The Commodore might have been the first boss of Atlantic City, but he's got nothing on Nucky Johnson. Nucky is Atlantic City's resident Don Corleone, a strong-willed boss who uses his formidable power to control every aspect of his city. He's cold, calculating, and more than a little manipulative. At the risk of getting too geeky (as if there is such a thing), we propose a new nickname for our buddy Nucky—the one boss to rule them all.
Nucky runs Atlantic City during its absolute height of power. Of course, we can't give all of the credit to Nucky; he benefits from a number of fortuitous circumstances, most notably the onset of Prohibition. Still, Nucky makes the most of these situations, scheming "in a way that made the Commodore look like a choirboy" (4.76). Though corrupt, Kuehnle still acted like a politician. Nucky? He's something else entirely.
Just take a look at his self-indulgent lifestyle. In contrast to dudes like Hap Farley, Nucky makes the most of his time on top, living the life of "a decadent monarch, with the power to satisfy his every want" (5.3). We see him canoodling with showgirls; we watch as he parties at giant ragers. If you can give the guy credit for anything, it's that he knows how to have a good time. Sure, this might not exactly be a trait you want out of a local leader, but that's Nucky for you.
As this lifestyle snowballs, Nucky acts more and more like he's in the Mafia. He twists and manipulates IRS Agent William Frank when he comes into town, and he forces his employees to make a "loyalty oath" and "show their paper ballots [...] to the poll workers" (7.62) after voting. He even bribes juries on a seemingly constant basis. Nucky isn't just a boss—he's the boss (No offense intended to the esteemed Mr. Rick Ross, of course).
In fact, this makes Nucky the envy of every gangster in America. He becomes buddies with all of the big boys, like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano. That's the Mafia equivalent to being friends with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. These guys respect Nucky a lot because he runs "a wide-open operation" in "the type of town other mobsters envied" (5.78). Nucky controls every single aspect of Atlantic City, from the police station to courthouse, and it seems like nothing will be able to slow him down.
The good times can't last forever, though, and like many a mafia boss before him, Nucky is finally taken down by the government after they discover financial irregularities in his organization's books. Nucky has always been paranoid about this very thing happening and been super careful to balance his books, but his lieutenants didn't follow suit. It's almost as if Nucky's organization has grown so large that a slip-up like this has become inevitable.
To our surprise, Nucky willingly gives up power after his release from prison. We expected the complete opposite to happen, with Nucky fighting for his throne in a Walter White-esque quest for vengeance. Instead, though, he decides to just "remain on the sidelines" and lead "a quiet life" (6.73). He occasionally peeks back into politics—most notably lending his support to the legalization of gambling—but he never again attempts to hold any real power.
The big question is why? Author Nelson Johnson argues that Nucky wants it all or nothing at all, choosing to relinquish power rather than "expose himself to another defeat" (6.73). That certainly could be true. Still, we can't help but wonder if we get Nucky wrong the whole time. Although he does some pretty messed-up stuff, we can't deny that he always fights for Atlantic City and truly cares for the people there. It might not excuse all of his actions, but it goes a long way toward explaining them.