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'Boardwalk Empire' season 3 premiere explores old and new character motivations

'Boardwalk Empire' returns for season 3 and moves beyond being only a impressively costumed drama.

By Kevin YeomanScreen Rant / September 17, 2012

'Boardwalk Empire' actress Meg Chambers Steedle plays Billie Kent in the third season of the show.

Macall Poley/HBO/AP

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Is HBO’s prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire simply a luscious spectacle about bootlegged liquor and the underhanded individuals destined to make a mint by selling said hooch to parched individuals across the country – or does former Sopranos writer Terence Winter have something more meaningful lurking beneath the perfect recreations of 1920s Atlantic City?

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At the start, the series was inarguably one of the most visually splendid programs on television – complete with all the pay-cable accoutrement one could want – but in many respects it felt as though it had been treating its main characters with too much of what might be called kid gloves. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) was successfully leading a double life as county treasurer, happily ingratiating himself with the people (like women’s suffrage groups) and criminal folk alike, living in a hotel suite and having a meaningless romance with the uninhibited and squinty-eyed Lucy Danziger (the departed Paz de la Huerta). All in all, Nucky’s life revolved around the temporary. Since then, things have become more legitimate in one department, while exceedingly sordid in the other.

As of late, Boardwalk Empire has attempted to strike a balance between characters pushed to engage in unlawful activities and those purposefully steering themselves directly into any form of moneymaking malfeasance they can find. Despite a honest-to-goodness family (sure, unlike his many fine tailored suits, the family came off the rack, but it is a family nonetheless), Nucky’s transition has become one of a man more wholly embracing his criminality; gone is the charming, but transparent façade of a representative of the people. Initially, Nucky was, for all intents and purposes, where the buck stopped with matters pertaining to illegal activity in Atlantic City. But with that came a notoriety and celebrity that made his criminal endeavors more difficult to maintain, and ultimately came within a hair’s breadth of doing him in.

On the flipside was Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody – the character so much of the audience bought into as the series’ true protagonist. Jimmy was the anti-hero, the guy compelled to break the law, slit some throats and bootleg liquor because the war – and certainly the Oedipal tryst with his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol) beforehand – ruined Jimmy’s mind, spirit and body. In a shocking move, Winter and his writers took a chance at redefining their intended lead by having Nucky personally do away with what may have been Boardwalks‘ most significant character in the young Mr. Darmody. The result? A Nucky (and now season) defined by the dying words of a son slain by his surrogate father. So what did Jimmy know that Nucky was reluctant to recognize? “You can’t be half a gangster,” of course.

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