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Damn It Feels Good To Be Half a Gangster: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Returns With a Growing Gap Between Bootlegging and Respectability

Damn It Feels Good To Be Half a Gangster: 'Boardwalk Empire' Returns With a Growing Gap Between Bootlegging and Respectability

This article contains spoilers for the “Boardwalk Empire” season three premiere, “Resolution.”

“You can’t be half a gangster,” Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) told his caretaker, mentor and surrogate father figure Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) back in the first episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” “not anymore.” They’re words that have haunted the series and its protagonist over two seasons, during which the bootlegger and Atlantic County treasurer has gotten incredibly rich courtesy of the 18th amendment, but has also seen his place of power challenged by newcomers, old compatriots and people he thought he had at his side, including his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and Jimmy himself.

In one way, Jimmy was right — Nucky’s had to learn to be a lot less stinting when it comes to violence, as the HBO drama demonstrated in an early scene in last night’s season premiere in which he deals with someone who’s stolen from him politely and with no mercy.

But on the other hand, Nucky’s inherently interested in being part of society, not existing on its outskirts. It’s his main problem, but also what makes him so likable. He enjoys mingling with politicians and throwing parties in which all of Atlantic City’s bright lights come out to play. He understands that bribes make the world in the new year of 1923 go around, but he still get to have drinks with those he’s passing money along to — at least, he did.

Prohibition is a great business opportunity, but it’s also creating some giants in organized crime, and as bloody battles for booze grow, the divide between clean-living citizens (even those who might like to tipple) and folks who’ll kill to protect their illicit business is growing. Nucky has always seen his place as one of a businessman — he keeps the money flowing, lines the right pockets, makes powerful friends and does things for the great good of his community (and himself) like campaign for new roads to be built to his city. But the more he has to delve into violence and trouble, the more it’s looking like he’s going to have to pick whether he’s a gladhander or, well, a gangster.

The Terence Winter-created series is certainly feeling the loss of Jimmy, the kid turned Greek tragedy who came to plague Nucky like all his past sins returned. The arrival of new antagonist Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) doesn’t promise to immediately fill that hole, either — both scary and funny, Gyp has a touch of Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” to him, simmering with anger and prone to work himself up to fits of rage over perceived slights, including some imagined condescension on the part of the poor bystander who stops to help him and his crew when they break down on the road. He’s certainly going to cause Nucky some trouble, but he doesn’t share the anguished history that Jimmy did, nor the sense of betrayal. Nucky may feel like everyone’s turned on him, at this point, but an outside antagonist is a more straightforward foe than someone with whom he shares blood.

Unlike the antiheroes of “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” Nucky doesn’t seem like a character we’re meant to be punished for rooting for… at least, not yet. King of his glittery domain by the sea, he’s still a magnetic figure (and Buscemi remains an intriguingly offbeat choice for semi-crime lord) even if his life is filled with considerably more misery now. The highlight of last night’s season premiere was the New Year’s Eve party in which Gyp is shot down for trying to talk business at a social event and Nucky and his now wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) preside over a glamorous event that includes gifting the guests with genuine jewelry. There was an undercurrent of ugliness to that scene, in which the party attendees grabbed for whatever treasure they could scurry away with, and the explosion of greed threatened to disrupt the social fabric of the gathering. Everyone wants a piece, even if they publicly disapprove of where it came from.

The revelation that Nucky and Margaret’s marriage is now an icy pretense after she realized that her husband killed Jimmy and donated the land he meant to sell to the Catholic Church at the end of last season is a sad one. They are, as a pair, good together, complementary, and Margaret’s lurching turn toward religious redemption is one of the show’s more awkward and unconvincing ones.

When “Boardwalk Empire” began, Margaret was a victim made widow who found power in her ability to catch Nucky’s eye and stand by his side, snagging him away from his former lover Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). Her condemnation of Nucky’s actions sits uncomfortably with her own past behavior — given that she continues to benefit from what she did, even if the episode’s final image suggests she’s trapped.

And while Nucky’s found a new courtesan in bubbly showgirl Billie Kent (Meg Steedle), she doesn’t seem ready or interested in being the helpmate Margaret had the potential to be. Nucky may be back on top, but he’s looking awfully lonely. That sadness is something “Boardwalk Empire,” which while the most pedigreed of HBO’s current dramas can be emotionally inert, could use a little more of.

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