This post will contain SPOILERS for the past three seasons of Boardwalk Empire.
I am addicted to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. I love the 1920s Prohibition and New Jersey boardwalk setting. I love the storylines, the clothes, the historical detail and the characters, all of whom have dubious morals. But my absolute favorite character is Richard Harrow, a World War I veteran who returns home with serous facial scars that lead him to wearing a prosthetic over the left side of his face. It struck me recently that Richard is a textbook example of the romantic wounded hero, and he reinforces everything that readers love about the trope.
Richard was introduced in the first season, when he meets fellow veteran Jimmy Darmody. Given that Richard was a sharpshooter during the war, he quickly becomes indispensable in Jimmy’s various illegal business dealings. It is also during this period where his character evolves from hired gun to wounded, vulnerable hero still grappling with the cards life dealt him.
Richard is everything a really great romantic, wounded hero should be. He’s one part sweet, two parts fierce warrior. You don’t always know whether you want to cuddle with him and take him home to meet Mom or run screaming in the other direction. Like any great wounded hero, it is his vulnerability that makes him so appealing. Like any great anti-hero, you know he’s operating outside the letter of law, and yet you don’t really care. Richard operates by his own code of honor, and his own sense of loyalty, of right vs. wrong, is so admirably it’s hard to shy away from him even when he’s storming into a known gangster hideout with guns blazing, shooting anybody who looks at him sideways.
His character arc started to evolve with his relationship with Angela Darmody, Jimmy’s wife. An artist, mother of a toddler son, and a woman drawn towards lesbian relationships, she saw Richard as a man. Not a freak show, not to be pitied, but a man. For that reason, and with his scars still fresh, he falls a little bit in love with her. So it wasn’t surprising that when Angela met an untimely end, Richard avenged her. In his words, “Jimmy was a soldier. He fought. He lost.” Implying, of course that Angela was never a soldier, she was an innocent—and innocents must be avenged.
As season three has unfolded, Richard has further cemented his romantic hero status by looking after Tommy Darmody, Jimmy and Angela’s son. This poor kid doesn’t have much a chance, being under the watchful eye of his seriously screwed up grandmother, Jillian, who is raising him in a brothel. Richard looks after Tommy, in part because of his devotion to the kid’s parents, but also to give the kid some normalcy that his grandmother simply cannot provide. When it comes to Tommy, Richard proves, in the end, that he’ll walk into a shoot-out to protect the kid.
Ultimately though, aside from all of that, what cements Richard as a romantic hero is that in season three, he gets the girl. While Nucky Thompson has been seen romancing an actress and his wife Margaret has been making time with an Irish henchman, it has been the Richard and Julia storyline that has provided the truly tender moments. Like Angela, Julia sees Richard as a man. A complicated one, but a man nonetheless. The mask, his injuries, his insecurities barely register with her, outside of the fact that she realizes she needs to be bold and make the first move. Richard wants to kiss her and tells her so—but she’s the one who comes to him. She’s the one who initiates those first kisses that lead to something a lot more on the beach one late evening. Given Julia’s own complicated life dealing with an alcoholic father, it seems natural and fitting that she would be drawn to Richard. Like her father, Richard has issues. Unlike her father, Richard doesn’t use those issues to hurt people. He’s fiercely loyal, unflinchingly protective, and just like with Tommy, Richard will stop at nothing to protect Julia—even coming to blows with her father when, in a drunken rage, he insults her.
As great as this romance has been all throughout season three, it’s hard to say where it will lead—especially given the events that occur during the final episode. Richard loves Julia, of that there is little doubt. But, in the end, he’s a complicated man living his life outside of the confines of respectable, law-abiding society. He’s killed men; a whole lot of them, in fact. Is he going to be able to build a life with a good, honest woman, when he knows exactly who he is, and she’s beginning to suspect as much? Or will he simply walk away thinking, and knowing, that he’s not good enough for her. Time will tell.
Despite all of that, Richard truly is a textbook example of what a really great romance hero should be. He’s loyal, fierce, vulnerable, attractive (hey, chicks dig scars), and just dangerous enough to appeal to any woman still harboring a slight bad boy fixation. Boardwalk Empire has wrapped its third season, and now I wait for what is sure to be an interminable amount of time before HBO decides to stop stringing me along to give me season four. In the meantime, I turn back to romance novels to fill the void and hope the next book is going to deliver a swoon-worthy hero to temporarily push Richard out of my mind.
Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at WendyTheSuperLibrarian.blogspot.com. So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.