“To the Lost,” the second season finale of Boardwalk Empire, may be remembered as the moment when Boardwalk finally, finally hit its stride. This isn’t the first time the HBO drama has impressed me — even the worst episodes have had great scenes or moments — but there was something special about this one. It was dead solid perfect in almost every department. I think a lot of it comes back to the episode’s consistency of tone, and the show’s comfort with having settled on it.
I thought about tone during that haunting close-up of the soon-to-be-late James Darmody smoking a cigarette by an open window. There was really no reason why such a simple moment should have summoned such force. Michael Pitt wasn’t selling the moment at all. He was just sitting there smoking. Yet the accumulated weight of Jimmy’s trauma — his wife’s death and his tragic inability to feel his way through it thanks to his war experience, his Oedipally perverse childhood, and a life spent among super-macho gangsters — came through loud and clear. Pitt’s posture, gestures and slightly mask-like expressions were exactly right, just as his gentleness during the beachside pony-ride scene with Jimmy’s son was exactly right, and as his ego-free coolness during that rain-soaked final sequence was exactly right. I love how Pitt delivered Jimmy’s statement to Nucky about what to expect after your first killing: 48 hours of nausea. It reclaimed a bit of dignity for Jimmy in his final moments — the implication being that this was first time that Nucky, the butcher of Atlantic City, ever personally killed anyone — but it was not particularly boastful or petty. Jimmy was just a guy who had nothing to lose, delivering information.
Pitt’s acting was always good, if a bit vague and guarded early on — an understandable response to being ask to play a character who was whatever the show needed him to be at any given instant — but he was especially strong during the last five episodes, probably because the writing sharpened up, and he hit his peak last night. The performance was free of 21st-century neuroses, which is by no means the same thing as being untroubled. When Jimmy said he died in the trenches during the war, there was nothing self-dramatizing about it. The character was just reporting the facts as he saw them. Pitt’s acting, here and earlier on the show, was retro, but not ostentatiously so. It seemed to be pitched somewhere between 1940s-era Joel McCrea or Dana Andrews and the kinds of performances that Montgomery Clift gave in the 1950s, which were soulful and tormented, but never never over-indicated or begged for sympathy.
You can read the rest of Matt’s piece here at Salon.
Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.