So many razor-edged bad people swagger about Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire that, even having shed one of its primary POV characters, it is instantly, retoxifyingly addictive as the epic criminal sojourn of Nucky Thompson and Atlantic City resumes.
Boardwalk Empire’s third season kicks off this Sunday, Sept. 16, on HBO with all the kaleidoscopic shifts of alliance, de rigueur corruption and entrancing sepia-inflected period production design that first wowed critics and audiences in the fall of 2010 and drew 18 Emmy nominations the next summer. Winter and fellow executive producers Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Tim Van Patten pick up their ambitious narrative a year and a half after the shock ending of Season 2.
Then, Atlantic City political boss/gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) had staged a counter-coup to regain control of his Atlantic Corridor fiefdom and brutally dispatched his “surrogate son,” as Winter has called him, and enforcer, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). Darmody’s fitful return to civilian life after the horrors of the Great War, his rise from Nucky’s gofer to an ill-gotten stake in AC powerspheres, these had framed much of our view of the strange, stark landscape of Prohibition Era South Jersey. Nucky’s response to Jimmy’s betrayal revealed to us the Machiavellian ruthlessness of a character we had seen flirt periodically with a beneficent side. This season opens with a quick, violent affirmation that his previous dire straits have recast him in very cold steel indeed and sets a tone that suggests, so promisingly for fans of edge-of-seat creator-driven television, that no one is safe.
It’s not all about Nucky, of course. It’s about the network of overtly and covertly corrupt partners, former partners, political affiliates and outright enemies connected to him by trucks full of illicit booze. Winter, who worked on HBO’s seminal crime drama-that-changed-what-people-expect-from-episodic-TV, The Sopranos, has even more license to draw from intriguing characters that, like Buscemi’s, are based on real-life — and bigger-than-life — figures of that most graft-ridden of American epochs. That includes a Who’s Who of the most notorious racketeers of the age, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Ben Siegel, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, not to mention the just-as-roguish rogue’s gallery of American politics of the time, including the avaricious, well-heeled sponsors and denizens of the Harding and Coolidge administrations.
Adding to the tension from the get-go is a simmering cauldron of psycho from New York hood circles, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Canavale), who violently dislikes the current distribution setup; belligerent Irish capo Dean O’Banion threatening to push every single one of Capone’s buttons back in Chicago; and — most promising of all — Gaston Means, one of those bigger-than-life characters, played by the inimitable Stephen Root. Means was a private detective, con man, blackmailer, federal agent, bagman and general lubricant of corruption in the period, renowned as a man who could connect the Harding administration and its wide swath of crony capitalists with the dark underworld that so benefited from Prohibition, and Root plays him with such a slimy, silver-tongued glee that his presence guarantees imminent, far-reaching treachery.
Kelly Macdonald, playing Nucky’s once-starry-eyed, now reluctant, compromised wife Margaret, remains show’s conscience, a possibly fateful example of good intentions’ potential to be lost in a tide of avarice, and, in what promises to be a building arc, a window into the birth-spasms of proto-feminism. Much in the way Mad Men has laid bare the entrenched misogyny of American culture as recently as the 1960s, Winter’s faithful rendering of the gender roles of the time remains both enlightening and infuriating for contemporary audiences.
Boardwalk Empire is such an elegantly designed and lushly woven tapestry that it might feel to less-history-inclined viewers as far-flung as HBO’s equally brilliant Game of Thrones. But, as with any well-crafted narrative art by self-aware creators given such voluminous yarn to play with, any resemblance to cronyism-wrecked, laissez-faire-mad, starkly class-stratified and, in some quarters, increasingly, ominously misogynistic contemporary America should by no means be seen as coincidental.
The third season of Boardwalk Empire premieres Sunday, Sept. 16 at 9/8CT on HBO.
Boardwalk Empire season 3 preview Video/image: HBO.