The article below contains spoilers for season three of "Boardwalk Empire," including the Sunday, December 2nd episode "Margate Sands."
Steve Buscemi's name still comes first in the credits -- and he got that final close-up in Sunday's season finale -- but three years in, there is no doubt about whose is the true face of "Boardwalk Empire." That'd be Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the scarred, shoegazing World War I veteran who's like Batman and Harvey Dent rolled into one. In a kingdom where the major players are either morally blind or fatally near-sighted, the one-eyed man is, if not king, then at least a sort of dark knight errant.
At a time when soulful, lethal comic-book heroes have supreme cultural currency, it's no surprise that Richard has become the series' true breakout character (i.e. the only one who anybody would consider dressing as for Halloween). The writers of "Boardwalk Empire" have previously proven themselves capable of ruthlessly reshuffling the deck on their main ensemble, but they're smart to play it as it lays with this particular character: sometimes, to paraphrase Eli Thompson (Shea Wigham) you have to offer the people something that they want.
Which, in last night's season closer "Margate Sands," it was Richard taking down an entire mansion's worth of Gyp Rosetti's (Bobby Cannavale) henchmen, a virtuoso sequence punctuated by an overheard tracking shot that could have been a callback to Gyp's proto-Travis Bickle-act in "You'd Be Surprised" (both episodes were helmed by executive producer Tim Van Patten). As Noel Murray pointed out in his (typically) excellent recap for the A.V. Club, Richard's blood-splattered mug at the end of his rampage was a nice piece of visual shorthand for the stain left on his character by what was essentially a heroic act: liberating a small child (his late best buddy's six-year old son) from the clutches of some out of-town-gangsters.
But more generally speaking, Richard's iconically bisected visage is the perfect emblem for a show that has tried to have it both ways every which way it can: to shape its plotlines to the contours of easily Wikipedia'd early 20th Century history while interjecting entirely imagined events and characters; to luxuriate in lush period textures while retaining a contemporary point of view; to soberly meditate on the moral toll of taking lives while indulging in the most spectacularly choreographed gunplay in all of cable-dom; and to escape the long shadow of Van Patten and series creator Terence Winter's previous employer "The Sopranos" while skilfully recycling many of its key elements -- mainly the blunt equation of criminal enterprise with the more superficially legitimate business of politics and industry and the week-to-week suspense about who's going to get whacked next, and by whom.
On the last count, the show pulled a Harrow, making a halfway decent show of transcending its underlying pulpiness before playing it as a trump card. The satisfaction of seeing Stephen Graham's Al Capone ride into town as a sort of deus ex machine gun in the Nucky-Gyp feud was cheap, but it was also potent -- an explicit acknowledgment that the show had tipped over into the sort of unrepentant gangland fantasia that a lot of viewers probably thought they had signed on for in the first place.
Where the ever-conscientous David Chase ultimately attempted to problematize his viewership's bloodlust through staging that called attention to the ridiculous and over-the-top nature of television violence -- recall the horror-movie parody of "Cleaver," or the notably baroque executions in the series' penultimate "Blue Comet" -- Van Patten and his collaborators have dovetailed their own ultimate ambitions to craft a tony episodic equivalent to "The Untouchables" with the rise of Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, all of whom are now ready for their close-up in a historically supportable fashion.
To pinpoint the moment when "Boardwalk Empire" found its swagger, you'd probably have to go back to the end of season two and the death of Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody. The broad strokes of his fatal arc were fairly close to the various (and increasingly redundant) "Sopranos" plotlines where circumstances forced Tony to off a close friend and confidant, with Nucky proving his cold-blooded bona fides by executing his former protege and surrogate son face to face in an appropriately cinematic rain storm. (Buscemi probably appreciated being on the right end of the trigger this time, having so memorably perished via shotgun blast at the end of the fifth season of "The Sopranos.")
But the finer details, like the revelation of just how screwed up Jimmy's relationship with his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol) really was, or his almost heroic resignation to his fate after failing so badly at becoming an underworld prince imparted a sense of tragedy to the proceedings -- the feeling that the death of the show's second lead was not an instance of writerly shock tactics but rather a carefully prepared illustration of what was potentially waiting underneath the boardwalk for all of the show's would-be hustlers and climbers.