Study Guide

Boardwalk Empire Manipulation

By Nelson Johnson


The railroads hired other "distinguished men of medicine" […] to make written endorsements and to prescribe a stay at the beach as the cure for every ailment. (2.17)

In case you can't tell, the phrase "distinguished men of medicine" refers to the old timey equivalent of those guys who host late night infomercials extolling the latest diet craze. Atlantic City was founded on the false promise of a magical medical transformation—and amazingly, it worked.

The Boardwalk created the illusion that everyone was part of a huge middle class parading to prosperity and social freedom. (2.31)

This isn't by accident. Atlantic City's business leaders have long been courting working class patrons, knowing that a high volume of less-wealthy visitors is better than a low volume of rich ones. In order to get these working class folks to spend more money, the hucksters on the boardwalk need to play a few tricks.

Boardwalk merchants […] were, in large part, responsible for institutionalizing the concept of the spending spree in American culture. (2.38)

That's certainly impressive, we suppose, in the same way that it's impressive how many seasons of Keeping up the Kardashians there are. In other words, in an unsavory kind of way. These dudes have made it their mission to squeeze as much cash from tourists as possible, and they're not going to let silly things like morality keep them from reaching their goal.

Sheriff Johnson […] controlled the selection of the grand jury and saw to it that everyone chosen to serve was "safe." (4.21)

That's a tricky move, Mr. Johnson. By now, Atlantic City's leaders have developed a finely-tuned ability to spin every situation to their own benefit, even going as far as rigging grand juries. Crimes don't even get to trial because they're so good at clogging up the courts.

Kuehnle was corrupt, but he had a vision for his town's future and he worked the levers of power to make that vision a reality. (4.38)

If it makes you feel any better, all of this manipulation is done for a good cause. Well, maybe not a good cause, by a cause nonetheless. Kuehnle is different than the men who follow him, as he creates the playbook that they will follow during their own paths to prominence.

Unlike the Commodore, Nucky was an organizer. His flamboyant lifestyle camouflaged a calculating mind, figuring angles and planning his moves constantly. (5.63)

Unlike his predecessor, Nucky grew up within the Atlantic City political machine. Kuehnle had to figure things out as he went along, but Nucky has been planning for this moment all his life. The manipulative nature of Atlantic City politics is about to be kicked into overdrive with this new ambitious leader at the helm.

It now became perfectly clear […] it was not a case of individuals committing perjury, but the perjury was the result of a gigantic conspiracy. (6.46)

As an outsider, Agent William Frank is shocked by the way that things work in Atlantic City. This is one of those rare instances where there actually is a gigantic conspiracy happening—Nucky has literally every single person in the local government under is thumb.

City employees who had signed the loyalty oath were expected to show their paper ballots […] to the poll workers. The intimidation worked. (7.62)

When all else fails, some good old-fashioned bullying will get the job done. This passage shows that even Nucky's inner circle is not exempt from being manipulated, their livelihoods threatened by the same man who signs off on their paychecks.

Corruption had been the norm in Atlantic City's government for so long that bribery, graft, and payroll padding were standard practices of doing municipal business. (8.44)

At a certain point, all of this manipulation becomes just another part of doing business. Lest we judge too much, we have to remember how much icky stuff still happens in modern corporations and governments. We might not be paying as much attention—or getting as much out of the deal—as the residents of Atlantic City, but corruption is simply a part of life.

By Atlantic City's standards, Michael Matthews' biggest sin wasn't that he stole, but that he was clumsy at doing it. Matthew was worse than corrupt—he was inept. (11.12)

To be honest, Atlantic City residents don't care very much about being manipulated as long as they get their cut. They understand that having a corrupt government comes with its fair share of benefits. But if you're not going to let them in on the con, you can best believe you won't earn their support.