The question that Margaret Thompson poses to her estranged husband, Enoch Malachi “Nucky” Thompson says more about the protagonist of Boardwalk Empire than any other sentence uttered on the show. The corrupted treasurer for Atlantic City, New Jersey is nothing if not conflicted.
Nucky is based on the real-life Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson, who was the political boss of Atlantic City for nearly 30 years and made his name by bootlegging, handling prostitution rings and running gambling schemes. From his corruption to the invigoration he brought to Atlantic City to his tragic family life, Thompson is the embodiment of the Prohibition-era kingpin. Nucky Thompson even wears the fresh red carnation that Johnson attached to his lapel each morning.
The real-life Nucky once said “When I lived well, everybody lived well.” The fictional man is also renowned for his generosity. He is a man who sympathizes with the exploited, the poor and the vulnerable over his privileged colleagues with whom he exchanges business deals. When an unpleasant business partner, the Commodore, discovers that his maid has been slowly poisoning him with arsenic and brings Thompson and his police cronies to take her to jail, Nucky instead tells the maid he doesn’t blame her, hands her a wad of cash and tells her to get out of town. Knowing the kind of man the Commodore is, Thompson understands when the maid said she felt that she had no other choice.
Even his choice in wives seems to be driven by his feelings for those less fortunate. Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder comes to Johnson looking for a job for her abusive husband, and a few episodes and one paid-for murder of Mr. Schroeder later, she becomes Mrs. Nucky Thompson.
Margaret is not without her own flaws, but her presence is Thompson’s link to a different kind of life. Thompson always keeps someone near him who represents something outside of his circle of corruption. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Thompson tells Margaret of his son’s death and his wife’s suicide. This was a time when depression was still called melancholia. Her knowledge of that then-shameful information creates a bond between herself and Nucky. Margaret is one of the few people who Thompson has confided in regarding the death of his wife and son. Her access to that normally hidden information alone makes her sacred to Thompson.She’s a keeper of his private tragedy and a witness to what it means to him today.
Thompson may be a husband to Margaret and a father figure to her children, but he remains a crooked mob boss. He schemes and murders, or rather, hires people to do the murdering for him. If there is any lesson that Thompson has for anyone, it’s that you call only be reformed so much.