Season 2 of the Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”) created, Martin Scorsese-exec-produced “Boardwalk Empire” ended in a spectacularly bloody and vengeful fashion that left many viewers in mourning (spoilers will follow for those who have not seen the show).
For those who haven’t been playing along — and we admittedly caught up after the fact — HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” centers on the gangsters and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who ran Atlantic City during Prohibition in the early 1920s (one of the clever elements of the show is how it almost acts as a prequel to the celebrity American Gangster era of the late ’20s and ’30s which included folks like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky; all of whom appear on the show as budding mobsters before they were kingpins).
In Season 1 we were introduced to Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi in an unlikely leading role that many thought he was miscast in, but has since grown into), the Atlantic City treasurer who’s pulling most of the city’s purse strings. More conniving and smart than violent and reckless like most of his contemporaries, Nucky’s got control of the booze still flowing into the city, the cops under his thumb, led by his brother Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), the negroes (as led by Chalky White played by Michael Kenneth Williams) and various politicians on the local, state and federal level (Christopher McDonald, Robert Clohessy, and William Hill). His main adversary was the cunning, Jewish mobster/businessman/gambler Arnold Rothstein (played with wonderfully coiled menace by Michael Stuhlbarg).
But shady businessman are always (and constantly) making deals with the devils, so by Season 2, Nucky and Rothstein had come to a mutually benefitting and understanding truce. Yet, frustrated by Nucky’s scheming ways, getting too big for their britches and craving a bigger piece of the pie, the true conflicts of season 2 were all the ambitious underlings. As Nucky said in the key line of season 2, episode 8 to Rothstein and Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Chicago’s mob boss, “the pups have grown fangs, gentleman.”
Thanks to the colluding influence of his manipulative mother (Gretchen Mol) and estranged father (Dabney Coleman, also Nucky’s mentor and predecessor), Nucky’s own ward James “Jimmy” Darmody (a brooding Michael Pitt in probably his finest role to date) and his pals organized their own coup d’etat that included Eli Thompson, Rothstein’s low-level foot soldiers (“Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky) and low-level wannabe gangster Chicago’s Al Capone (Stephen Graham). And as the Bureau of Prohibition and the Assistant U.S. Attorney hovered (represented by Michael Shannon and Julianne Nicholson), investigating Nucky for various criminal charges (election fraud and murder, culminating in very public indictments and trials), the underlings struck when he was on the ropes politically, putting a stranglehold on the booze and convincing the local politicians that Nucky was now a liability and they should jump ship. They posited the young Darmody, the heir of the Commodore (Coleman), should run the city in Nucky’s place. As this coalition grew stronger in power, it looked like Nucky would not only lose it all, but potentially face the electric chair.
But for Darmody –who was essentially like a son to Nucky, the father figure putting him through college and taking care of him since he was a child — the crown weighed heavy. With a disatisfied wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), trying to escape his cold and distant manner, the still emotionally shellshocked WWI veteran turned unlikely Atlantic City figurehead soon realized he didn’t possess Nucky’s keen finesse and art of dealmaking. After his wife was murdered by a Philadelphian butcher/gangster (William Forsythe) that Darmody had double crossed trying to maintain his loosening grip on power, he returned to Atlantic City in a remorseful mood attempting to broker peace with Nucky, his former ally, boss and defacto progenitor.
But Darmody had made his bed with his grand betrayal (something it seems that he knew in his final moments) and Nucky used him to help turn the tide of his conviction (by having Darmody kill key witnesses) and then murdered him as payback. Like “Game Of Thrones,” this killing of a major character was a deep shock to audiences whose sympathies lay with the conflicted and handsome young lead. And like Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” the scheming Nucky Thompson, who usually would rather extort or barter with a man before killing him, became even more ruthless, corrupt and soulless. Having narrowly escaped jail or death and betrayed by almost everyone around him, Nucky was in no mood for forgiveness or compassion and had to convey that those who double crossed him would do so at their own peril; even family.
