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Jack Huston Broke the Mold for Soulful Assassins in Boardwalk Empire

The Expats actor should be a familiar face (even if you only ever saw half of it in the HBO drama).
  • Jack Huston on Boardwalk Empire (Photo: HBO)
    Jack Huston on Boardwalk Empire (Photo: HBO)

    Has the era of TV's soulful assassins ended? Surely as long as TV exists, there will be shows about murderers. But the model of the trained killer — ruthlessly efficient at their job, haunted in equal parts by their past deeds and the idyllic future they'll never have — is an incredibly specific one, and, as the 75th Emmys just reminded us, two of the most prominent iterations of that character have recently exited the TV landscape.

    The dismay over Better Call Saul never winning a single Emmy over the course of its six seasons overshadowed the end of Jonathan Banks' run as Mike Ehrmantraut, who crossed the border of two separate shows as the gruff-yet-secretly-tender professional killer. The Bear's sweep of the major comedy categories overshadowed the end of Barry, where Bill Hader (who'd previously won back-to-back Lead Actor in a Drama Emmys for his performance) portrayed another professional killer who struggled with the part of himself that wanted to be a good man. Both Hader and Banks did incredible work, and their characters made a mark on this era of television. But the archetype those characters tried to embody, the dead-eyed killer whose pure soul contradicts all the blood on his hands, had already been perfected years earlier. The existence of Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow, played with needle-sharp precision by Jack Huston, made all of TV's subsequent soulful assassins redundant.

    When people talk about the golden age of HBO dramas, Boardwalk Empire usually doesn't rate inclusion. It slots well below The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood. It was also created by Sopranos writer Terrence Winter, which gave it an inescapable little-brother feel. But the Richard Harrow character was the show's most unambiguous success (and best pop-culture crossover). He was both sad and terrifying; his sadness made him more terrifying, and his fearsomeness made what became of his life even more tragic. Neither the writers nor Huston allowed Richard to stray too far into one aspect or the other, which kept an incredible tension inside the character at all times. Richard was indelible, from his striking first appearance at a veterans' hospital to his sad end on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

    Introduced in Season 1 as a fellow veteran alongside Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Richard at first seemed like he might be merely a "there but for the grace of God go I" reminder for Jimmy, who had his own war wounds that plagued him. But Richard Harrow had half of his face blown off in the War. There was a black hole where his left eye used to be and mangled flesh and bone on the left side of his face, all of which he covered up with a mask designed to mirror the rest of his face (eyeglasses and all). The mask is an impressive feat of production design and character iconography, but it would have fallen flat without Huston's tightly-wrapped, mournfully affected performance. The way his face has to match the mask both cosmetically and emotionally must have been a real challenge, and Huston was up for it.

    The soulful assassin exists in two worlds, and if they dip more into one than another, the character doesn't work as well. Boardwalk Empire established Richard's bona fides from the start. He told Jimmy a story about the German sharpshooter who was his counterpart, who he patiently watched for three days until the German took off his face shield and gave Richard the opening to place a bullet right below his eye. It was the same shot that he delivered to one of Jimmy's Chicago enemies at the end of that first episode. He'd known Jimmy for less than a day and yet he was ready to kill for him, because he was a good soldier. That kind of willingness to kill was bone-chilling.

    Richard's facial deformities and generally meek affect made it easy for the Boardwalk Empire writers to push some "beauty and the beast" buttons. In “Emerald City,” the sight of Richard unmasked causes Margaret Schroeder's (Kelly Macdonald) daughter to scream in terror; but by the end of the episode, a gentle Richard sits with the family to read The Wizard of Oz (he calls himself the Tin Man). In Season 2, Richard forms a tender bond with Jimmy's lonely wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino), who shows him kindness. Later in the series, after both Angela and Jimmy were murdered, Richard became protective of their son Tommy. In Season 3, he fell in love with a good woman named Julia (Wrenn Schmidt), and he reunited with his sister Emma (Katherine Waterston), at least for a time.

    TV writers have often struggled with writing antiheroes and protagonist killers because, simply put, their audiences just end up rooting for them. It's not like Boardwalk Empire's fans didn't love Richard (they very much did). But his moments of gentle kindness toward women and children were very purposefully offset by moments that revealed just how much humanity the War had taken from him. Mere episodes after his sweet family moment with the Schroeder kids, Richard was advising Jimmy that the best way to smoke out the D'Alessio brothers was to go to their hometown and kill their mother, their sisters, even the family dentist. This was suggested with the same steady pragmatism that Richard would propose anything else. Jimmy eventually talked Richard out of that idea, though Richard did kill the youngest, teenage D'Alessio brother.

    Richard's defense of young Tommy Darmody led directly to his rampage through Gyp Rosetti's (Bobby Cannavale) stronghold in the Season 3 finale. This was the most righteous and closest to an action hero the show ever allowed Richard to be. But it was followed by him making a trek back to Wisconsin to reconnect with his sister. The story that Richard told Angela in Season 2 about Emma, how he loved her more than anyone else in the world, and then when he returned from the war he realized that he was no longer capable of feeling that love, is unbearably sad. A kinder show might have indicated that this reunion held the chance for Richard to set killing aside and be with his family. But that's not what Boardwalk Empire had in mind. By the end of Season 4, Richard had returned to Atlantic City for the customary One Last Kill, a shot he missed, tragically, before being fatally wounded himself.

    Richard's arc was tragic but never softened. It was humane but never overly cruel. It's the single best encapsulation of a tender killer on TV; the most pure, in terms of a character with a flawless talent for killing and an unimpeachable soul that was corrupted by the evils of war. In Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Mike Ehrmantraut killed with less elegance and precision. His tender heart was buried a bit further below the surface. He fit the character type, but not as perfectly. Barry's existence as a comedy helped Bill Hader evade whatever cliches he might've encountered playing an assassin who lives with regret. In both cases, these were characters who, intentionally or not, were written to evade the archetype that Richard fully embodied.

    Jack Huston has worked steadily since he exited Boardwalk Empire, with many of his best roles as villains. He played a mobster who gets into a relationship with Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle and an opportunistic businessman in House of Gucci, both roles earning him SAG Award nominations for Best Ensemble Cast. On TV, he played an unethical doctor with Frankenstein-ish tendencies in Mr. Mercedes and a poor man's Lestat in the adaptation of Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches. He's part of the cast for the new Prime Video series Expats starring Nicole Kidman, yet another opportunity to work with world-class talent. But he may well have already given his best work as Richard Harrow. That role was made famous by the use of a facial prosthetic, so it's ironic that the character broke the mold for the soulful assassin on TV.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Jack Huston, HBO, Barry, Better Call Saul, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Bill Hader, Jonathan Banks