Having established a solid precedent for its first two seasons, Boardwalk Empire ran a serious risk of letting us down in the third. Having established its sweeping scope of Prohibition-era crime, it seemed to grow more timid, focusing on domestic soap opera elements rather than the marvelous gangster saga it had promised. The character arcs seemed to be stalling, things were moving forward at a slower pace than we might expect. What could be done?
Frankly, an Emmy-nominated supporting figure was a big step in the right direction. Hit the jump for my full review.
Boardwalk Empire probably could have survived just by sticking to Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his continuing efforts to cement his bootleg kingdom in New Jersey. Having killed his nearest and dearest last season, it felt like he had nowhere to go but down: his wife (Kelly MacDonald) plotting behind his back, his rivals slowly circling, and a general ennui settling over the show as a result. Enter Gyp Rossetti (Robert Cannavale), an ambitious psychopath with a hair-trigger temper and an autoerotic asphyxiation fetish. He sets his sights on Nucky’s territory and will stop at nothing to claim it for his own.
Rossetti’s presence adds a jolt of energy to the entire season. You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on screen and we wait eagerly for his return when he’s off. With him, Boardwalk Empire quickly regains its early form. He gets plenty of help from Buscemi, continuing to wear Nucky like a fine suit, and from fellow supporting figures like Michael Stuhlbarg as the icy, calculating Arnold Rothstein. But for the most part, it’s Cannavale who holds us rapt, with the other characters reacting to what he does rather than generating any drama of their own.
That benefits the third season immeasurably because a few problems crop up here and there. The female characters, in particular, run out of steam a bit. Macdonald’s subplots struggle for traction, marked by halting efforts to fund a women’s clinic and a would-be affair with an ex-IRA bagman (Charlie Cox) now working for Nucky. It holds our attention, but nothing more, a complaint we could also level against Gretchen Mol’s scheming gun moll. Without her son to drive her on, she doesn’t have anywhere to go, and the series takes too long to let her find her direction again. All that comes on top of a number of characters – notably Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White – spending too much time on the sidelines while the rest of the show passes them by.
These flaws were present before Season Three, but never become quite as manifest as they were here. Boardwalk Empire manages to overcome them, but you can feel the show slipping a bit from its previous gold standard: searching a little more vainly for its impeccable tone. Thanks to Cannavale, it finds that energy just in the nick of time, bringing a brilliant dynamic to the series and helping Buscemi take the season home. It’s a little tip and tuck sometimes, but our expectations are ultimately met. Boardwalk Empire is still one of the best shows on TV, undaunted by the growing pains it exhibits here in its third year.
The Blu-ray is up to the usual sky-high standards set by earlier seasons. Six audio episode commentaries from all of the creative players mark the highlight, along with a five-minute interview from executive producer Martin Scorsese, a thirty-minute discussion with the shows’ regular directors, a fourteen-minute recap of Season Two, a short on the new characters, a terrific collection of 24 “newsreel” features on the 1920s in general, and the usual addition of interactive features and textual history. Sound and video quality are absolutely top-notch, and fans of the series should not be disappointed by the collection.