Since last year talk of Boardwalk Empire has centered on the show’s twist in its second season finale. Namely, Nucky killing Jimmy Darmody, his surrogate son, who is the second main character of the show. Both fans and critics have been debating over whether or not Boardwalk Empire will be worse off without the character of Jimmy Darmody. Very few disagreed with the decision to kill him and most called it a gutsy, edgy move but Jimmy was such an arresting character that offing him threatened to lessen the show. The big question coming into this season of Boardwalk Empire was could the show maintain the quality it was at during the second half of its last season.
If the premiere is a sign of things to come then the answer is a definitive yes. The first season of Boardwalk was very good but not great. Last season the show made the leap to being a stellar show (I enjoy it even more than Mad Men but don’t let that get around) but with such a game changing finale I did worry if the show might go off in a direction that wasn’t as compelling. Tonight told me that I had nothing to worry about.
We open with a scene that veers a little too over the top with the new character of Gyp Rosetti beating to death an older man who he felt insulted him. It’s a little overkill to introduce the bad guy of the season in such a way because Bobby Cannavale, who plays Rosetti, gives off such a dark air just by speaking that we didn’t need to see him lose his shit on some poor old guy. The scene went from creepy to feeling like something out of a good but not great mob film. However, the show does save itself a bit as the old man who died is one of a string of characters in this episode who attempt to do the right thing and end up getting screwed over because those in power have no interest in rewarding those who do right and play by societal rules. Speaking of such people…
Nucky Thompson, Manny Horowitz, and Mickey Doyle have caught a thief stealing from Doyle’s warehouse and Nucky soon reveals that the thief was stealing for his family as the thief’s family is broke. For a moment it appears that Nucky might actually let the thief go, especially after the thief apologizes and names his accomplice. After all, Gyp Rosetti is our villain for the season so we have to see that Nucky is a better person that him even if he is on the wrong side of the law.
But no. No, Nucky has Manny Horowitz execute the thief in a scene beautifully directed by director Tim Van Patten. Instead of showing us a close up view of the thief’s head being blown in half, Patten cuts away to outside and we see a flash in the window and a small amount of red liquid bounce against the glass. It’s unnerving because everything else is so calm and the calmness is not even broken by the death of a noble thief. There’s the gunshot and the splatter but nothing changes, life just goes on despite the injustice.
Despite being an ensemble show, Nucky is clearly the main character and this scene shows us that he’s much more of a gangster than he was in the first two seasons. He lost much of his humanity when he shot Jimmy Darmody (who is alluded to throughout the episode but eerily never mentioned by name in a fashion that reminded me of The Sopranos and the way that show would deal with the departed) and he apparently doesn’t want to gain it back. I’ve seen a number of critics say that Nucky is too passive a character to be engaging but I like that Nucky is far from the typical protagonist we see on television. He’s much more thoughtful than most and carries an inner monologue that we never get to hear, often resulting in us wondering just what it is that Nucky will do next. This could go too far and have the audience feel completely unmoored but the show gives us just enough of Nucky’s psyche that while what he does may sometimes be shocking, it’s never out of character.
This is perhaps best shown near the episode’s end where it is revealed that he is having an affair with Billie Kent, a woman whom he previously acted as if he had just met when they ran into each other at Nucky’s New Year’s Eve party. Nucky has, as far as we’ve seen, mostly been loyal to his wife Margaret but after she signed away a large part of his money to the church at the tail end of last season, it’s clear that there’s been tension between the two of them. Margaret, who has always tried to do what’s best for Nucky and what’s best for everyone else, ends up suffering just like the thief and the old man. In a world of corrupt gangsteresque politicians like Nucky and Arnold Rothstein (who is a real historical character in case you didn’t know) the only way to win is to get out of the game or become as bad as them. When the old man and the thief entered the world of Boardwalk Empire they died as they weren’t capable of giving up their morality. Margaret is in the same boat and even though she doesn’t die, her soul is tainted more and more with every episode.
I’m reminded of Barack Obama when discussing this theme, a theme that has been prevalent throughout Boardwalk Empire’s run. In 2008 many of his supporters (and I was, and still am, one of them) believed he’d be able to clean up Washington but for Obama to play the Washington game he had to get a little dirty himself and ended up in a little over his head, having to make deals he didn’t want to and having to put aside goals he hoped to achieve. In Boardwalk Empire Nucky had to do the same, albeit in a much nastier atmosphere, and he ended up allowing himself to go too far and is now not just corrupt but a murderer many times over.
Still, we do see a nice side to Nucky. His interactions with Margaret’s children from her previous marriage are touching scenes and shows that he does care for them, and likely still for Margaret. He’s given them a nice home to live in and the chance to be rich. In many respects he’s like the thief at the beginning of the episode when it comes to providing for his family. The only problem? The thief got a bullet in his head because he stepped too far outside of his turf without adequately adjusting himself. Stealing from stores is one thing but stealing from the king of Atlantic City is another. As we see Nucky consolidate more and more power within the world of the mob and as we see him play games with federal politicians we’re left wondering if Nucky might not be in over his head and if he’s ready for what is to come. And that’s without even mentioning the ghost of Jimmy Darmody who looms over Nucky’s shoulder, ready to watch him fall.
Oh, and Nucky’s partner Manny Horowitz was shot in the face at the end of the episode by Richard Harrow, who is apparently ready to avenge his friend Jimmy’s death. That’s not a good sign either for Nucky. It’s too soon to tell what that’s leading to but I imagine we’ll find out within the next few episodes.
I will be discussing each episode of Boardwalk Empire every week and will try my best to focus on a different character each week. There are so many that to cover each one every week would result in me writing a novel for you. While Nucky will remain our touchstone, we will be looking at Richard Harrow, Margaret, Arnold Rothstein, Gillian, and this season’s big bad guy, Gyp Rosetti, as the season goes on before returning to Nucky for the finale. I will also be touching on the show’s writers and directors, all of whom seem to bring their A-game. Boardwalk Empire is a fantastic show and I hope you’ll be joining me for the season.
Line of the Night: Anything Manny Horowitz said. I’m going to miss his awesome voice.
Donald McCarthy has written news articles, op-eds, books reviews and short fiction. He lives in New York and attends Adelphi University. He is one of the few people on the planet who does not like cheese.