How The Boardwalk Empire Writers Learned To Kill Their Darlings

Variations on the phrase "Kill your darlings" have been distributed as a piece of writing advice since at least 1914, when author Arthur Quiller-Couch presented it as a practical rule in his lecture "On Style." For showrunner Terence Winter and the writers' room of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," however, the idea of jettisoning the most precious parts of what they were writing extended beyond dialogue or individual scenes to include whole characters and the actors who played them.

Anytime you have a crime drama involving gangsters, character deaths go with the territory. As such, the Prohibition-set "Boardwalk Empire" killed off many characters throughout its five-season run, but they weren't only expendable redshirts, as "Star Trek" would call them. In fact, as anyone caught up with the show should know, the death of a major character became something of a season finale tradition for "Boardwalk Empire." In an Esquire interview (with spoilers) before the "Boardwalk Empire" series finale aired in 2014, Winter said:

"It's really hard. One of the things we promised each other early on is that we would not keep a character alive because we liked the actor portraying him. Otherwise we would hardly kill anybody because we kind of like them all. So we had to just completely divorce ourselves from the idea of, 'Okay, this is Michael Pitt' or 'This is Jack Huston.' It's just a character and what is best for the story. It's hard though; you start to get enamored of the characters and writing for them."

In the "Boardwalk Empire" series finale, Steve Buscemi's antihero, Nucky Thompson, also finally met his end, but he was merely the latest in a long line of character deaths.

'I wouldn't have believed Nucky was a gangster'

The "Boardwalk Empire" season 4 finale saw Jack Huston's beloved character, Richard Harrow, die of gunshot wounds, while the season 3 finale saw Bobby Cannavale's breakout psychopath, Giuseppe Colombano Rosetti, being stabbed to death. Perhaps the most surprising death of a major character came in the season 2 finale, when Nucky shot his former protégé, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), twice in the head. Up to that point, Jimmy had almost served as the show's co-lead, but as he and Nucky found themselves at cross-purposes, Nucky took his words, "You can't be a half gangster anymore," to heart, as did the show. Winter explained:

"I knew keeping [Jimmy] alive would have been easier for us, certainly for the story, and we had many opportunities to continue that storyline. Yet I knew the right thing for the series was for Michael's character to die at the end of season 2. It was a pivotal moment for Nucky and I wouldn't have believed the show anymore. I wouldn't have believed Nucky was a gangster had he not killed him. If he let him off the hook, I would have said, 'Bulls***, this is a television show' instead of, 'Wow, this feels real because that's what a gangster would do.'"

While fans who were rooting for Jimmy Darmody may have been sad to see him go, his death served the story, as far as Winter was concerned. The "Boardwalk Empire" narrative was sprawling at times and it encompassed many characters, but ultimately, the show held Nucky Thompson at the center of its orbit, and having him murder Jimmy in the rain was a way to establish that he had gone full gangster, and this was indeed that kind of show.