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Taking It Personal: A Look Back at Boardwalk Empire Season Three

The season built to a riveting run, connecting a lot of seemingly loose threads. But it also showed the difference between bringing plot elements together and bringing larger themes together.

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After watching the first couple of Boardwalk Empire season 3 episodes, I wrote up some first impressions. There were still a lot of fine scenes, strong acting and first-class window dressing—it was TV’s best-curated and bloodiest antiques shop. But the stories felt disconnected, and the show seemed to be casting about for bigger themes.

“The episodes simply don’t stay with me once I’ve watched them,” I wrote then. “I admire them, then they’re over. I still love Jack Huston, but Harrow, and several other characters, feel a little unmoored without Jimmy in the picture. I have nothing against Bobby Cannavale’s performance, but Gyp Rosetti’s hothead-gangster persona is an awful lot like an older version of Lucky Luciano’s. And Chicago feels very, very far away.” And more important, after the bloody ending to Jimmy Darmody’s story, “it’s in danger of just becoming a show about how a gangster fights his enemies and stays in business.”

In other words, I was doubtful whether Boardwalk Empire’s myriad plot threads would come together, as well as whether the larger themes would. I was recapping Homeland this fall, so I let my colleague John Cloud pin a flower to his lapel and preside over TIME’s weekly recaps. But I kept watching. And credit where due: Boardwalk Empire pulled it off–at least, the plot half.

As befits Nucky Thompson’s opulent digs, there was a lot of place-setting going on in the first half of the season. One episode focused compellingly on Chalky White’s home life and the class tensions between him and his potential future son-in-law the doctor—then Chalky vanished for much of the season. Margaret’s new avocation, overseeing women’s health (and campaigning for reproductive education) at the hospital ran on a parallel track to the gangster story. Al Capone dealt with his deaf son and beat on other gangsters. Van Alden trudged through his new life as the Frank Grimes of the Chicago door-to-door salesman community, selling aquavit on the side and finding a novel use for his company’s irons. Harrow, at loose ends with Gillian, went a-courting. Meanwhile, Nucky moved through his real life Gangster Chronicles as Gyp laid siege to Tabor Heights and found novel ways to bludgeon or flame-broil those unlucky folks who came across his path.

But seven or eight episodes in, the threads, most of them, began to find one another. As the battle between Gyp and a desperate, isolated Nucky came to a head, the scene-setting paid off with reconnecting stories and searing moments. Margaret’s horror and discovering the crated-up body of Owen was one of the more unforgettable sights on TV in 2012; “Two Imposters,” in which Nucky, nearly defeated, went on the lam with Chalky in a stripped-down, focused episode, was one of the year’s best hours of television. Nearly every plot element came neatly together by the end.

But the season also showed the difference between bringing plot elements together and bringing themes together. Three seasons in, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t feel like it has the vision, the commitment to rethink its genre in some new way, as did great HBO shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood. (Or now Game of Thrones, with fantasy.) It’s telling a classic gangster story, well-visualized and wonderfully cast. (Stephen Root ‘s Southern-slyness and James Cromwell’s cold-as-a-silver-dollar Andrew Mellon were especially welcome.) But in the end—especially as Nucky has moved on from being “half a gangster”—it has become a straight-up gangster story, with familiar names and types.

The most glaring example was Gyp Rosetti, whose raw-nerve hoodlum—always ready to take offense, and register said offense with a shovel or lighted match—was too familiar and predictable a sadistic gangland type to center a season on. I can’t entirely fault Cannavale; the character as written was basically the blueprint for a scenery-chewing machine, and the actor gave him aggrieved life right down to his last scene on the beach, where he rendered a perfect impression of Nucky Thompson as Barney Google, with the goo-goo-googly eyes.

In a way, that imitation was an odd, psychologically revealing comment: Nucky, Gyp’s antithesis who “never takes things personal,” has gotten inside Gyp’s head and become conflated with the popular cartoon gentleman, their googly eyes taunting him in his defeat. But it also felt like Gyp finally, fully becoming a cartoon character at the end. His crack up reminded me of Daffy Duck at the end of a Looney Tunes short, finally having been driven batty by Bugs Bunny’s hijinx and bouncing upside-down off to the horizon–ha-hoo! ha-hoo! ha-hoo!–while “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” plays.

All that said, I did watch season three right down to the end–and eagerly, not just out of duty. Because there are compelling worlds in Boardwalk Empire, all around the margins. A drama about an African American local boss in the 1920s? I’ll watch that! A drama about the women’s movement and birth of Planned Parenthood; or the trauma of World War I vets in a boom economy; or the supporters of Sinn Fein in America? I’ll watch any of those—and in Boardwalk Empire I can, albeit in occasional, anthology form over the course of the season. But it’s all built around a story of ’20s gangsters out of the history books, and season three showed me that the series wants to give us more, not less, of what we’re already familiar with, if in a very-well-produced gilt package.

That’s the series that Boardwalk Empire is trying to be though, and doing it entertainingly. And I recognize that it’s unfair in a way to criticize a TV series for not meeting ambitions it doesn’t seem to have. When Boardwalk Empire comes back for season four, you can bet I’ll be watching. But my eyes will be drawn, once again, to the edges of the screen.