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Boardwalk Empire Review

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by Casimir Harlow Sep 2, 2012 at 6:16 PM

    “When you come face to face with destiny, do you want to be the bear? Or do you want to be holding a shotgun?”

    Championed by Martin Scorsese himself, and filling the void in high quality drama left by the passing of the likes of Deadwood, The Wire and The Sopranos, HBO’s heavy-hitter Boardwalk Empire enters its sophomore year following the shock events and twisted revelations of the first season’s finale. Needless to say, I assume if you’re reading this, whilst you may not have seen the second season yet, you’ve seen and enjoyed that first year of prohibition, power plays, and political machination – reviewed here – but if not, I recommend you go back to the beginning.

    The first season introduced us to the roaring twenties, and the start of prohibition. Nucky Thompson is the King of Atlantic City; war veteran Jimmy Darmody is his upcoming lieutenant; his brother Eli is the thick-headed sheriff; his girlfriend Lucy is a dizzy but devoted dancer; and his true love interest is the devout Catholic widow Margaret Schroeder, whose abusive husband was killed on Nucky’s orders. Come the end of the season we’ve seen the highs and lows of Nucky’s reign over Atlantic City – the people who prosper, the people who suffer, and the people who resent his omnipotence – and we find ourselves championing this unlikely anti-hero who is being hounded by an obsessive FBI agent and conspired against by his closest colleagues. We’re left wondering what will happen, as a disgruntled Jimmy, a fed up Eli and Nucky’s own mentor, the powerful ‘Commodore’ plot to take him down.

    “The pups have grown fangs, gentlemen.”

    Kicking off a year into Prohibition, it’s January 1921 and Nucky is facing attacks from all angles. Chalky White is frustrated at his inaction following a supposed Klu Klux Klan massacre of his bootlegging crew and the authorities finally lock him up, for Election fraud no less. Of course these are both power plays commissioned by the Commodore and his new cohorts, and the knock-on effect is devastating and wide-reaching. Soon it becomes clear that Nucky is losing his grasp over Atlantic City – his connections are drying up; his friends are turning their backs on him, and he has precious few favours left to call in. With the Commodore and Jimmy declaring all-out war, and finding back-channel backing from New York, it seems like Nucky is done for. Will the King of Atlantic City ever see his throne again?

    The sparkling second year – the time when the praise following the first show has left everybody in high spirits; where the chinks have been ironed out; where actors have settled into their characters and the writers can start to have some fun. Many great TV shows have truly shined in their second years – from 24 to Buffy to Deadwood. Yet normally it depends on the first season being fantastic but flawed; an original idea which has not quite been refined to perfection – actors who are still finding their footing and writers who are still testing the water.

    “Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan.”

    With Boardwalk Empire, the show was stunning right from the get-go. In fact, it arguably started off on such a high – the fantastic Scorsese-directed extended pilot – that it constantly had to fight to maintain such a standard. Whether it was the momentum from Scorsese’s running start, or just the universal brilliance of the entire cast – lead and supporting – the first season of Boardwalk Empire was a tough year to follow.

    Thankfully the writers, and the superior cast, just about pull it off. I can’t say that I was universally enamoured by every single twist and revelation of this excellent show’s eventful sophomore year, but it’s still undeniably some of the absolute best TV viewing out there at the moment. Consistently engaging, often totally unpredictable, and brimming with yet more violence, betrayal and character (de-)construction, it takes the show in a shocking new direction, and leaves you wondering – even in the full knowledge of the real-life events which governed this period in Atlantic City’s history – what on earth is going to happen to these characters.

    “Flip a coin. When it’s in the air, you’ll know what side you’re hoping for.”

    Of course the story may not come across as portraying a conventional gang war, but it is a war nonetheless. Now fighting on the back foot, Nucky is forced to make an uneasy alliance with the extremist IRA, whilst Jimmy struggles to replace him; little more than the outcast prince of Atlantic City, much less the new King. There are casualties on both sides – Nucky’s trusted love, Margaret, steps up to the plate to support him, but also suffers a crisis of conscience of her own, tortured by her Catholicism; while the disturbing, near-incestuous father-mother-son triangle of the Commodore, Jimmy and his thirty-something mother creeps ever further towards outright self-destruction – and things don’t fare any better on the ‘right’ side of the law. Agent Van Alden’s actions are in question and his home life is on the brink of falling apart: cruelly imprisoning Nucky’s ex-girlfriend to stop anybody finding out that he got her knocked up.

