When I initially reviewed HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” last year, I was extremely enthusiastic. But I also included a somewhat strange caveat, writing, “I’ll admit that a small part of me wonders if “Boardwalk Empire” is, in fact, too easy to embrace, too easy to be impressed by.”
My odd compliment/complaint was that while “Boardwalk Empire” arrived fully formed — thanks in large part to Martin Scorsese’s Emmy-winning work on the pilot — it was a show that wore its greatness (or at least its very-goodness) on the surface. Viewers with a little background in “The Sopranos” and “The Untouchables” and a few other clear predecessors could sit right down, enjoy the show tremendously and not worry about dwelling on or digesting “Boardwalk Empire,” in a way that HBO classics like “The Wire” or “Deadwood” sometimes required.
Sepinwall and some other fans have argued that the show found itself and made The Leap (as we like to say) in later episodes after starting off slow, but I personally found it instantly accessible and thought the first season was, qualitatively, a very flat line. That’s not an insult, but I guess it could be an insult.
My desire for a slightly more rigorous, arduous “Boardwalk Empire” will be put to the test by the second season, which premieres on Sunday, September 25.
I tore through the six episodes sent out by HBO in a single Saturday afternoon, which is unquestionably a good time. But as much as I loved individual scenes and continued to respect from the performances from the leads to the tiniest supporting players, this run of “Boardwalk Empire” left me holding back a little. It’s perfectly common for a series to return by aligning the chess pieces for the season to come, sometimes over the course of a couple or a few episodes, but “Boardwalk Empire” is in the process of such a complicated piece of alignment that it remains a work-in-progress even through six episodes. Based on my respect for the “Boardwalk Empire” team, I have every confidence that this is part of a carefully designed season arc and that once things start to pay off, they’ll pay off all over the place, but were this a show I happened to be less enamored with, the tiniest bit of concern might be setting in.
More after the break…
Much of the first season of “Boardwalk Empire” was dedicated to establishing the power and reach of Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson. With Atlantic City as his fiefdom, he straddled lines of legitimate and illegal business expertly. Without changing his character or his methods, Nucky was able to woo/lure Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, keep Michael Pitt’s Jimmy under his thumb, keep Michael Shannon’s Van Alden at bay, manage Michael K. Williams’ Chalky, belittle brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and tip-toe around the big-name crime bosses from New York and Chicago.
So we spent 12 episodes which were, for the most part, Nucky Thompson in Control. For viewers, that’s pretty reassuring, but for dramatic stakes, it’s pretty one-note.
“Boardwalk Empire” returns and there’s been an immediate shift. Jimmy is siding with The Commodore (Dabney Coleman) and Eli against Nucky, who mostly has Chalky (and his constituency) in his corner. With Atlantic City split in two, both sides are wooing the out-of-state power players, and that means that we’re dealing with all of the big names we met in the first season — Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone et al — plus a few new ones out of Philadelphia and Cincinnati. And then there are the legitimate politicians out of Washington, who weren’t always all that legitimate in the Harding administration, so they’re choosing sides as well.
Particularly where the out-of-towners are involved, the various alliances are in pretty much constant flux and I lost track here and there between who works for who out of which city and whether they’re actually helping Nucky or whether they’re actually conspiring against him. It’s not that there are inconsistencies or that things are a mess, but there’s a lot of action and things are shifting on an episode-by-episode basis.
A result is that Nucky is a less confident character this season and while Buscemi’s performance doesn’t suffer for the decline in confidence, he’s often pushed to a secondary capacity. As a semi-fictional character interacting with other characters who range from completely real to totally imaginary, Nucky’s prospects are both limitless and also limited. You can’t Google Nucky and learn that he’s going to be drowned in 1921 or arrested in 1923, but you also know that Nucky Thompson isn’t going to be the man to shoot Al Capone in the head, nor to blow up a restaurant where Lucky Luciano is eating dinner. So my sense of satisfying drama tells me that Nucky has been forced into a corner for six episodes and that in the second half of the season he’s going to fight back, but I don’t have a blueprint for how things will go down. It just hasn’t been “fun” watching Nucky so far this season in the same way it was last year, but that’s been intentional, or at least I assume it has been.
We’ve been spending more time with Jimmy and Pitt continues to do work which could just as easily have been Emmy-recognized this fall. The show is delving more deeply into his peculiar relationship with his mother (Mol) and with The Commodore and he’s definitely evolved into a more interesting character. Pitt and Buscemi had great scenes together last year and there has been far less interaction between them this season, but “Boardwalk Empire” hasn’t tipped its hand to indicate whether we’re supposed to be rooting for Jimmy and Nucky to reunite or if the whole series is a building head-to-head clash between them. Either side could be argued, but it feels like we’ll get an answer of sorts down the stretch.
By Jimmy’s side is Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow, who has transitioned from a periodic scene-stealing character last season into a complicated and intriguing supporting player now, as he becomes more than just a voice and a mask that has already proven itself as one of TV’s greatest, most disturbing props ever. Keep an eye out for the Harrow-heavy fifth episode for Huston’s best work in the series.
Also hitting new highs is Williams, as we’re learning more and more about Chalky White’s place in his community and even his family. The season opens with a shocking act of violence courtesy of the KKK and seeing where Chalky fits in going forward has been fascinating, but it may be the arc which, more than any besides Nucky’s, I’m going to need more details on before fully endorsing (not because it’s bad, just because I can’t quite see the trees for the forest). There’s no doubt that Chalky has become more than just Atlantic City’s best-dressed bookcase non-builder.
This is a show with a ton of characters and like a rich novel, the writers have proven able to reintroduce people who haven’t been mentioned since the early episodes, assuming that you’ll remember them. But with that many characters, sometimes you can go whole episodes without Chalky or even without Van Alden and with Van Alden in particular, he’s off in his own world. I can see how Van Alden’s progression this season is doing valuable character work that maybe didn’t get established last year when he was just an increasingly psychopathic stooge, but waiting for his reintegration with the bigger narrative has been slow.
Creator Terence Winter and his team of writers have done a good job of not over-indicating where any of the narrative threads are flowing. Like I think I see where Margaret is going with her interest in her lost siblings and with several characters representing her Irish roots, but I wouldn’t dare commit anything to paper, lest I look like an idiot when she instead becomes wrapped up in a different storyline.
I guess where I come down on “Boardwalk Empire” is in a positive-but-wait-and-see mode. This is still a great looking show, worthy of all of its technical Emmy wins, and the depth of the ensemble cast is pretty much unparalleled this side of HBO stablemate “Game of Thrones.” In terms of pure enjoyment, I don’t think I liked these six episodes as much as the episodes which started Season One, but if “Boardwalk Empire” does a good job of paying off the dozens upon dozens of high stakes set-ups, the last six episodes could make the second season a stronger season overall. Or perhaps things will just get more and more muddled? I’ll have to wait and see.
“Boardwalk Empire” returns to HBO at 9 p.m. on Sunday (September 25) night.