'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.

Macall Poley/HBO/AP
'Boardwalk Empire' actress Meg Chambers Steedle plays Billie Kent in the third season of the show.

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?

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.

And in doing so, the series is now on the verge of presenting Nucky Thompson to an audience that may harbor some ill will towards the man, but is a great deal more likely to stand up and pay attention the next time Enoch saunters into the room. As the song suggests when the season premiere kicks off, “There’ll be some changes made.When we first see Nucky in season 3, he’s dealing with a warehouse thief, while a giggling Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) gleefully munches on his breakfast, despite being recognized as the only true idiot in the room. (Though, to his credit, Doyle manages to steer clear of Nucky’s wrath, unlike the poor sap who was “only doing his job.”)

The scene is at once an indication that Nucky is indeed no longer fooling around and why Steve Buscemi’s demeanor – wallowing in disbelief at how inept everyone else around him is – makes him the perfect choice to embody this sort of anti-Mafioso criminal entrepreneur. Nucky toys with the thief, instilling a false sense of hope that he may get off with a terse, but well deserved reprimand. After all, as Buscemi plays it, he’s not mad, just disappointed – then, of course, he has the thief shot.

The well-educated, disciplined and dapper Thompson is at once strikingly dissimilar to the season’s newest addition of Gyp Rosetti (played by wonderful character actor Bobby Cannavale). Like Nucky, the Sicilian gangster has a taste for the finer things, and his dealings sometimes end in someone else’s death, but the road leading there is quite different. For example: when faced with a perceived insult to his intelligence – even by the most innocuous of responses, as the good intentions of one man results in a disastrous turn of phrase – Rosetti can only turn to brutal violence in order to get his point across. So desperate for validation amongst his criminal peers is the gangster that he’d sooner explode with indignation and insults than attempt to negotiate himself a better deal, now that Nucky’s only selling booze to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). As he stomps off into the New Year’s night, Rosetti clearly poses an interesting problem for Nucky: a consummate gangster with his sights set on the man who chose to become one simply to get ahead.

For all of Rosetti’s hotheadedness, he can, at least, be shown the door. But Nucky’s patented expression of pure exasperation seems due a workout as Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), infused with her own brand of righteousness, takes it upon herself to look into the failings of prenatal care at St. Theresa’s hospital – newly renovated thanks to the astounding donation she made in Nucky’s name at the end of season 2. Margaret’s arc this season seems intrinsically tied to the cross-country flight of fictional aviatrix Carrie Duncan (something of an Amelia Earhart analog), whose journey serves as inspiration for Margaret to explore new, possibly dangerous avenues, as her relationship with Nucky grows colder.

Perhaps most affected by the fallout of last season are the disgraced former government agent, Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), and the ghastly visage of the quietly introspective Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). Both characters have been featured in the series’ single-episode high points, but now Van Alden finds himself on the cusp of working for a competitor of Al Capone (Stephen Graham), after a rigged sales competition leaves him without the bonus he needs to buy a house for the counterfeit family that came with his alias. Richard, meanwhile, has been taken in by Gillian, working in her new Artemis Club, but he’s mostly trying to keep the memory of Jimmy and his wife Angela alive.

And, to Richard, nothing says fondness for a fallen comrade than an act of belated vengeance. He rings in the New Year by paying a visit to Manny Horvitz, and with a single shotgun blast explains to viewers why they’ll be seeing William Forsythe on the Mob Doctor instead of the remainder of Boardwalk Empire season 3. If anything, Richard is indicative of Boardwalk Empire’s growth. Though he’s been tragically placed in an environment that doesn’t know exactly what to do with him, it’s that placement which helps Richard’s story echo the loss of Jimmy across the entire series – proving it to have been more than an outrageous play by the writers.

So far, in season 3, Boardwalk Empire shows signs of moving beyond the glitz of its presentation. In attempting to move the central conceit past merely being of a distinct period in time, the audience’s modern sensibilities are better filtered through a particular and different, but not entirely unfamiliar milieu. The execution of the series during each season has been largely impeccable; the stories are engaging and increasingly more personal, which has been to the benefit of characters like Jimmy, Richard and Nelson, but now, hopefully, they will include a deeper look into Nucky.

Boardwalk Empire has grown into a series interested in the rippling effect that competition, greed and duplicity can have on an individual and the choices he or she makes. So far, as season 3 segues into a new year, there’ve certainly been some changes made; some of them successful, while others we’ll have to wait and see. Like its flawless recreation of a bygone era, the series is looking to find poignancy in what came before to bolster the stories that lie ahead.

Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.

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