    The fallout spreads in myriad different directions, and some of these satellite story arcs work, whilst others just slightly miss the mark. Margaret is surprisingly strong in the face of Nucky’s exile, yet this only makes it even more difficult to accept the developments with regards to her own family history, and with the twist showing her true weakness. Key characters appear to be going in one direction, only for things to swiftly change for them; or for shocking events to feel like they are being swept under the carpet amidst a maelstrom of cloudy background. Although these lines don’t always compel, they do have one great resultant effect – things are left consistently unpredictable.

    “I am not seeking forgiveness.”

    I did find it a shame that the big-name supporting players – like Capone, Meyer Lansky and now even a young and utterly wasted Bugsy Siegel – were somewhat side-lined in order to avoid confusion over their real-life rise to power (which, in many cases, came much later in history, making their ill-advised attempt to usurp Rothstein a predictably abortive arc), but what else did we expect? You can’t have Capone shooting up the streets of Chicago the best part of a decade before he even rises into power.

    Indeed the only element that I personally struggled with was really Jimmy’s turn to the dark side, and not because of bad plotting, but just because I did not want it to be true. Despite the revelations of the season 1 finale, I couldn’t help but hope that it was some kind of elaborate ruse – a far grander version of the daring steps Jimmy took to secure Nucky’s position (against his wishes) at the beginning of the first season. Whilst it’s a credit to the writers that they follow through on their dark promise – and, indeed, that, in a strange sort of way, Jimmy does end up being the catalyst that turns Nucky into the gangster that we’ve been waiting for him to become – it’s difficult not to struggle with the necessary outcome that this results in. I doubt many will see the twists coming here and, although this should be only a good thing, there is still a slightly bittersweet aftertaste that attaches to many of Jimmy’s season two character developments.

    “Think I can’t play this game?”
    “I don’t think you even know the rules.”

    Still, these are all minor and sometimes personal quibbles in what is a powerful second year which has some real high moments. We see several excellent confrontations across the two sides of the conflict, as Nucky goes toe-to-toe with Jimmy and simultaneously tackles his brother’s betrayal. There’s a fantastic arc involving the planned uprising of the black underclass, spilling out into a grand police-vs.-workers riot on the boardwalk itself. There’s an eventful trip over to Ireland; a tense standoff when one of the bootlegging transports is ambushed; and an excellent new addition to the characters who gives us some brilliant moments. And the whole story crescendo’s to a beautiful Godfather (Part 1 or 2) homage that sees many of the seemingly disparate story threads come together in one epic conclusion.

    Needless to say the lead actors are still universally impressive, and many of the supporting cast members from the first season not only get upgraded to regulars, but also get their time to shine.

    Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski) continues to be one of the biggest reasons to watch the show, putting in a consistently commanding performance as the flawed but generally principled boss, Nucky Thompson. You still root for him, you still fear for his being betrayed – or even killed – at every step of the way. It does not matter that you know that the real-life character had many more rich years to follow, the events of the second year of Prohibition are palpably tense, and the treacherous path that Nucky has to walk is such that even if you know eventually he will regain his throne, you can’t figure out how – or when – he’s going to do it. Perhaps even more portentous, you can see his own slipping to the dark side; the dapper gentleman gangster finally coming into his own with the kind of violent action commensurate with his position of power. You always knew Nucky would have to become this man, but it’s still a shock to see it happen, and yet further praise should go to Buscemi for utterly convincing all along the way.

    “I keep my promises, James, and I’ll make you one now: I will ruin you, all of you.”

    I’ve always liked Kelly “Trainspotting” Macdonald’s tough-but-vulnerable female lead, Margaret Schroeder. Sure, her dodgy Irish accent may not have improved a great deal over the year(s), but she’s a welcome and refreshing addition in a production set during a time when a woman’s opinion was generally dismissed without a second thought. Her season 2 developments – as already noted – are a bit hit and miss, however. Initially it was a great surprise to see her support Nucky so actively, but the later developments give her something of a crisis of conscience are not quite as easy to swallow. Perhaps it’s because so many gangster movies and TV shows have this kind of character – the reluctant wife who doesn’t approve of her husband’s ‘work’, but still enjoys the spoils of it (c.f. The Godfather, The Shield). Thankfully here they vary it and mix it up a little bit, especially with the additional catalyst of her daughter’s illness and her tested Catholic faith. But does such a devout Catholic really think that she can buy her way out of sin?

