It doesn’t feel like a year since we last visited Atlantic City, but then again, that could just be because Season Two’s shocking finale left some viewers — myself definitely included — in deep and almost unforgiving mourning. But now it’s 1923, and with that new year comes the chance at a fresh start for Nucky (Steve Buscemi), his cronies, and us. Boardwalk Empire is a complicated show, both emotionally and when it comes to keeping up to date on who is double-crossing who, why, and how, and Season Three doesn’t take a breath before throwing us right back into the series’ world. As the promos have teased us, “you can’t be half a gangster,” and Nucky seems to be taking the advice of another morally gray character, Mike Ehrmantraut from AMC’s Breaking Bad, who preaches “no half measures.” For more on that and why Carrie Duncan should spread her legs and leave the spreading her wings to her husband, hit the jump.
I was concerned before this season began that with Jimmy’s death the show had lost its heart. Jimmy had lost his way, sure, but he always grounded Nucky in his surrogate fatherhood, and showed us another very conflicted side of that kind of gangster lifestyle. He was always reluctant in his role, but still able to carry things out like the soldier he was, with a kind of dead-eyed dissolution at how his life had turned out. Still, one hoped for redemption or reunion or, dammit, something other than death, even though his soul had been wounded in the war long ago. It also made Nucky into a protagonist difficult to root for, having lost a great deal of his humanity with the act of killing his de facto son (yet forgiving his brother). Both Nucky and Gyp Rosetti, who I’ll talk about more below, had mirrored murderous opening scenes, and though Rosetti killed an innocent and Nucky killed a thief, it still goes to illustrate how Nucky has changed.
Boardwalk is definitely missing something without Jimmy, but at least we have the wonderful and tragic Richard Harrow to pick up the series’ heart and run with it. Harrow, the world’s weirdest nanny, is already trying to undo some of the damage batshit Gillian has been brainwashing Tommy with. Not only was Harrow a great friend of Jimmy’s (though not always in agreement with him, loyal), he had great affection for Angela, who never made him feel like a freak or an outsider, but quietly accepted him with or without his mask on. Naturally, he doesn’t want to see her memory erased from her son for whom she cared so deeply. Even more disconcerting is that Tommy knows all too well who his father was, and with Gillian as his now mother … how is she going to explain that when he’s older? She’s living out some horrendous incestuous fantasy that was one of the creepiest moments of the series, and Harrow is right to try and correct this. He’s a great quiet hero, because who else could make one cheer after blowing a hole through — with a smile — a man on New Year’s Eve with a sawed off? Even if it was Manny Horowitz!
If Harrow is now the show’s heart, Margaret remains its soul. Though she had a rough go of things, character-wise, last season, she seems much steadier this year even in just the first episode. She’s a little less pious, but is still getting up on her soapbox as much as possible, still rebuffing Owen, and she’s also finding inspiration in other liberated women (such as Carrie Duncan) and perhaps plotting to some day make her break from Nucky. After all, her situation could be precarious given Nucky’s general anger towards her at donating his lucrative land deal to the church and with him taking a mistress (the very modern Billie King).
Last season chronicled the rise and demise of an anti-Nucky alliance, healmed by the Commodore, Jimmy Darmody’s father, and populated most loyally by Jimmy and Nucky’s brother Eli, with some assistance from their Chicago “friends” Joe Torrio and Al Capone. Other players like Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein had unclear motivations and allegiances to start, but in the end Rothstein — an excellent gambler — put his money on Nucky and won, bringing with him Lucky and others (such as George “I speak only in third person” Remus). But Nucky’s associates are hard to trust and harder to control, particularly the slippery Mickey Doyle and the now deceased Manny Horowitz. Though Nucky says he wants his life to be simple in order to appease his political cronies, selling only to Rothstein surely won’t end up being a long-term endeavor. And what about those political cronies? And Chalky White? Who will stay loyal, and at what price? Who will end up pushing their luck too far?
The first candidate for pushing their luck is a new character — the overly sensitive and extremely violent New York gangster Gyp Rosetti, played by Bobby Cannavale (whose time on the series has been long in coming). Rosetti is trouble for everyone, and since I can’t seem to find a real-life counterpart for him my question of how the heck he survived this long friendless and crazy as he has remains unanswered for now. It’s surprisingly that no one offed him the first chance they got. He has yet to prove his real worth, and he’s much more of a loose canon than the similarly volatile Capone. You can bet that if Rosetti had been in Capone’s place in O’Banion’s flower shop looking for revenge he would have definitely not left without getting it, or would have died trying.
Speaking of the flower shop, I had just written in my notes before that scene regarding Van Alden, “what is his relevance now?” Not that it isn’t enjoyably watching Michael Shannon or seeing Van Alden continue to flounder at every turn, but with Lucy out of the picture, his government job gone and him being on the lam under the alias “George Mueller,” how does his story connect with Nucky’s? Loosely, it seems — very loosely. Cheated and continually underestimated, tread upon and treated badly, Van Alden will likely soon leave his position as salesman and enter O’Banion’s employ, though whether he does so as a criminal or as a spy remains to be seen.
Boardwalk‘s return wasn’t particularly explosive, though it did have its moments. The show is slow and always has been — it slides over viewers like molasses. It’s lush, it’s immersive, but it can also sometimes drag. There was a lot of exposition this week to catch us up as well as set up many things to come, and though there is some historical interest in Al Capone and the Chicago crew (and now by extension, Van Alden), it still takes us far away from the main thrust and home base of the series. Hopefully this year the interconnectivity between the two towns will come closer together, and it looks like we may get more politics, too. No point in making too many predictions now, though — let’s just pop open some bubbly and rejoice in the show’s return!
Episode Rating: B
— For any new readers, my (reluctant) ratings are against other Boardwalk episodes, not against all of TV as a whole.
— “Every day in every way I am getting better and better” – Van Alden.
— Though I already find Rosetti annoying (even though I like Cannavale), I like his colorful insults. Calling Nucky a “breadstick in a bow-tie” was great, and his insult of Rothstein of being a midget creeping around like a dentist in the dark made me laugh out loud (Rothstein too, it looks like).
— Tits! Though not enough men in a state of undress on this show though to balance things out. Richard taking his mask off doesn’t count … (or does it?)
— No Eli or Chalky this week unfortunately, though I’m sure they’ll both have big storylines this season …
— Does anyone even pretend to care if people drink anymore? Van Alden’s character has been interesting to watch, but I wish there was someone else in the police scene who was actually still trying to stop bootlegging and speakeasies, just to get another perspective.
— Richard Fucking Harrow, ladies and gentlemen. And did I detect some interest from new girl Evelyn towards him?
— Do you miss Jimmy? Or good riddance?