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How ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Found Its Swagger This Season By Embracing Its Pulpy Side

How 'Boardwalk Empire' Found Its Swagger This Season By Embracing Its Pulpy Side

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.

READ MORE: Jack Huston on Playing ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Masked Fan Favorite Richard Harrow and Making Peace With the Possibility of Getting Killed Off

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.

It also ridded the show of its biggest drag: Pitt’s neurasthenic qualities as an actor were well-marshalled in the service of a haunted character, but he wasn’t much fun. In fact, it’s arguable that Jimmy Darmody’s most valuable contributions to “Boardwalk Empire” were made posthumously — that his hovering ghost gave season three the sort of little poetic shivers required to offset its more blunt-force maneuvers. At least two major characters — Richard and Gillian — spent the entire season reckoning with his departure; the former by avenging his friend’s death by killing Manny Horovitz (William Forsythe) and then by trying to pick up his fatherly mantle with regards to little Tommy; the latter by sinking even deeper into murderous, self-pitying depression and then seeking out a Jimmy lookalike to seduce and murder in a surpassingly creepy act of maternal catharsis. (Gillian’s reinvention as a surreptitious poisoner may have been an homage to Patricia Quinn’s Livilla on “I, Claudius” — who was of course famously an influence on Livia’s character on “The Sopranos”).

Jimmy was also definitely there in the grinning, cocksure face of Rowland Smith (Nick Robinson), the resourceful teenager capped by Nucky in “Blue Bell Boy” — a vicious and excessive act of self-preservation that was redundant by design. Nucky’s execution of Jimmy was definitive proof that he was more than “half a gangster” (another Harrow-ing proposition); killing Rowland, who had previously stolen from him but then balanced the scales by helping him hide out from the feds in a dingy basement while providing excellent company besides, indicated that what was once an agonizing process had become as easy as muscle memory.

It took “The Sopranos” until its second-to-last episode for Chase to show his hand and imply — through his perennial audience surrogate Dr. Melfi (Lorainne Bracco) — that any reasonable person (i.e. the audience) should give up on Tony’s chances for any sort of redemption. “Boardwalk Empire” seems to be there already with regards to Nucky, whose entreaties to his newly estranged wife about financial security trumping her hatred and contempt for the man she was about to walk out on seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Except, as another former half-gangster so famously put it, just when you think you’re out, you can be pulled back in. There’s little doubt that Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) will come back next year (whether crawling or on a newly acquired high horse is uncertain), and that other characters who seem to have either extricated themselves from trouble, like Eli (newly re-installed as Nucky’s iron-fist-in-velvet-glove-right-hand-man), left for dead like Gillian (who is too good a distaff foil for the mostly male cast to be discarded) or else abandoned by the showrunners altogether (Michael Shannon must be filming a lot of other movies right now) will be back in trouble soon enough. Such are the dictates of serialized melodrama, which thrives on just this sort of narrative gold-bricking.

The question is whether “Boardwalk Empire” will need to engineer another fly in the ointment on the order of Gyp Rosetti — a ridiculous character given more humour and gravitas than he probably deserved by Cannavale — in order to keep things buzzing along. If Nucky is sincere in his desire to drop out of the public view (understandable for a guy who spent a lot of time worried that he’d be shot on sight) then maybe “Boardwalk Empire” will let somebody else assume center stage: it would be especially bold if it was the one guy left standing whose path doesn’t have to tiptoe around matters of public record. Richard Harrow, come on down — you’re the best character on the most intermittently remarkable drama on television.

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