Nucky Thompson is one of those guys that you know you want on your side. When he is living well, everyone is living well. He is friendly, generous, a lover of children, charming and enjoys the finer things in 1920s life. He is also a conspirator to murder and election rigging, violator of the Volstead Act by bootlegging liquor, and frequents brothels. Not the “stand up” citizen you might think the Treasurer of Atlantic County would be, right?
This makes him a robust character in all honesty. You want to like Nucky. You can understand him wanting the best for his loved ones. You can see the capitalistic validation in almost every move he makes. At the same time, you know that this guy is a corrupt sin monger. His justifications fall just shy of understandable.
Nucky knows how to play both sides. This is a commendable quality in a corrupt politician. He can say with a straight face and a twinkle in his eye, “Trust me.” No matter which side you are on, he makes his citizens feel that he will come through. His position with Chalky White is in direct conflict with his relations with men that were members of the KKK. Most absurdly (yet defines Nucky’s character in a beautiful way), his involvement with the Temperance Movement while not only imbibing in the devil’s nectar but illegally manufacturing and distributing it.
To say Nucky Thompson is a sinister murderer would not be a stretch of the truth but somehow, it doesn’t seem right to peg him with that title…not completely. He plays both sides to his advantage. A prime example comes from the beginning of season one when Nucky helps out Margaret Schroeder. He had no ulterior motives when he offered to get her a job. It was only after he found out about her being beaten by her husband that he seemed to take a liking to her. Of course, he could have only seen a fall guy in Hans Schroeder and beating his wife to near death gave Nucky the idea and push to use Hans as a patsy. The killing of Hans was a “blessing” for Margaret, her children (the ones who survived) as well as Nucky and his business. He manages to not only move the family out of harm’s way by having Hans killed but also won the adoration of Margaret for his assistance (though the fact that Nucky had her husband killed is never fully admitted) and pushed the spotlight for bootlegging onto someone who couldn’t say anything different. Not exactly a crime against humanity but really close.
Nucky’s relationship with Jimmy Darmody is one of a protégé and surrogate son. It is strained from the stresses of Jimmy’s aspiration to “take back” Atlantic City. Jimmy thinks since it was once his father’s town, it is his by heir. This drives a wedge between Nucky and Jimmy.
While Jimmy is exiled to Chicago, Nucky moves on. He may be a little bitter about all he has done for this boy only to be betrayed by him but who can blame Nucky? Nucky was the one who paid for Jimmy’s stint at Princeton University. He also made sure Angela and Tommy were taken care of financially while Jimmy went away to war. Nucky gave Jimmy a position of steady, albeit illegal and sometimes immoral, work. Jimmy’s ambition to take over can partially be blamed on Nucky’s ability to lead. When a man sees his father figure move up in the world, it is only fitting that the guy will try to fight his way to the top. Nucky allowed no one get in his way of his business and Jimmy grew up watching him succeed. Sometimes, the student can surpass the teacher, but in this case, Jimmy wasn’t an A student.
While this tension with Jimmy escalates, Eli has become disenchanted with Nucky. Nucky sometimes treats his brother like an idiot. Eli thinks he can lead just as well as Nucky and cannot seem to grasp that Nucky is watching his back. This leads Eli to plot with Jimmy to take Nucky out of the picture permanently.
As if all of that drama wasn’t enough anxiety, Margaret has become difficult. Unlike Nucky’s other gal pals, she is not accustomed to being in this position. She feels left out and like a concubine. As their relationship grows, she becomes a much more independent woman and manages to assert herself. Nucky wants nothing more than to protect her and the kids but at the same time he is not willing to allow love to stand in the way of his business. Nucky in fact wanted to marry her but only addressed it when it became a need. This shows how Nucky puts his own feelings and desires on the back burner until they are necessary.
When Nucky does confront Jimmy, we are faced with the fact that Nucky has been looked at as the guy who doesn’t get his hands dirty. He has people for that. He may need to enact revenge or just get rid of a troublemaker but Nucky is not the one to do the actual deed. Even though Jimmy came to his senses after Angela is killed and asked Nucky for forgiveness, Nucky knew he had to stand his ground. He had to not only resolve the problem; he had to exhibit his power. If he had not demonstrated that he is willing to do the dirty work, the betrayal would come from others. He was betrayed by two of the people he trusted most. Nucky had to establish that one cannot be half a gangster.