Early in the new season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (the premiere is Sunday night at 9) aspiring crime lord Jimmy Darmody is told by his father, “You’ll be judged by what you succeed at, boy, not what you attempt.”
Few dramas on television attempt as many things as “Boardwalk Empire” does on a weekly basis. Fellow HBO show “Game of Thrones” feels like the only other current drama that has the same scope. “Boardwalk” not only has to recreate the Atlantic City of the 1920s, but toggle back and forth between the boardwalk, Chicago, Manhattan, Philadelphia and even the White House. It’s both a crime story and a political story – and suggests that, more often than not throughout history, those are the same thing – with a sprawling cast of characters, some real and some fictional, and all with his or her own inner life and agenda. And it strives to pack every frame with details that evoke the sights, feel and sound of Prohibition-era America.
Judge “Boardwalk” on what it attempts, and it’s extraordinary. Judge it on what it succeeds at, and it’s still a very good show – and often great – but one that still seems to be figuring itself out a bit in year two.
The first season finale spent a lot of time setting up this season’s major story arc, in which Jimmy (Michael Pitt) splits with surrogate father Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) in favor of biological father the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), Nucky’s bitter ex-mentor, to try to seize control of both Nucky’s political machine and bootlegging operation. The first season conflict between Nucky and New York gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) certainly had its moments, but the personal nature of this Nucky vs. Jimmy battle appeared even more promising when it was introduced.
If anything, the finale made that first season seem like a very long prologue for the series that creator Terence Winter really wanted to make. The new season puts Pitt – the show’s breakout star in season one – central to the action and gives him equal weight with Buscemi. As Jimmy, a limping, haunted World War I veteran as smart as he is angry and tough, Pitt has fantastic screen presence. There’s a shot in an upcoming episode where Jimmy stands in a doorway at night, adjusting his handy trench knife and lighting a cigarette, where he looks like he could be a silent movie star of the period. He’s great, and it’s a pleasure to see him so key to everything after he spent a good chunk of the first season hundreds of miles away from Nucky.
The Jimmy/Nucky conflict adds heat to a show that had been at times too cool in its first season – or, at least, had revolved around an extremely cool, buttoned-down character in Nucky, political boss of Atlantic City and reluctant co-founder of modern organized crime. Nucky doesn’t want to be a wiseguy, but the pressure being applied by Jimmy, the Commodore and Nucky’s jealous brother Eli (Shea Whigham) doesn’t give him much choice. And those moments when Nucky stops being the smooth, placid glad-hander and has to start verbally, emotionally and physically fighting back are among the strongest parts of the new season.
But that’s not a role Nucky wants to play very often, and “Boardwalk Empire” as a whole tries to parcel those scenes out very carefully. I recognize that they have greater impact that way, but the problem is that Nucky the gangster is a much, much more compelling figure than Nucky the political machine boss who reveals very little of himself to the world. When Nucky’s sitting in his office meeting with his cronies, or playing at being a family man with his widowed mistress Margaret Schroder (Kelly Macdonald) and her kids, I often find myself wishing that the action would shift over to Jimmy or one of the show’s other supporting characters. When Nucky’s taking care of business, on the other hand – or, for that matter, showing vulnerability as he opens up to Margaret – Buscemi makes me not want to pay attention to anyone else on the screen. It’s a tricky balance Winter has to pull off, but I think ultimately you have to write to your leading man’s greatest strengths, and the best parts of season 2 do that.
Winter has certainly learned how to best showcase the rest of the ensemble. In addition to Pitt’s expanded role, the new season makes very excellent use of Macdonald’s Margaret, a once-penniless immigrant who’s adjusting nicely to her wealthy new circumstances – and to her unspoken role as Nucky’s most trusted advisor. As Chalky White, Nucky’s counterpart in Atlantic City’s black community, Michael Kenneth Williams had the first season’s best moment, a speech to a local Klansman about the Texas bigots who lynched his father, but didn’t get much to do after that. He’s prominent here from the start, as the writers explore exactly what it would be like in this era to be incredibly powerful in one community and absolutely at the mercy of another one. Williams had one of the most iconic roles on “The Wire” as shotgun-toting bandit Omar, and the highest compliment I can pay his work in this new season is that I didn’t once think of Omar while watching him as Chalky.
Also benefiting from the writers stepping back to ask, “What would it really be like to be this guy in this time period?” is Jack Huston, who made a huge impression late in season one as Jimmy’s fellow veteran Richard Harrow, who wears a painted tin mask over the side of his face that was torn up in combat. The creepy lifelike prosthetic and Huston’s precise, lonely performance created the sense of a character who was something other than human, and Huston has a bunch of very poignant moments as we get to see the scars – physical and otherwise – that lurk underneath the mask.
In beefing up some of the supporting roles, and then bringing in a number of new characters – one of them a Jewish gangster from Philly played by William Forsythe, who was Al Capone (a role still played here by Stephen Graham) in the ’90s TV version of “The Untouchables” – some others get lost in the shuffle. Michael Shannon’s Treasury agent Nelson Van Alden, the religious zealot tasked with enforcing Prohibition in Atlantic City, seemed at the start of the series like he was going to be Nucky’s chief antagonist. In the six episodes of the new season I’ve seen, though, he’s so marginalized – mainly interacting with Nucky’s ex-mistress Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), whom he impregnated late last season – that all of his scenes could be excised without affecting the overall narrative.
And though the season starts off with a bang, Jimmy’s campaign against Nucky is so complicated and on so many fronts – as he explains to a puzzled Capone, they can’t just whack Nucky because “it’s a political coup” – that the storytelling becomes very scattered at times. (Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior for Winter and company on “The Sopranos,” has a recurring role as an Atlantic City powerbroker aligned with Jimmy, and it takes a while before he’s notable for anything other than enormous muttonchop sideburns.)
I really respect this show’s ambition. Though Martin Scorsese hasn’t directed an episode since the pilot, the directors who followed him (including Tim Van Patten and Jeremy Podeswa) continue to maintain much of the beautiful visual template he laid down, and week in and week out make the show a feast for the eyes. And the show’s depiction of American life 90 years ago is always thorough without feeling like a museum exhibit.
But as the Commodore suggests to Jimmy, ambition doesn’t count as much as results. The season one finale suggested a promising series that was about to take a big creative leap. And while there are many extraordinary moments in the new season, there’s still enough inconsistency that I’m still waiting for it to become the classic drama it so clearly has the tools to be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com