Roar, 1920s; roar your friggin' heart out.
Be thankful I didn't hit you with the cliché "the first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire went off with a bang, literally", because some people get shot in the season 3 opener, and the prospect for violence doesn't lessen any in the second episode either.
But is that surprise? Hell no. If you've kept up with the show you know it's relentlessly bold, and flashy as the period. Last season, one main character murdered the other, and no one seemed safe from the wrath of Probation-era mob violence… well, unless you're based on a real-life person. It's entirely appropriate that the opening of the new season begins with the bludgeoning of a man over an imagined insult as new character Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) attacks a Good Samaritan for almost nothing. Rosetti fits the mold of Boardwalk Empire perfectly, eccentric and vicious. The trademark of the show isn't the keen eye towards historical accuracy or the beautiful set designs or cinematography, but rather the numerous wild and quirky characters that populate the cast. You've got gangsters, tramps, agents of the law, and dudes who refer to themselves in the third person; every demographic and every mental condition is represented.
A brilliant bit of monologue by Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson lays the groundwork for what will become one of the biggest plotlines running through the fall: how far will Atlantic City's former treasurer's ruthlessness reach? This is a slightly modified character from the onset of the show as he is far more cruel and direct with his means of acquiring power and wealth. Maybe before he still had the weight of acting like a politician riding on his back but to me there is an apparent difference in this Nucky and the one who started out the series. In the series premiere Nuck told his surrogate son, Jimmy Dormody (Michael Pitt), the man he shot in the face last year, that "You can't be half a gangster". HBO has been using that line for their season 3 promotional material and there is no doubt things get darker for a show that doesn't bother tempering its brutality.
After killing off the clear 2nd main character, the BBC, I'm sorry, HBO, proved that nothing is off-limits, even in a story so rich in historical context. Jimmy's departure creates a palpable vacuum, both in the show's timeshare and in the power struggle for boardwalk supremacy. It's quickly apparent that aside from the kingpins of the other cities Nucky has no competition now.
Still, Jimmy's name appears on a check written by his mother and has not been forgotten by his family and friends. One of most obscene moments last year involved the incest between Jimmy and his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol), a move that certainly marked him for death (even if he was essentially raped). With James Dormody and his father the Commodore (Dabney Coleman) out of the way, the matriarch is able to open a brothel named the Artemis Club, with sniper Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) as caretaker.
I always tend to overlook Harrow until he shows up on screen, then I smack myself for forgetting about the most underrated character on TV. The masked war vet occupies some of the space leftover from Jimmy, and takes it upon himself to right some of the wrongs of last season's tragic end. When it's revealed Gillian is attempting to erase the memory of her grandson's murdered mother it ranks her as one of cruel and cunning antagonist in the series. Harrow's attempt to rectify the deaths of his friend and his wife is noble, and fits in adequately with his slightly detached, PTSD-influenced persona.
Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) is one of the few characters driving for sympathetic causes. The new Mrs. Nucky Thompson rose as a central part of this series, becoming both accomplice and foil to her husband's criminal activities. The significance of a strong female character is not lost on this show, as the path of Margaret's ascension has been in line with women achievements of the time. This is highlighted in both episodes, with Margaret's involvement with a new hospital (for which she dedicated the land, via Nuck, against his will) and her mission to promote women's health education. Her struggle always feels the most uphill, maybe because what she normally wants to achieve can't be solved with a hefty bribe or a bullet to the head.
All is not well in the Thompson household, as expected. Last season Margaret delved into temptation with Nucky's mild-mannered enforcer Owen Slater (Charlie Cox), and now her husband, unaware of that transgression on the newly minted marriage, has started fooling around with Billie (Meg Chambers Steedle), a flapper with a robust and busy social life. Again, no nice guys on this show. Nucky is clearly infatuated with the young beauty, locking the world out and choosing to stay in her rundown apartment, practically begging her not to peruse other suitors, including rival Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). The head honcho of alcohol and murder in Atlantic City has everything but the promiscuous girl. How much influence this has over the business side of things is a budding major subplot. I can't deny I kind of miss the shrilling whine of Paz de la Huerta though.
While Nucky's illicit network of booze smuggling is thriving one of his main foils is down on his luck in a big way. Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), one time Prohibition Agent, is now living under a false name and walking door to door selling light bulbs. His part is minor in the first couple episodes, but Van Alden is an unusually charming pillar to the show, a character as peculiar as any of the gangsters, and culpable as them too. With a new family, one as odd as he, Nelson's role in the show is unclear but promising.
Two noticeable omissions from the season three premiere dominated "Spaghetti and Coffee". The second episode opens with Mickey "How the Fuck Are You Still Alive?" Doyle (Paul Sparks) picking up Eli, brother of Nucky, from a short stint in jail. The scene between Mickey and Eli (Shea Whigham) opens a new chapter for the former lawman of the boardwalk. Prominently an antagonist, choosing some ugly paths (i.e. killing a guy in his garage, supporting the assassination of his brother) in a show about merciless people, the writers opt to depict Eli Thompson in a different light, as slighted sibl
ing and hurting family man, pushed from sheriff to the lowest rung of the rum empire. Eli is a noticeably beaten man, one who has to take up grunt work and serve under Mickey just to feed his family. It's a smart turn, making the other Thompson a touch more interesting.
Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) is plenty interesting, just ask his daughter. The clear cut frontman of Atlantic City's black population has a bit of family issue in this season. When his child Maybelle (Christina Jackson) refuses to marry an up-and-coming member of the black community because he's boring, Chalky is put in a bit of predicament: does he force her to marry for status, or allow her to find her own way? The fan favorite character will undoubtedly play a large role in Nucky's business plans, but much like Eli, we get a nice long look into the home life of a man who commands respect and is feared by many. Plus, through Chalk, we get more Dunn Purnsley (Eric LaRay Harvey), which is always a joy.
Boardwalk Empire is comparable to former HBO hit Deadwood, the series some argue really opened the network to bringing a new level of television to our homes. Both shows feature a historic place and time as part of its premise, and more importantly, brandish memorable and fantastic characters. The difference is the western only had a few Al Swearengens, while the show about the rise of the mafia cannot seem to introduce enough thugs, whores, murderers, thieves and deviants. From politics to sex to race relations the series attempts to cram a whole decade into each episode, and frankly it's overwhelming. There is Lost level research that could go into this show if the 1920s are your thing. The people who make this show toy with the history books a little, but manage to pay homage to an era coming up on its one hundredth birthday. When I first started watching Boardwalk I had some skepticism it would be able to keep my interest, now I worry about it getting too ornate.
Still, in all their fascinating wackiness and charm the characters are the feature. At times it becomes a little baroque, but the groundings in history help make sure that even someone like Gyp Rosetti has a sense of humor. It's bustling at the seams a bit with its huge cast, to the point where I didn't even mention some of the characters with small parts in the first two hours (It says something when Al Capone (Stephen Graham) or Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) can't make the cut). So far in the first two episodes the plot has simmered, and that's fine as long as the show continues to take chances, but I also wish it would temper the use of violence and absurdity at times. Overall a strong start, at least marginally better than the channel's show about witches and vampires.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.