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The Most Brutal Deaths In Boardwalk Empire

Before the so-called Golden Era of Television, small screen dramas were sanitized experiences compared to Hollywood films, especially those from the crime, action and horror genres. There were no real televisual equivalents of "The Godfather," "Die Hard" or "The Exorcist," each of which were violent, profane or a combination of the two.

However, once shows such as "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" and "The Wire" had run their glorious course, television had been recalibrated into a medium that could be just as visceral as most mainstream Hollywood fare. Of all the shows that were part of that period — which arguably ended with the final season of "Game of Thrones" — it was HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" that was the most violent of them all. 

Set during the prohibition era from 1920 to 1933, "Boardwalk Empire" tells the semi-factual story of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a politician who serves as treasurer for Atlantic County, New Jersey. However, this title is a front, for Thompson is in fact the most powerful man in Atlantic City with a grip not just on politics but also every vice that can earn him a buck. 

He manages to be half gangster, half politician until his nose for profit leads him into the new violent world of prohibition bootlegging. Violence, therefore, was a central theme of this excellent period drama. Specifically, how violence is used to control, conquer and manage the bottom line. In other words, it's a show about hundreds of trilby-wearing psychopaths who get what's coming to them. 

Below is a breakdown of some of the best comeuppances — and the violent means with which they occurred.

Jimmy Darmody kills Rothstein's goon (Season 1, Episode 1)

The first episode of "Boardwalk Empire" made a statement on what to expect from this brutal depiction of the prohibition era. 

When Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) hold up a gang of bootleggers on a rural New Jersey road, a herd of stampeding deer startle the men into firing their guns, killing several of the bootlegging goons, one of whom manages to dash into the surrounding woods. There he takes refuge behind a tree, assuming a prone position and making as little noise as possible. 

After the panic of the road shooting has passed, it seems that the last bootlegger may survive. However, Darmody cannot accept witnesses. Just as the man thinks he has literally dodged a bullet, he turns to see Darmody's barrels in his face, half of which is removed when Darmody pulls the trigger. 

Many shows would have pulled the camera away here, perhaps showing a distant muzzle flash. "Boardwalk Empire," though, makes a point of showing us this man's decimated face injury as if to say, "This is what murder looks like, and we're going to show you everything."

Darmody slits D'Alessio's throat (Season 1, Episode 12)

After killing some eight people in the first season, Jimmy Darmody comes across as "Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street" in the final episode, slitting the throat of a D'Alessio brother in what some would call a 'beautiful hit'. 

Like his London counterpart, Darmody attacks his unsuspecting victim as he reclines in a barber's chair for a nice hot shave. However, Darmody puts his own spin on it by using not a straight razor but a full blown trench knife with brass knuckles on the handle. The weapon is likely a trophy from Europe, where Darmody served during the First World War, an experience that destroyed his humanity. 

Anyway, the specifics of blades aside, Darmody's slashing of D'Alessio's throat would have sent a shiver down the spine of many Victorian Londoners, for whom Sweeney Todd was the most ghoulish of boogeymen. His actual existence is a topic of debate among crime historians, but the grim legend has persisted thanks to a series of penny dreadful serial novels, a 1970s musical, and Tim Burton's film in 2007. 

Richard Harrow massacres Rossetti's men (Season 3, Episode 12)

One of the show's most cathartic moments comes in Season 3, Episode 12, when Richard Harrow storms Gillian's brothel to kill Rossetti and his men. Anyone who appreciates squibs will find much to admire in this sequence, which sees Harrow tear through the henchman with a pistol, shotgun and hunting rifle. 

Particularly artful is a bloody exit wound that sprays onto a stone wall, and is then smeared by the goon as he falls back against it. It's the sort of thing John Woo would admire. 

With the ground floor cleared, Harrow ascends the stairs and scouts a hallway, where he gets into an ugly scrap with some waistcoated crook whom Harrow manages to dispatch with a bullet to the mandible. This isn't just wanton violence, though. It's noble. Harrow is there to rescue Tommy Darmody, the poor young boy caught up in all this evil. 

