‘Boardwalk Empire’ Creator on Legalizing Drugs and Making Nucky Likeable Again

Terence Winter says he doesn't have to make the case for legalization — history's already done it

The prohibition drama "Boardwalk Empire" wrapped its spectacular third season Sunday night just weeks after the states of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana.

Getty ImagesTo "Boardwalk" creator Terence Winter, who has immersed himself in the history of prohibition to research his gangster epic, the votes feel like a move in the right direction.

"It's great. I think they should legalize drugs in general," Winter (left) told TheWrap. "The war on drugs is clearly not working, and I think they should take the profit motive out of being a drug dealer. And maybe kids will go to college and do something else."

Winter, who reassembled his writers a few weeks ago to begin work on the show's fourth season, talked to us about whether they ever go out of their way to slow down the action, making Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) likable again, and whether things are worse today than they were in the 1920s.

TheWrap: Is 'Boardwalk' making a case for drug legalization?
Winter: Well, I think history made it for us with prohibition. We're just reflecting the reality of how it went down. I'm not trying to bend the reality or the truth of what happened. It clearly didn't work. I don’t think people were more disposed to drink when alcohol was legal.

Actually, it had the opposite effect. Women didn't start drinking until prohibition was enacted and college students didn't start drinking until prohibition was enacted. Leaving the mystery aside might have had a better impact on the country – keeping it legal. In my personal opinion I don't think making drugs legal would make anybody more likely to become a heroin addict, for example.

This is going to sound strange, but I mean it as a compliment. "Boardwalk" has a way of lulling you into looking at the costumes, and listening to the dialogue, and marveling at how pretty everything is. There are times when I almost want to nod off, it's so comforting – and then suddenly someone gets set on fire. I feel you're making a conscious effort to use boredom to really shock us at other times. Do you ever put in a scene that's deliberately slow?
No, we don't. I would disagree and say — slow or boring — there is dialogue that needs to be attended to and I think you need to pay attention to what's going on. The pacing can sometimes be slower than certainly an action scene or a scene with incredible violence. Because we have such wide-ranging characters and such wide-ranging circumstances, some things might seem slower by comparison.

Obviously a scene involving a political figure or Margaret's storyline, as opposed to something Al Capone is doing, is just by the very nature of it going to feel slow. But no, none of it is done by design.

I mean it in a good way. If you think things are slowing down, they're not. It's almost a trick.
The audience is so wide-ranging, too. We have people who can't stand the violence and they're much more entertained by the family stuff. One person's slow is another person's fascinating.

With the final episodes we got to see Nucky become really likable again. He's always been generous, but at times he seemed a little too caught up in himself to care about the people around him. Was there an effort to make him a good guy again?

One of the points of this season is that he does get caught up in himself. That all comes home to visit in a big way in episode 11. He doesn't know anything about Eddie Kessler the guy who works really closely with him. He doesn't know if he has a family. He doesn't know Chalky White's phone number. It becomes apparent that he's spent way to much time concerned with himself and his own affairs.

If you depict any character honestly, and show all of their colors, you're going to find something relatable or likeable with anybody. And that's certainly the truth with Al Capone or Luciano or Tony Soprano or any other famous character.

And certainly Steve Buscemi has an inherent likable quality to him. So when you add that to the mix you can't help but like the guy.

Imagery is so important to the show, and I feel like at one point this season you did something just because it was gorgeous. When Billie changes her hair color to blonde, was there any reason to do that besides how incredible it looked in the explosion?
Well, she was sort of finally coming to terms with who she really was. That was the episode where she dropped the façade of Billie Kent and told Nucky her real name. She was going through a metamorphisis and that sort of illustrated that a little bit. They were sort of not pretending with each other any more.

Is Billie a natural blonde?
That color wasn’t natural. She wasn't being Billie Kent that night. She was being the real person underneath. … But I agree it did look great in the explosion. [Laughs.] Meg Chambers Steedle, who plays Billie Kent, is absolutely one of those people the camera just falls in love with. Unfortunately the context was terrible. But it was extremely cinematic.

Harrow kind of became the hero of the show this season. His scene of taking down the entire house full of gangsters: Wow.
We've always been fascinated with the character and for me this season I was more interested in seeing who he is as a person and seeing him take that journey and fall in love and really explore that side of him. Given the way the story was, we knew it would end in violence.  But following the trajectory from the end of season 2, we knew this guy was very loyal to Jimmy and Angela and we knew he would stick around and take care of that kid. And of course Gillian being who she is, it wasn't going to end well.

Is Gillian kaput at this point? The last time we saw her she was in a heroin daze, and she's kind of lost everything.
She will be back on the show. She's certainly still alive.

Is there anybody on the show you think you can't kill?
Nope. Everybody's up for grabs and that's from the top on down. Anything can happen.

We hear so much about how much trouble our country is in. Do you think things are worse than they were in the 1920s?
No, and if anything, reading about how bad things were in the 1920s is strangely comforting in terms of how we think about things today. The level of corruption and the whole idea of going to hell in a hand basket is certainly nothing new. You look back and think, this pales in comparison. I think the more things change the more they stay the same.