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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.

7 comments
CookieLipschitz
CookieLipschitz

What started out as a series full of compelling characters and relationships has become a disconnected, incoherent series of vignettes and meaningless violence and prurient kink. The violence and manipulations of the first two seasons all had the effect of moving the narrative arc along, but after killing of the interesting characters  the show has become a pointless exercise and even Buschemi looks bored. This season should be used in writing and film classes to show what NOT to do with a script. Couldn't care less about this over-hyped waste of time.

JohnCloud
JohnCloud

Interesting. I spent more hours this year thinking about Boardwalk Empire than I have ever thought about any show. And yes thank you for letting me review each week. I do believe I got the better of the two shows during that time slot. Homeland has seemed ragged this season, trying so hard. The writers can nail a scene in a breathtaking way. But I think they miss a lot more than they hit. Boardwalk seems like a more mature show--which may or may not be a good thing.

As I repeatedly pointed out in my reviews, Gyp Rosetti was an awful character--although you're right that Cannavale tried to make the most of him. I can't imagine what it took for him to walk naked and fake-blood-stained over many actors playing dead in "You'd Be Surprised." And like some others, I was surprised at his...size. 

Your prediction earlier this year also turned out exactly right: having lost Jimmy (and, in a way, Van Alden), Boardwalk could do little more than explore how Nucky would survive. A season focused more on Chalky would have been interesting, and Michael Kenneth Williams is an extraordinary actor—but then again the writers have an embarrassment of riches: Kelly Macdonald and Michael Shannon are fantastic. Charlie Cox did a wonderfully understated performance of Sleater. And yet still an essential problem: Michael Pitt is gone.

"Two Impostors" was a great episode, as I wrote, but my favorite was "Sunday Best" because we learned so much more not about the men with guns but the two women at the center of the show: Margaret and Gillian. I think especially with the women on the show, you do see the writers grappling with how to advance the gangster genre. Gretchen Mol was at once delicate and vicious. Macdonald had to look worried and sad for much of the season, but I think you can learn a lot from her about the incipient women's movement of the early 20th century.

And then of course there's Harrow, who has to be the most compelling character on television. We talked a lot in comments this year about the fact that if Harrow gets killed off, the show itself would die. Anyway, sorry to rattle on--and I hope you let me do next season.

JSG1982
JSG1982

Well, saying it's not as good as The Sopranos seems (much like Elementary vs. Sherlock, though on a much larger scale) both obvious and pointless. Yeah, it's not as good as the best show in the history of television (yes, even above The Wire, though Breaking Bad is closing fast). But so what? It's a *really* good show,  and I was entertained each and every week. And the final couple of episodes were so strong that I think (especially given what's happened to Homeland--I actually don't think it has been *that* bad, but the critical consensus seems to be that it's gone off the rails) it's currently the leader in the clubhouse for next year's Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. I think even the abbreviated season of Breaking Bad (which was definitely not quite as amazing as its previous two seasons were) was probably the year's best, but if Breaking Bad couldn't win for arguably the best season in the history of television, it's never winning. And I actually think that Game of Thrones is going to have the best season when it's all said and done, given that it's moving into A Storm of Swords, which is definitely the best book of the series.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@JSG1982 Except, as I said in the piece, it's also not as good as Game of Thrones--a series I love but which is not (at this point anyway) the best show in the history of TV. YMMV but to me ambition matters--especially on HBO, which has set a standard for it. It would be a letdown if HBO went from making series that sought to reinvent their genres and make new statements to shows that aimed simply to be entertaining, well-produced takes on familiar scenarios. (Like, for instance, True Blood--though Boardwalk Empire is much better than that.) To say, "Hey, if a show is entertaining, it's all good, no need to say anything else" diminishes television and its potential. I like great shows, I like merely good shows. But if a show has the potential to be great, then I'm let down if it's just really good--sue me.

pacificoramirez
pacificoramirez

Shorter version:

Watched two episodes. Made snap judgement. Embarrassed to find myself consistently entertained. How to avoid the sneering laughter of my TV critic peers?  No theme--that's it, there's no theme!  All great television has a theme.  It has to have a theme. Otherwise, I'm wasting my life-- sweet Christ I am wasting my life. Homeland has a theme!

IPFletcher
IPFletcher

See? THIS is what I was talking about.  :)

Agreed on the lack of vision- although that only bugs me a tiny bit from time to time. I'm more than happy to accept what's offered as is.

Personally, I'd submit the Thanksgiving episode as a match for "Two Imposters"- at least, for me it was. I found it fascinating in its own quiet way- to say nothing of extremely chilling, with Gillian killing that poor kid and substituting his body for Jimmy's. It should also be noted that this episode was the only moment where we were given an indication of why Gyp was the way he was...then they reverted him back to Tommy from "Goodfellas" for the rest of the season.

ChalkyWhite
ChalkyWhite

im gonna say yea its better than sopranos which many episodes of sopranos were watered down and horrible like adrianna getting irritable bowel syndrome and alot of boring stuff. sopranos is so overrated its crazy.