Fortunately, Harrow finds Tommy being held hostage by some total scumbag, whom he terminates with a deceitful bit of gunplay. Rossetti and his men are so despicable that Harrow's massacre is a bloody thrill to watch.

Rossetti kills Franco with a shovel (Season 3, Episode 10)

Rossetti was probably the best baddie in all of "Boardwalk Empire." Bobby Cannavale brought a thuggish intensity to the role that was a stark counterpoint to the businessman's façade of Nucky Thompson, Sam Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and even Lucky Luciano. 

By contrast, the character of Rossetti is a total firebrand with a violently thin skin, taking fatal offense to slights both real and imagined. During Rossetti's war against Nucky in the third season, his most appalling moment comes in Episode 10, when he has his men bury Franco, an acquaintance, up to his neck on a New Jersey beach. This happens after Tonino, one of Rossetti's lieutenants and Franco's cousin, loses several cases of rum at sea, which Franco suggested was because of "rogue waves," intensely irritating Rossetti. 

The plan, it seems, is to leave poor Franco's head sticking out of the sand as the tide comes in, drowning him. But Tonino, who is forced to observe this disgusting scene, pleads with Rossetti for some clemency, "Break his legs, anything, not this!" Tonino's plea appears to work. "You're a lucky fella, Franco," Rossetti says as he fetches a shovel, ostensibly to dig him out. Instead, Rossetti swings the tool repeatedly at Franco's head, only stopping when his head is barely attached to his neck. It is perhaps the cruelest scene in the entire show. Fortunately, Tonino avenges his cousin in the Season 3 finale

Jimmy Darmody's death (Season 2, Episode 12)

The death of Jimmy Darmody is not the most violent killing in "Boardwalk Empire," but it is among the most emotionally brutal — and also perhaps both the most unexpected and the most impactful. 

Before their final confrontation, Nucky had treated Jimmy as a protege, supporting the young veteran upon his return from the Western Front in his hard-nosed but not unempathetic style. It was certainly more than what Jimmy received from his twisted parents, Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman) and Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol). The pair met when Gillian was 13 and the Commodore decades older, but Jimmy didn't know details of their perverted union. However, when Jimmy discovered that it was Nucky that "provided" Gillian to the Commodore, the perspective on his mentor changed irrevocably. Jaded and disillusioned, Jimmy forms a pact with the Commodore and Nucky's conflicted brother Eli Thompson (Shea Wigham) to become the new kings of Atlantic City. 

Their final confrontation occurs when Jimmy has lost the war. He could still cause trouble for Nucky, but he just doesn't care anymore. He is ready and willing to die. 

"I died in the trench, years back, I thought you knew that," Jimmy tells Nucky, resigned and nonchalant. "You'll get through it, all you have to worry about is when you run out of booze, and you run out of company." 

Nucky fires a round into his cheek, sending Jimmy to the sodden ground where he chokes and sputters. He looks into the distance as Nucky looms over him and fires into the middle of his forehead, killing one of the show's most popular characters. Indeed, some fans were disappointed by the jarring shock of his death — but Michael Pitt, the actor who played Jimmy, thought it was an appropriate end to Season 2. 

Eli Thompson kills George O'Neill (Season 2, Episode 5)

For some, this murder in Season 2, Episode 5 is a real look-between-your-fingers moment. 

Drunk, emotional and mired in a web of betrayal, Eli lashes out at Alderman George O'Neill (William Hill) with a wrench, appearing to crush his trachea. As he gauges the extent of the injury, Eli realizes that O'Neill cannot be allowed to see another day, so he bludgeons his facial features until they're reduced to a dreadful, cavernous mess. 

