Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, entertainment tycoon at the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, has gathered some of the most important members of the city council to a dinner at his nightclub Babette's Supper Club. It is two hours before the Prohibition will come into force on midnight January 17, 1920. At the dinner they discuss how to organize the distribution and selling of illegal alcohol. Next day Nucky makes an agreement with the smuggler Bill McCoy to buy 500 crates with Canadian whiskey for 35 grand. At a meeting at Nucky's restaurant the crime bosses Johnny Torrio and Big Jim Colosimo from Chicago, Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano from New York, and Nucky himself discuss common interests. Outside Nucky's chauffeur Jimmy Darmody befriends Torrino's chauffeur Al Capone, both being veterans from World War I. Jimmy is frustrated with his inferior position in Nucky's new organization. He and Al Capone decide to rob the trucks that transport the 500 crates of illegal whiskey that Arnold Rothstein has bought from Nucky for 60 grand. To protect Jimmy from being accused, Nucky's brother, police chief Eli Thompson, blame the worker Hans Schroeder for the robbery and kills him. Thus the way also becomes open for Nucky to the widow Margaret Schroeder.
January 1920. On the eve of Prohibition, Atlantic City's Treasurer, Nucky Thompson, condemns alcohol at a Women's Temperance League meeting, where he is noticed by Margaret Schroeder, a pretty, pregnant housewife who comes to him for help in getting her abusive husband Hans a job. Later that evening, the duplicitous Nucky privately tells his ward bosses about the opportunity to make huge profits selling bootleg liquor. At a countdown-to-midnight blast at Babette's Supper Club, he assures Jimmy Darmody, a recently returned WWI vet, that his appointment as "Man Friday" to the new Chief Clerk of the Fourth Ward, Paddy Ryan, will lead to bigger things. Jimmy, meanwhile, has higher aspirations and ends up making an alliance that could have dire consequences for both him and Nucky.
In 1920 Atlantic City, politician Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson makes arrangements to operate a liquor smuggling business during the early days of Prohibition. His driver, Jimmy Darmody, wishes to prove his usefulness.
- It is a foggy night off the coast of Atlantic City; a fishing ship and a smaller boat are meeting. A hurried and clearly suspicious lot of crates of Canadian whiskey is passed from the larger vessel to the lighter one.
Atlantic City, 1920: The cargo makes it to shore and is loaded onto trucks bound for New York. But in Hammonton, N.J., the truck runs into trouble. An overturned car, with someone apparently shot in the head, is in the middle of the road. It turns out to be an ambush as two masked men with guns emerge to steal the loot.
Three nights earlier: Atlantic City's treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) speaks at a crowded hall in a meeting of the Women's Temperance League. Banners in the background read, "lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine." He tells a touching story, supposedly about himself as a child, about how alcohol nearly ruined his family. At one point, he had to kill rats for his family's dinner, as his father's drinking habit cost them their livelihood. The crowd cheered as Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) watches him with particular interest. Enoch is whispered a message by Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Thompson's driver, and tells the Temperance audience he has been called away on "urgent county business." As he leaves, he sends a strong message asking for support of the women, who "are hopefully gaining the right to vote" that year.
Outside, Jimmy questions his story's authenticity as he hands Nucky a flask. Nucky replies, "first rule of politics kiddo; never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
On the boardwalk, spirits were flowing and cheery jazz music (played by men in black-face leading a mock funeral for "John Barleycorn") fills the walkways while Nucky strolls to his destination. Stepping into Babette's Supper Club, he immediately asks for his brother, and is directed upstairs to a private dining room. There is a party atmosphere throughout the place, but in the meeting room things are a little quieter. Nucky tells the group that, as of midnight, the passing of the Volstead Act will make liquor illegal by federal law, but that he has deals in the works to keep Atlantic City wet.
"It'll be like prohibition never happened, but for one thing: prices will go up twenty-fold," he tells those assembled.
It helps that Nucky's brother Elias (Shea Whigham) is the Atlantic County sheriff. Nucky mocks the feds calling them "dog catchers with badges."
He then announces some "personnel changes." Jimmy, who is back from service in the war, is going to be Paddy Ryan's (Samuel Taylor) driver. Pat is taking over the fourth ward. Jimmy, however, doesn't seem pleased.
The countdown to midnight cues the playing of "Taps." But after the brief moment of silence, someone shouts, "Prohibition!" The jazz fires up again, black balloons fall from the ceiling and the champagne flows.