Which brings us to “Resolution,” the opener to season 3. And perhaps like the most recent season of “Breaking Bad,” the ‘Boardwalk’ opener was somewhat sleepy, awakening from a brutal aftermath. “Resolution” was akin to the morning after the storm. With Darmody (and the Commodore) dead, the show does still ache with his loss. Left on his side were only his mother Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol, who is also doing her finest work to date on the show) and his loyal ally Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a fellow WWI veteran horribly disfigured in the war who remains deeply faithful to the Darmody family as Jimmy was his only true and non-judgmental friend. How this unlikely pair, Gillian and Richard, will regain power remains to be seen, but by the end of this episode Gillian was trying to build a new business and some measure of revenge had been enacted — Jewish gangster Manny Horvitz (Forsythe) met his demise at the end of Richard’s shotgun. Another interesting part of this Darmody legacy storyline is the battle for Jimmy’s son Tommy. With both mother and father departed, Gillian, Tommy’s grandmother, is trying to convince the young boy she is his “new mother.” While Richard, devoted to both the deceased Angela and Jimmy, is still in mourning, reminding the young boy of his parents’ various talents. Gillian wants none of this talk and the schizm will surely come to a head later in the season.
Elsewhere, Nucky made some tough New Year’s resolutions which affected his business associates, including new hothead gangster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) who will surely be challenging Nucky later in the season. Nucky’s mistress-turned-wife Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) — now Margaret Thompson — was still reeling from the events of Season 2. While grappling with her Catholic upbringing and morality — she was living high on the hog, but keenly aware of Nucky’s crimes — her daughter was crippled by polio and Margaret was convinced that God was punishing her. While ultimately she did not testify against Nucky and in fact, married him, her faith was deeply shaken in the second season and now, in the aftermath of her daughter’s illness, her new obsession appears to be the hospital and she Nucky have become patrons of th pre-natal care it’s lacking. The news of aviatrix Carrie Duncan making her solo flight across the country appears to have acted as an impetus for her confidence; a galvanizing act that will surely have her meddling in Nucky’s affairs and therefore becoming a thorn in his side.
Meanwhile, in the episode’s third main storyline, the disgraced former Bureau of Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (an intense Michael Shannon, also doing some of the best work of his career on the show) — who turn and ran at the end of episode 2 when his bosses discovered he killed his partner in a fervor of religious frenzy — has now moved to Chicago assuming the identity of George Mueller. Van Alden, a highly devout, but repressed and fallen-to-temptation Protestant, impregnated Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), Nucky’s former mistress, at the end of season 1. His wife then divorced him and he was left to take care of his illegitimate daughter Abigail with his Swedish nanny, Sigrid (Christiane Seidel), now under the guise of Mrs. Mueller. Struggling to stay afloat as a door-to-door salesman, the foreshadowing of fortune seems to have fallen on Van Alden.
As the Chicago mobsters jockey for position, Capone and O’Banion (Arron Shiver) butt heads. When Capone attempts to teach O’Banion a lesson about insulting his deaf child, fate intervenes as Van Alden enters O’Banion’s flower shop trying to sell his wares. O’Banion pretends Van Alden is his back-up muscle, Van Alden joins the ruse and Capone and his men decide they’ll meet again another day. While Van Alden has not yet entered O’Banion’s crew, as he struggles to feed his nanny and child, it seems his move to the gangster side as muscle is his only real option. And surely this maneuver will be explored as the season progresses.
The key to “Boardwalk Empire” is its many storylines and subplots that are often complicated (and even complex to the point of holding back its momentum), but look towards the horizon and the longtail game. It sometimes makes for a show that is slow, mannered and perhaps not quite as engaging (or critically adored) as some of television’s most revered shows (“Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” etc.), but with 30 Emmy nominations (including two for Outstanding Drama Series) and 8 wins thus far, clearly “Boardwalk Empire” is still worth celebrating. Where the show clearly shines is in its tremendous cast that’s constantly elevating the material and making you care enough to stick around to see who betrays whom and where the drama will go. The show could pick up its pace and become more gripping in Season 3, but that might be antithetical to the “Boardwalk Empire” approach where characters slowly walk up to their adversaries with a handshake and grin and then bury daggers into their backs episodes later. More likely, “Boardwalk Empire” will take the slow and steady approach and while ratings have dipped from Season 1, this is still an absorbing show worth watching. Even if “Resolution” was more of a reorienting calibration that got the characters and audiences back on its feet from the last season. [B]