A writer for Salon thought that this scene and other violent moments tried to "jack up its excitement level" by appealing to "the worst impulses of Martin Scorsese and "The Sopranos."" Maybe he has a point. But then again, so what if there is a touch of cynical bloodlust? Bootlegging was a violent business. 

Richard Harrow scalps Jackson Parkhurst (Season 2, Episode 5)

You'd think that Eli Thompson turning a man's head into a Picasso painting would be enough gore for one episode, but not in the case of Season 2, Episode 5. 

With the help of Jimmy Darmody, Richard Harrow delivers a bit of poetic justice by scalping Jackson Parkhurst, a wealthy war profiteer with a vocal contempt for Native Americans. As if that doesn't make him bad enough, Parkhurst also strikes Jimmy in the face with his cane, in an act of hateful arrogance. 

I think we can all express our gratitude to cinematographer Jonathan Freeman for framing Harrow's bloody act with a nice close up, allowing us to observe and fully enjoy the detachment of skin from scalp.

Chalky White fights Dunn Purnsley (Season 4, Episode 12)

"Boardwalk Empire" always knew how to stage a fight sequence. No elaborate choreography — just desperate scraps with violent reversals of fortune. 

The fight between Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) in the Season 4 finale is among the most brutal, especially the wince-inducing moment in which White pushes a shard of wood through Purnsley's cheek. As horrifying as that may be, it is not fatal. What is often fatal, however, is a carving knife thrusted into one's spine, which Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) performs on Purnsley as he begins to overpower White. Not a nice way to go. 

But it is that wood through the cheek that really sticks with you. It's another example of the show's flair for visceral nastiness that lends it an undeniable excitement. 

Eli Thompson kills Agent Knox (Season 4, Episode 12)

The only fight scene in Season 4, Episode 12 more passionate than White and Purnsley's is the showdown between Eli Thompson (Shea Wigham) and Agent Knox (Brian Geragthy). The bloodshed is only minimal by comparison, but it is brutal. 

It seems as if the actors genuinely hated each other. It's the sort of violent intensity that has you edging forward in your seat to the point where you're ready to start a fight within your vicinity, be they friends, family or perfect strangers. It says a lot about Agent Knox that the viewer can't help but want Eli Thompson — a drunken thug with a broken moral compass — to prevail in this encounter. 

An agent of the bureau, Knox is a snaky little tyrant who is every bit as corrupt as the criminals he pursues. What makes him particularly hateful is that he adopts a goofy shtick to deceive people, especially when he first appears with his FBI superior Stan Sawicki, whom he leads into a fatal trap. Happily, after a properly ugly struggle with Eli, Knox finally gets whacked after receiving numerous blows to his smug face with a weighty glass vase.

Nelson Van Alden meets his maker (Season 5, Episode 6)

Poor Nelson Van Alden. Such a complicated man — and what a great character. 

By this point in the show, every character believes him to be "George Mueller," for Van Alden is a former prohibition agent who adopts a fake identity after murdering his partner in a fit of religious fundamentalist rage. Forced to navigate the corrupt world that he hates, Van Alden spends the remainder of the show in and out of organized crime, falling ever deeper into his fake life. 

His arc from zealous prohibition agent to broken, tragic figure comes full circle in Season 5, Episode 6, when he is staring down the barrel of Al Capone's Colt 1911. Just before the mobster takes the shot, Van Alden launches himself on Capone and roars his true identity, "I am a sworn agent of the United States Treasury! And I swear by Jesus our Lord that justice will rain down upon you!" Then, as is often the way with "Boardwalk Empire," a bullet tears through the back of Van Alden's head and out the left hand corner of his face, which becomes a gaping exit wound.

Dunn Purnsley bottles a man to death (Season 4, Episode 1)

It is almost a prerequisite for an HBO show to have a few moments of kinky sex. "Boardwalk Empire" is no different, especially in the first episode of Season 4, which sees Purnsley get dragged into a couple's aggressive cuckold fetish. 

