Raising the Stakes
Seven curse words, at least four racial slurs, and a raft of other insults, ranging from “short pants” and “midget” to “breadstick in a bowtie.” That’s how Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) announces his arrival in Atlantic City, directing his invective at Nucky Thompson, (Steve Buscemi). It’s a feat of virtuosic vulgarity, coming after we’ve already seen him gratuitously murder a Good Samaritan for a perceived slight—and then steal the Samaritan’s dog—so we know he bites as hard as he barks. Okay, Boardwalk Empire, you have our attention.
The show needed Gyp Rosetti. At the end of the second season, it was in the strange position of winding down and hitting its stride simultaneously. It had spent the season beginning to reap the benefits of more than a year of narrative build-up, as we felt fully invested in a number of stories, stories that were quickly developing. Then, just when it could’ve coasted off its accumulated good will and anticipation, Boardwalk Empire raised the stakes instead.
Primarily, it killed off major characters, including Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Now we have to think about the show differently. None of our favorite characters has protected status due to their prominence or popularity, and anyone can go at any time if it serves the greater narrative. (Please, let Margaret Schroeder make it through the end unscathed!) These deaths served other, more plainly narrative purposes: they opened up a vacuum of villainy. Nucky had clawed his way to the top and now looked unopposed.
But if Boardwalk Empire preaches one thing, it’s this: just when you think you’ve solved one problem, there’s another waiting in the wings. Gyp Rosetti’s introduction suggests that he’ll be a scoundrel every bit as violent, wily, and ruthless as we’ve seen before in the series, if not more so. By the second episode of the new season, he delivers on that promise.
While we’re getting to know Gyp, the season’s first episodes provide the usual “Previously on…” recaps, revealing what’s happened since last season’s finale. It’s now New Year’s Eve, before the dawn of 1923, and relations among individuals are even more strained than when last we saw them—in 1921. As we look in on the typical gangster-style squabbles throughout Nucky’s illicit liquor operation, we’re reminded that Boardwalk Empire handles such conventional material in a refreshingly unpredictable way. Not only is it fascinating to see how frequent punching bag Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) has unexpectedly risen in the ranks of the organization, it’s also pretty entertaining to see him turn around and dole out similar punishment to Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), once second-in-command.
Even outside of the bootlegging business, Nucky finds himself negotiating for power. His marriage to Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) is shaped by constant coercion, with him pulling the purse strings while she controls the house and their ever-demanding charitable associations. It’s to Boardwalk Empire‘s credit that, while there may be victors and losers in these little battles, the marriage is not defined by fixed roles: neither is hero or villain, and it’s possible to feel sympathy for both of them. Margaret isn’t a haranguing housewife, and Nucky’s not an abusive husband. Their interactions with each other aren’t damaging, they’re mostly just exhausting.
And that’s exactly what Nucky is now: exhausted. It’s clear that, between his home and his work, he can’t have a moment’s rest. And, by the second episode this season, it’s also apparent that rest is all he wants. Yet, as the show’s marketing campaign asserts, “You can’t be half a gangster.” Whether or not it’s possible—or desirable—to be a former gangster remains to be seen.