    Michael Pitt (Dawson's Creek, Funny Games) practically co-leads this season as the traitorous and ambitious character of Darmody, taking the reins of Atlantic City after he knocks Nucky off the throne. Pitt actually fares extremely well as the tragic character who is pushed and pulled in every direction by both his short temper and his powerful friends. Gretchen Mol (Inglourious Basterds) is still unbelievably young in the role of Jimmy’s mother – although that’s the whole point – and she takes on a distinctly Lady Macbeth part in the second season, for good and for bad, and Dabney Coleman’s Commodore is also finally broken, although few will expect to see these twists coming, and you actually feel a twang of sympathy for him. Indeed the whole Greek tragedy of Jimmy’s dual family situation is a rich sub-story that they mine here for all its worth.

    “You’ll be judged by what you succeed at, boy, not by what you attempt.”

    Meanwhile Michael Shannon’s dogged FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden spins out of control in the backrooms somewhere, trying to juggle some pretty dark secrets amidst the instalment of a new Prosecutor (Julianne Nicholson) who has her eyes set on taking Nucky down. One of the secrets is, of course, Paz de la Huerta’s Lucy. The ex-girlfriend of Nucky adds ‘pregnant’ to her previous trademark ‘sexy’ and ‘naked’ scenes, but also thankfully gets some character development too, struggling with her tortured, home-imprisoned state.

    Shea Whigman continues to be a suitably stupid Sheriff Eli Thompson – Nucky’s brother, who is fed up with Nucky looking down at him, and gets a couple of dark twists of his own; and there’s a wonderful little side-arc involving Jack Huston’s empathetically-challenged, disfigured ‘Two-Face’ sniper Richard Harrow and Aleksa Palladino’s torn bisexual wife to Jimmy Darmody. Harrow also gets a brilliant standalone episode where he gets ‘lost’ in the woods – it’s one of the best episodes in the entire season and I hope they make him even more of a player in the future.

    “I died in the trench, years back. I thought you knew that.”

    Michael Stuhlbarg is still a great Arnold Rothstein – boss of New York; and Stephen Graham (Texas Killing Fields) is still a perfect Al Capone – future boss of Chicago, but neither of them get much quality time in this season at all. Perhaps it’s because they are such big historical figures, but it’s a shame they don’t even get the subtle touches that they were awarded in the first season (e.g. Capone’s deaf son).

    Michael Kenneth Williams is also on superb form as Chalky White; his character’s arc also following the same common thread that allow of them follow: trouble at home with your family; trouble at work with your other family. There are also a couple of nice episodes that give him plenty of time to shine – including a fantastic prison cell confrontation. Seriously, this guy has taken the word ‘commanding’ to a whole new level ever since his tour of duty on the excellent TV show, The Wire.

    “He who dies pays all his debts.”

    The most noteworthy new addition is not, however, Bugsy Siegel – the much-anticipated new character who is utterly ruined by being depicted as little more than a court jester – but actually Philadelphia gangster Manny Horvitz, powerfully brought to life by William Forsythe (Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead, The Rock, Once Upon a Time in America). Forsythe really owns this character, and makes him into the kind of threatening presence that you’d expect from a latter-day Capone. He’s truly one of the best things about season 2.

    Still boasting the excellent period set and production design, costumes, and background effects, that were unleashed by Scorsese over two dozen episodes back, Boardwalk Empire is probably the best-looking and most expensive-looking TV show in existence. Lavish and decadent, there’s almost no expense spared, with only a couple of the minor pure-effects shots (like shots from inside vehicles) which are so bad that they remind you that they only have so much money to play with. The rest of the time, this could easily make for film-worthy material. And whilst Scorsese’s hand behind the camera will always be missed, he appears to have steered his successors on the show in the right direction, and they’ve stayed on course thus far, giving a nice edge to the style that always has a sweeping boardwalk shot; a city set-up shot; or even a panning beachfront shot to woo you with.

    All in all Boardwalk Empire remains undeniably one of the absolute best TV shows out there at the moment. Amidst the top-tier productions – everything from Sherlock to Game of Thrones – it’s HBO at its best. That it doesn’t quite hit the very high standards set by the first season is not actually all that surprising. It was certainly too much to expect this sophomore year to exceed the first outing; and matching it understandably proves to be difficult enough. Fans should still be utterly enthralled, however, because even a slightly flawed second season Boardwalk Empire makes for fantastic viewing. Consistently impressive and wonderfully playing with multiple outcomes as it twists its way through to a wholly unexpected conclusion, season 2 is both a darker and deadlier animal. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for season 3.

    “The beginning is over. The end hasn’t come yet. All I care about is now.”