At first, Purnsley believes he got lucky with a booking agent's wife, but then the agent walks into the room with a .38 revolver and warped demands that he finish what he started. Purnsley reluctantly obliges, until he gets hold of a large glass bottle, which he proceeds to smash over the man's head and then stab into his throat with terrible ferocity. 

Once Purnsley has finished, the man looks like Jack from "An American Werewolf in London."

Frank Capone gets the Sonny Corleone treatment (Season 4, Episode 12)

In "The Godfather," Sonny Corleone meets a leaden ending in a New Jersey tollbooth, where a gauntlet of mobsters spray him with 9mm rounds from their Thompson submachine guns. 

It's a shocking, iconic moment, but Frank Capone (Morgan Spector) may have him beat in terms of the sheer quantity of lead that enters his body. After getting battered in the face by a mob of irate factory workers, a team of cops blast Capone not with 9mm rounds but .38 specials, .45 ACP and even a few shotgun shells, causing him to do one of the best bullet dances in recent memory. 

Meanwhile, his brother Al screams "Fraaaaaaankk!" Sorry pal, he can't hear ya. 

Al Capone stabs henchman with a model of the Empire State Building (Season 5, Episode 4)

Season 5 of "Boardwalk Empire" opened in 1931, depicting the final stage of Al Capone's heyday. 

Now a millionaire and national celebrity, Capone has lost none of his temper and destructiveness. If anything, success has made him worse, especially his sense of humor, which has become in service entirely to his own ego. So when his henchman Cenzo (Edward Carnevale) laughs at Lucky Luciano comparing Capone's newfound fame to "Wally Beery" — a popular actor of the 1930's — his minutes of life are numbered.

Addled with cocaine and consumed with insecure rage, Capone takes a model of the Empire State Building, which had opened on May 1, 1931, and uses the base as a battering ram, bruising and tearing Cenzo's face. Then, a cruel impulse in Al's sick mind causes him to rotate the model and use the proud Art Deco spire as a makeshift blade, sealing Cenzo's fate.

The execution of Salvatore Maranzano (Season 5, Episode 7)

The killing of Salvatore Maranzano was a particularly brutal occasion. One of the show's many real life figures, the depiction of his murder is largely true to the bloody historical record. 

A leading New York City mob boss, Maranzano was killed because he was a "Moustache Pete," a derogatory term for old school mafiosi who believed in the "Boss of Bosses" management structure. Mobsters including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky would replace this with "The Commission," a board-meeting of mob leaders that was used to prevent violence and boost profits. Before all that, though, Maranzano had to go. 

In "Boardwalk Empire" as in real life, Maranzano's killers enter his Park Avenue office calmly and proceed to stab him with a disturbing focus. You'd think that the men use knives because they are somehow short of firearms, but when Eli Thompson produces a Colt M1911 and delivers a fatal shot to the head, you realize the men actually opted to get close and personal. 

Of course, the presence of Eli Thompson — a fictional character — is a glaring inaccuracy, but this is a microcosm of the show's brilliant mix of fact and fiction. 

The Execution of Angela Darmody (Season 2, Episode 10)

This is a scene so tough that William Forsythe — who plays Ukrainian mobster Manny Horvitz — said he was "conflicted" about performing it. 

In an "Inside the Episode" documentary, director Jeremy Podeswa said, "He [Forsythe] was conflicted as person and as an actor, not so much as a character. In his mind he was like 'My children are going to watch me shoot a woman in cold blood,' he had a little bit of a thing about that." It's an understandable sentiment, for this moment is a real gut punch. 

After one of Jimmy's assassins fails to kill Horvitz — who is almost unkillable — the Ukrainian breaks into Jimmy's home a few nights later, finding Angela in bed. He puts his hand over her mouth and waits for who he thinks is Jimmy to leave the bathroom. He is startled when a woman, Angela's lover, opens the door. Horvitz kills both of them, explaining, "Your husband did this to you."