Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire. Photo: Supplied
So series two jumps 18 months in time, to New Year's Eve, 1922, as the price of illicit booze soars and the stakes have risen for the gangsters of the east coast. The characters have moved on, emotionally, physically, even geographically.
But the echoes of Jimmy's death are still there, in the story and in the minds of the writers.
''He was terrific, he was always interesting and fun to write for,'' Winter admits. ''So to make the decision to take him out of the series, it was like playing chess; it's like losing a very important piece.
''But that wasn't enough of a reason [to keep him in the show]. I always say to my writers, 'Let's make it more difficult on ourselves [rather] than easier.'
''It would have been easier to keep Jimmy alive - at the last minute Nucky says all is forgiven, he kills Manny and keeps Jimmy alive and they shake hands and he walks off. And that would have been easy because we could just have Jimmy.
''It's a lot more challenging to say, 'OK, we're killing him, what do we do now, how do we fill that gap in the story and move forward?' But it was the right decision.''
Winter says he tries to be true to his show, to keep the story growing ''organically'', rather than be distracted by what he reads about the reaction to his big decisions.
''It's funny, when I was a kid we thought it would be great to be able to read each other's minds. And now we can read each other's minds - it's called the internet, and it's not so great, you know? You read all this shit people are thinking about everything - not just your show but any news story. You read the comments and you're like, 'Oh my god - is this what people think?' So I try not to read that stuff.
''I like that people are invested and they care. I do question the sanity of people who are mourning the loss of a fictional character to the point that they are sending bouquets of flowers, but I love that we have affected people. That's our job, to make you laugh, make you cry, anger you, all of those things.''
Buscemi, for his part, is just happy to play the cards he's been dealt, even when it's a tough hand. ''The last scene of season two was hard because I like Michael [Pitt, who played Darmody] so much and I didn't want to see him go … so there was a lot of me resisting what I had to do,'' Buscemi says. ''But then I always remember that it's not real, it's a job and this is what I'm required to do as the character.''
Unlike his character, Buscemi is soft-voiced and quick to laugh. Winter calls him a ''gentle guy, not into violence in any way'', and Buscemi worries that the show not glorify the evil deeds of its characters. ''Some of the stuff is very upsetting to do on the show,'' Buscemi says. Generally he is able to ''just leave the work at work'' but there is one scene from the new season, which he won't reveal in detail, that he says stayed with him long after they called ''cut''.
But he loves the show and says it is one of the best jobs he has had. At the same time, he knows Winter and the writers too well to assume he'll be doing Boardwalk for as long as he wants. He remembers signing up for two seasons of The Sopranos, then dying after just one. ''It was hard; I really wanted to keep doing it,'' he says. ''But I'm not afraid to die - I'm used to it.''
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