Jimmy leaves. The next morning he has breakfast with his wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and toddler son. We learn Jimmy had left Princeton to go to war. His wife wants him to consider going back to school, but he doesn't think it is feasible. He's frustrated about having to work for "a sap like Ryan," and says he wants to talk to Nucky.
Cut to a training camp for federal agents being primed to begin the "war on liquor."
That afternoon, Nucky, with his "sweetheart" Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta) in his bed, is woken by his butler Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura[/u)] saying that a pregnant woman wants to talk to him.
While some gangster-looking fellows arrive in the lobby at Babbette's, Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) watches them. Meanwhile, Nucky meets with Margaret Schroeder, the woman intently watching his Temperance League speech the previous evening. She tells Nucky her husband Hans has a gambling and drinking problem and wonders if Nucky could help get him a job. She is pregnant with their third child. She asks Nucky if he had children. He says he did not, and that he lost his wife to consumption. Lucy walks into the room and plants a kiss on Nucky before she leaves. He tries to explain it away, but gives up. Nucky hands Margaret a wad of cash. She accepts, although she admits she wasn't there looking for charity. She says she'll "be honored" to name her child after him.
"Enoch?" he says. "You couldn't possibly be so cruel."
Nucky has Jimmy give Margaret a ride home. Nucky walks down the boardwalk and stops for a moment, staring thoughtfully at a window where nurses treat premature babies in incubators.
Jimmy takes Margaret to her working-class neighborhood, and at her instructions parks Nucky's Rolls Royce a few doors down. Margaret's husband Hans (Joseph Sikora) watches her get out of the blue Rolls and doesn't like what he sees.
A load of fish is dropped on the dock as a crowd stands and watches. Nucky talks to a "fish trader" about a load of Canadian Whiskey on its way in. It seems the trader's business has expanded. Nucky offers him a load of cash for the entire shipment, and says he wants to make it a weekly deal.
Nucky and Jimmy make their way to a funeral home where a wake is happening. He isn't exactly there for the wake, despite some of the guests' pleasant surprise at seeing him. Nucky is led to the back where a woman's corpse is being embalmed. Behind a false wall, Nucky and Jimmy are led into a distillery operation putting out close to 2,000 crates a week. They're actually mixing one part liquor with eight parts water and other additives, adding alcohol (from potatoes) to increase the proof. A scene erupts, though, when Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), the guy giving the tour, tricks Jimmy into drinking formaldehyde.
Jimmy finally tells Nucky he doesn't want to work for Pat Ryan. Nucky replies that Jimmy had lost his place in the hierarchy when he took off for war. If Jimmy had stayed in school, he says, he would have had Pat's job. Jimmy says he isn't the same guy he is before he left. Nucky tries to give him $1,000, but he turns it down, saying all he wants is an opportunity.
That night, Hans questions her about the car that dropped her off that afternoon. She tells him a story about having fainted and being picked up by Nucky's driver. However, he finds the money she had stashed away beneath the mattress, and asks if she is whoring herself out. He beats her to the ground as their daughter cries.
Meanwhile, Van Alden and his rookie partner Agent Eric Sebso (Erik Weiner) watch Nucky meet with an assortment of mob bosses, including "Big Jim" Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Charlie "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza).
Over dinner, young upstart Luciano is not much in the mood for small talk. Colosimo, whose English is poor and who doesn't seem to show much interest in the business dealings going on, invites Nucky to dinner at his restaurant in Chicago. Torrio, Nucky, Rothstein and Luciano get to talking about how they plan to take over New York with cabarets. Lucky asks for all the liquor Nucky could get, up to 2,000 crates a month -- for starters. Rothstein apologizes for Lucky's abruptness, and asks for a special delivery for a friend's wedding. Nucky offers him the 500 crates of Canadian Whiskey on its way, agreeing to a price of $60,000 for the entire load.
Outside, Jimmy talks to Torrio's driver, Al Capone (Stephen Graham) about their time in the war, but Jimmy wants to know how much a guy like Rothstein is worth. Capone estimates $10 million at least, but Luciano is probably worth about a half-million. They realize they are about the same age as Luciano. They exchange handshakes and names, and as Torrio exchanges goodbyes with Nucky outside the restaurant, Van Alden watches it all.
