Dec 3 2012 4:30pm

Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow: The Ideal Romantic Hero?

Richard Harrow in Boardwalk EmpireThis 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. 

Richard and Julia in Boardwalk EmpireUltimately 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 So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I had ZERO interest in this show. ZERO. Now I'm curious... Great post, Wendy, thanks. Love finding romantic heroes in unexpected places.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
You say everything that has been percolating in my brain this entire season. I love Richard! MAN, did I whoop when he went to Jillian's place of business. I hope he's not gone; I doubt it, I bet he'll get swept up in Nucky's drama, but I do hope he gets some more love in his life.
Lege Artis
3. LegeArtis
Awesome post, Wendy!
I'm hooked to this show! And this season was fantastic, I like it more then first two. There isn't many movies or TV shows that deal with rise of Al Capone, so that part of story kept me interested, too. I knew how he went down, but how he became the top dog was new for me.
Finale was ok, and we got Richard the Killing Machine back, but watching him walk away broke my heart and I hope he'll resolve things with Julia in Season 4.
Wendy the Super Librarian
4. SuperWendy
Redline: I tend to find HBO series uneven. Some great episodes interspersed with ho-hum ones - and I don't think BE is immune to that. But I love the time period, the writing has been very good, and there are more than enough anti-heroes in this series to go around.

Megan: My Man and I were watching that scene thinking, "Man, Nucky needs to put this guy on the payroll. Look at all the time he's saving them! LOL"

LegeArtis: My Man LOVES Al Capone on the series - probably his favorite character since, you know....Jimmy.

Yeah, I'm hoping last night doesn't signal Richard riding off into the sunset. I don't think so - mostly because of Tommy, and it's looking like Jillian isn't going to die. My guess is he'll stick around to protect the kid - and we'll see what happens with Julia.....
Jena Briars
5. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
Oooooh, this makes me want to start the show so badly, (and I keep telling myself I won't pick up another series b/c this would mean starting from season 1!) - the only snippet I've seen - and I mean for about 10 minutes... let's just say it was a crazy-intense, involving this dude, a gun, and a window. And it was so compelling. I just couldn't look away. I didn't even know who they were or what was going on... but I was glued...
6. CindyS
Okay, there's scars and then there are scars and Richard is missing a good portion of his face. I worry that Julia hasn't seen the scars yet and won't react well. I have found his story very compelling also and wonder what he was like before the war. If he was as quiet as he is now or if everything changed for him when he came back. And you hit it on the mark with Jimmy and his wife - they accepted him as he was, never knowing the man before. I liked what he said to Nucky - Jimmy knew what he was doing, his wife got killed in the cross fire.

I think Nucky would be lucky to have the loyalty of a man like Richard but I don't think Richard is that stupid. He may work for him but I know he would never trust him.

And I don't think Richard is gone but only because the father backed him up when he brought the boy home. I also don't think he can just leave Tommy behind and I loved when he told Tommy to close his eyes and he did it with complete trust. As much as Richard wants a life with a family, so does Tommy and Richard is definitely Tommy's family.

And I fell for Owen this season so I didn't fair so well.

Wendy the Super Librarian
7. SuperWendy
CutMyTeethOnKleypas: Awww, c'mon. You know you want to. Look at me, I'm not addicted! (LOL)

CindyS: Ah, but they've had s-e-x! I think at this point even with half his face gone Julia would react OK ;)

My Man was surprised I didn't fall more for Owen. He always seemed like he was working an angle to me. I never felt secure about anything he was saying - and I think it was the presence of Katie that was holding me back. I was never confident about how he really felt about Margaret. Was he just using her for some other purpose? Or did he really care? I suspect, now, that he really cared - but it wasn't always clear throughout the season for me.
Michelle Palmer
8. ChelleP
@CindyS...I am devastated over Owen! I KNEW something bad was coming, but it still broke my heart. :(

Oh, and thank God, Rosetti is dead. Now, that mobster had some serious kink. And not the fun kind.

And of those who haven't seen the show...It ROCKS.
9. Mary Castillo
I've been crushing on Richard Harrow ever since they showed his scrapbook of the fairytale family. Oy! I was terrified for Richard during the finale. I was convinced he'd rescue Tommy only to shot in the back!

The writers of Boardwalk Empire are bad-ass, ruthless son-of-guns who hook us with tragic romances, questions that will never be answered (would Owen have really run off with Margaret?) and characters who can't even be truthful with themselves much less anyone else. They have taught me so much for my own writing.

By the way, since you love tortured scarred heroes (me, too!), get thee Nell Sweeney's series by PB Ryan. Will Hewitt is hot. He does some dastardly deeds in books one and two but oh my ... when I'd finish one book, I'd instantly download and read the next!
Wendy the Super Librarian
10. SuperWendy
ChelleP: Yeah, Rosetti was just.....a seriously messed up dude. It was an interesting mix with him - his particular kink along with his cruel streak. Talk about self-loathing!

Mary: I know, right? I mean - how would that Owen/Margaret thing have played out? Probably not well, but now we'll never know! Argh!

Now off I go to scope out the PB Ryan's.....
11. elnolan_sf
I am BEYOND happy to see that there are people who love Richard as much as I do! I think he is absolutely wonderful. I actually wanted to write the show off after Richard and Julia's night on the beach, because he was so content and I was not interested in seeing any more tragedy surrounding his character. Some of the things Gillian said to him in that final episode were completely shocking, but ultimately I was stoked to see him play the hero. All I want for 2013 is a season 4 full of Richard!
Jena Briars
12. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
I saw the last episode of Season 3 and the Easter episode where he had to eat in the kitchen. My heart completely melted this character. (Jack Huston is SO HANDSOME.)
Wendy the Super Librarian
13. SuperWendy
elnolan_sf: Character survivial on BE is never a guarantee - and I was relieved that Richard survived to see Season Four :) It will be interesting to see where the show's writers take his character next. I'm suspecting more angst, because I can't imagine Julia is going to quickly forget him showing up on her doorstep in the dead of night....

CutMyTeeth: OMG - I know! That Easter episode just about did me in. And then poor Tommy wandering into Julia's brother's room to play......
Jena Briars
14. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
@ Wendy - I felt SO bad at that part (with Tommy) but I agreed with Richard's reaction - and then him staring at Julia in the boardwalk photo **sigh**
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