Boardwalk Empire is a series that seems destined to always be a bridesmaid. It is well written, impeccably acted and impressively appointed, but it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite show, and seems resolutely unable to really grab the zeitgeist the way other shows, like say, Breaking Bad have. I would be surprised if the show did not get at least another season, and if it didn’t continually rake in award nominations, although probably not a boatload of actual wins, for the rest of its lifespan. But I would be equally surprised to start seeing references to it peppered into sitcoms this year (the way Game Of Thrones worked its way in to the likes of Parks and Rec/30 Rock last year), or if every white person I know suddenly felt the need to name-drop the show every time Atlantic City comes up for the next decade (a la Baltimore and The Wire).
I think a lot of this is due to factors external to the show itself. Rightly or wrongly, Boardwalk lives in several large shadows at once. There’s The Sopranos (HBO’s seminal, Jersey-set gangster series where creator Terence Winter made his bones), Mad Men (the other literary, lush yet frequently cold period piece about morally challenged men on cable), and Martin Scorsese’s gangster canon (as he set the tone and look of the show with the pilot and it continues to play up that connection to bolster its bona fides). It may not be fair exactly, but there it is.
So anyway, what about the show itself? It is coming off a terrific second season which drew much of its power from its uncompromising commitment to seeing its storylines through to their bloody, inevitable conclusion. That proved the show to be something special, but it now has an enormous hole in the shape of Jimmy Darmody (and to a lesser extent, his wife and father), the co-lead of the last 24 hours of the show. The biggest question now: how is it going to fill that hole?
It won’t be with Manny Horvitz, unfortunately. I loved William Forsythe’s whispery menace in the role as the homicidal but oddly scrupulous gangster, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be long for the world when I started seeing promos for him playing a mobster on a new network show. Once we saw him enjoying some domestic bliss with his wife prior to embarking on a murder trip, I knew his time was up. But at least he went out awesomely, with art enthusiast Richard Harrow painting a self-portrait with his shotgun and Manny’s face as a canvas.
If you don’t love Richard as much as I do, you can go directly to hell, forthwith. He’s one of the most compelling characters on television, easily my favorite part of the show, and I will be devoting a good portion of every week where he appears singing his praises. So fair warning. I’m excited that the show still has a place for him now that his main connections to the story are six feet under, but I’m not going to get my hopes up that he will suddenly become the protagonist. I cherish every scene of his, but I don’t think he can really drive the narrative the way Jimmy did due to the essential detachment at the center of his character. So he’s not going to pick up all that slack.
One person who is going to pick up some slack in the role of antagonist/thorn in Nucky’s side is psychotic newcomer Gyp Rosetti. I hate this guy already, and I’m not sure yet whether its a good love-to-hate villain way or just a grating, hate-to-spend-any-time-at-all-with way. The hot-blooded gangster character is a crime story mainstay, but he’s so over-the-top here that you wonder how he’s managed to build any sort of bootlegging business at all, since it doesn’t seem like he’d be able to buy a candy bar without flipping the fuck out at some imagined slight. I’m sure he’ll cause a lot of misery this year, and his eventual murder will no doubt be especially brutal, which should be satisfying.
But the show does not simply need an antagonist. The Nucky/Jimmy conflict was rich not just because Jimmy was such a formidable gangster (he was actually way out of his depth from beginning to end), but because they had a deep, complicated personal history. To that end, there are few options for giving Nucky such a personal stake in the gangland conflicts. In fact, I can only think of one character that has such potential, his brother Eli, who is completely absent from this hour. I assume he is still finishing off his jail time for taking the election rigging fall at the end of last season, and we will be seeing him shortly. They’re going to need to work at building that relationship back up, and making Eli seem less inept than he has for much of the series, in order to make him work as a serious antagonist down the line. Here’s hoping they can pull it off. Shea Wigham seems like he is up to it when he’s given a little chance to stretch, which hasn’t been too often.
But enough speculation. As the most sprawling show on television, give or take a Game Of Thrones, this premiere spends most of its time reacquainting us with the massive cast and filling us in on where they find themselves a year and change from the last episode. Let’s make the rounds:
Nucky’s no longer half a gangster, as Shooter McGavin spells out for us directly. He carries a shoulder-holstered gun at all times, orders murders with simultaneous off-handedness and theatricality, and apparently still feels pains in his hand from last year’s attempted assassination. His relationship with Margaret seems to have settled into a functional hostility. He’s boning a vaudevillian lady on the side, and in other news either I am a total philistine with no appreciation for the history of the artform or music from the 1920s was just uniformly awful. It could really go either way on that one.
Mickey Doyle is still eeking out a living as an inept bootlegger. Yipee, I guess.
Margaret’s warm n fuzzies from forcing philanthropy on Nucky are giving way to frustration with 1923’s exceptionally low glass ceiling. I hope she gets some sort of humiliating revenge on that condescending, oversensitive prick of a doctor at some point. There also seems to be some residual awkwardness between her and Slater, who is still working as Nucky’s muscle and still only exhibiting half the personality of Jimmy.
Shooter is going down with the sinking Harding administration, which Nucky is wisely beginning to distance himself from. After the extensive failure to help Nucky in his time of legal need last year, I’m still not clear exactly what he is getting for the $40k in kickbacks he’s throwing this guy every month.
Gillian is a pimp now. OF COURSE Gillian is a pimp now.
Van Alden is a door to door salesmen, because that obviously plays directly to his skill set. Van Alden’s always been a strange part of the show, which is certainly the case here, as he floats between scenes from The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross. Obviously he’s going to settle in the former now that he’s in Capone’s orbit, but it was interesting for a few scenes to watch him try so damn hard to be a human man with a job interacting with other humans. He seems to have made a vaguely honest women out of his Nordic nursemaid, but I’m having a hard time giving much of a shit about that one way or the other. That shot of him fading from door to door was fantastic though.
Speaking of Capone, he’s increasingly stepping out from Johnny Torio’s shadow and control. Which has to happen, but the Chicago stuff still feels like a spin off show with only the vaguest ties to the main East Coast action.
Richard is still great at murdering. Also great, generally.
Love Rothstein smirking away in the back as Rosetti viciously insults him and the rest of the room. Michael Stuhlbarg is sneakily making his way up the Greatest Living Actor ladder the last few years.
I know that the show is striving for historical accuracy in a virulently racist era, but I still think it’s rather offensive that Chalky White is contractually prohibited from appearing in more than 3/5ths of total episodes. Yeah, I said it.
Schwartzblog: now with 80% more race-baiting than the Breaking Bad reviews!
“Resolution” By The Numbers: 4 brutal murders, 3 important new characters (Rosetti, O’Bannion, Billy Kent), 2 jaunty period musical numbers/montages, 1 horribly degrading exploitation of AC’s midget population.