In spite of its tendency to be rendered down to facile, generally wrong cartoons to protect children’s and patriots’ delicate sensibilities, history poses a filthy canvas. Those who choose to paint on it can hew to its boring conventions, as Hollywood largely did for the first 45 years of its existence, or they can do what David Milch did with HBO’s elegiac and violent Western series Deadwood and Terrence Winter does with Boardwalk Empire, whose third season kicked off tonight on the same network: paint with the filth on the canvas and let the stark snapshot of time speak for itself.
Not to conflate Boardwalk Empire with history, per se. But it unquestionably digs so deeply, luridly and beautifully into the filth of a certain place and time, the 1920s, and the interwoven spheres of politics and crime to paint a truer, more kinetic representation of the period than Golden Age Hollywood dared broach. There are no real good-guys here, no feint at any bygone Good Old Days. Life is cheap and violence thus a heavily traded commodity, apropos of an age where machines puppeteered politicians and cops, and where the prevailing operating procedure went best summed up in Season 1 by central figure Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi): “If we only elected good men, we’d never have leaders.”
Thompson, based on historical figure Enoch Johnson, has reassumed the helm of his AC fiefdom, both gangster and machine boss, though not all is well. Having staged the countercoup against his previous enforcers, brother Eli and surrogate son Jimmy, and onetime boss/mentor The Commodore, and personally gunning down Jimmy, Nucky is a colder, more ruthless man — and he was a seriously bad person before. Having meticulously schemed his way out of the politically-spurred investigations that made him vulnerable to the their coup in the first place, he is trying affect distance between himself and his most conspicuous criminal enterprise, bootlegging. Having weathered threats of moralist subterfuge from his sweetly pretty, relentlessly plucky Irish-immigrant wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), he and she have resumed their place as royalty of the Babylonian swells of Jersey society — except, well, no, their relationship has lapsed into a show-pony animated, in private, only by venom for blood.
Margaret’s yearning flirtation with feminist consciousness amid the odious gender stratification of the time continues to be the most sympathetic arc in Winter’s dark menagerie. Winter is setting her up to fill the emotional chasm either via Nucky’s new right-hand man, the earnest Irish rogue Owen (Charlie Cox), or a firebrand progressive doctor at the expanding Thompson-endowed hospital, and either way, or both, she will be treading dangerous territory for her silly distaff presumption of humanity.
Nucky’s decision to reroute booze through one wholesaler, New York crime kingpin and onetime nemesis Arnold Rothstein (the icy-cool Michael Stuhlbarg), means a mark-up for other distributors. This doesn’t sit well with the seething psychopath Gyp Rosetti (scary Bobby Cannavale), who decides to inert himself forcefully into the foodchain, portending an imminent war of the exact kind Nucky is attempting to proscribe.
Most kinetic of all could be the Chicago arc, now carrying two of the show’s scene-stealers, coiled-spring Stephen Graham as young Torrio capo Al Capone and ever-intense Michael Shannon as disgraced G-man and loathsome evangelical Nelson Van Alden. Van Alden all but stumbles into the scenario, working as a salesman under an assumed named, inadvertently defusing a potential dustup between Capone and his new arch, smack-talking (and also historically based) North Sider heel Dean O’Banion. This presages a fascinating strange-bedfellow set-up of Van Alden, a joyless flagellant Bible-thumper who has already murdered in Jesus’ name, hiring on with the Irish mob in order to create a proper “family values”-laden environment for his bastard children by two different women.
The wild card in the mix could be Jimmy’s buddy, fellow vet and right-hand man Richard (Jack Huston), a disfigured, taciturn and cool-handed killer. He has assumed the babysitting of Jimmy’s son, both now living in the new high-end brothel run by Jimmy’s vivacious, cavalierly manipulative mom Gillian (Gretchen Mol), yet in his off-hours has already committed a revenge murder against a Nucky associate for his role in Jimmy’s death. The Commodore’s onetime teen rape-victim, whence issued Jimmy, Gillian had played Lady Macbeth to the father-son coup d’etat against Nucky, so to what extent she might utilize the information she gathers from her monied clientele, not to mention Richard’s particular talents, for her own ends, has yet to unravel.
No one is safe in this picture, and few deserve to be, and, good lord, that makes for good television.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire air Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO.
Boardwalk Empire Season 3 premiere recap Image/video: HBO