Jimmy is out with his wife and kid the next day when they are approached by Van Alden. He wants to talk to Jimmy, who reluctantly goes with them after sending his wife on alone. Back at the office, Van Alden and his boss, Supervisor Fred Elliot (Peter McRobbie) want to know why Jimmy is working for Nucky Thompson. They are interested in liquor, "its illegal importation and manufacturing." They offer him a job with the bureau, but the scene leaves his reaction ambiguous.
Nucky is having a good time with Lucy when his butler, Eddie, interrupts. Nucky has a phone call from his pit boss saying Rothstein had taken the casino for $90,000 and wants to keep playing. Eddie tells Nucky that Jimmy couldn't drive because he has called in sick. Eddie has to serve as his driver.
Nucky goes to the casino, where Rothstein alleges that he's owed $93,000, minus the $60,000 for the whiskey delivery. After an unpleasant exchange with a hot-tempered Luciano, Nucky tells the pit boss to cash Rothstein out. As he's leaving, Nucky is confronted by Hans, gambling with the money Nucky had given Margaret. After an inebriated Hans throws a handful of cash at Nucky, Nucky smashes Hans' face into the table and tells the pit boss to kick him out.
Jimmy meets up with Al Capone, who is enjoying some midget boxing. Jimmy asks Al what he knows about the whiskey coming in that night for Rothstein. We then see the set up of the overturned car scene from the beginning of the episode. Meanwhile, Van Alden and his fellow agents are preparing for a raid. Over at the dock, the whiskey is being loaded onto the New York-bound truck.
We see the whiskey truck come upon the overturned car as the masked men seek to hijack the cargo. Capone is spooked by a noise in the trees that turns out to be a deer. He impulsively shoots one of the men, after which he and Darmody shoot the rest of them to death.
Over at the funeral home, Van Alden and his men raid the distillery.
Back in the woods, Jimmy executes the last survivor who has attempted to escape. Meanwhile, Capone takes the whiskey truck and drives away while bloody bodies are strewn in the middle of the road. Jimmy tells the man who had served as decoy to leave.
Back at the Schroeder house, Margaret's husband Hans staggers out after beating his wife and leaving her bloody and crying on the floor, holding her pregnant stomach.
Eli calls Nucky at the supper club to report a problem. Eli tells him about the four bodies on the road, and about the fed's raid on the funeral home, noting the oddity of the two events happening at the same time. He wants to know who else knew about the whiskey load. They quickly think of Jimmy.
Eli goes to Jimmy's apartment, but Angela says he isn't home and asks whether his whereabouts have anything to do with "the men that picked him up." Eli is intrigued.
The next day, Eli is explaining to Nucky that Jimmy likely gave the feds the lead on the funeral home and then pulled the whiskey truck heist. Nucky doesn't want to believe it.
Nucky leaves for a meeting, and on his way, the woman who chaired the Temperance League meeting tells Nucky about Margaret's situation; she is in the hospital recovering from her injuries, and she's miscarried.
Nucky goes to see the well-informed Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), who wants to know what happened with the bodies in the woods. Nucky reminds the Commodore the day marks seven years since his wife Mabel died. Kaestner suggests Nucky give the feds someone for the killings to get them off his back. Nucky then tells him they thought Jimmy had done the job.
On the boardwalk, Jimmy furtively talks to Nucky and said the robbery wasn't supposed to happen the way it did. Nucky is upset, but Jimmy again says the war has changed him. "I'm nothing but a murderer," Jimmy asserts, adding he doesn't care when he killed anyone. He says he saw rich guys like Luciano and wants that life. Jimmy hands Nucky an envelope with his share from the night before, telling him he "can't be half a gangster anymore."
Capone, meanwhile, is driving on icy roads back to Chicago with the stolen whiskey, delivering it to a garage where Torrio greets him with open arms.
Colosimo arrives back at his restaurant in Chicago. As he listens to his favorite opera music on the Victrola, he's shot in the back of the head by Frankie Yale.
Hans Schroeder leaves his house and walks down the street in his neighborhood when he is picked up by Eli and his deputy Ray Halloran (Adam Mucci). They load Hans into a boat, drive the boat out into the ocean. Once out there, they beat Hans to death, before tossing him overboard.
The next day's fish catch unloads at the dock and includes Hans' battered and drowned body. In the background we hear a radio report that Hans has been made the fall guy for the Woods massacre.
Nucky takes a bouquet of flowers to the hospital and visits Margaret.