After a second season that can only be described as disappointing, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire sprang back to life. Yes, a bad season or episode for this show is still pretty good, but the 2011 version was a little self-conscious, a little ‘eavy on the Oedipal stuff, and just a notch down from the Boardwalk’s impressive debut. (But, hey, is the Eiffel Tower as breathtaking the second time around? OK. Never mind.) With Jimmy Darmody gone, Nelson Van Alden living under an assumed name and Eli Thompson out of prison, there’s plenty of action to be had.
This time out we meet a handful of new characters, including Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), Billie Kent (Meg Steedle), Dean O’ Banion (Aaron Shiver) and Gaston Means (Stephen Root). Each season it seems needs an ephemeral showgirl for Nucky (Steve Buscemi) to bed and in this case it’s Billie Kent who becomes the object of his obsession. Though, in truth, he’s also obsessed with maintaining his power and early on he and Rosetti clash, leading to a series of events that are violent, depraved and, yes, sometimes even funny.
Cannavale could be accused of delivering an over-the-top performance as Rosetti, but in truth it’s the character that’s over the top and Cannavale knows this, delivering a pitch perfect performance that never relents, not even in the final moments of the whole shebang. He’s brutal, paranoid, overly sensitive and although some would be tempted to call him dim, he’s not as much that as he is a man who lets his weaknesses get the best of him.
The machinations that drive this season are complex enough that they don’t warrant a full recap here. Suffice it to say that you won’t be disappointed by a single strand of the plot even when things get a little weird (“Sunday Best”) or when the odd episode doesn’t rise to the occasion of its own ambitions (“The Milkmaid’s Lot”). Margaret Thompson’s political and social interests don’t let up in this season as she begins a crusade for women’s health that ultimately falls flat, but arguably serves her more than she might initially believe. But then seemingly every character on this show is a politician of sorts, whether Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) who’s desperate to hang on to her failing brothel, Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), who’s trying to negotiate a better world for blacks in Atlantic City, or Department of Justice investigator Gaston Means (Stephen Root) whose motives and actions may or may not be entirely clear.
All three deliver expert performances. We may have seen Root play this kind of character before but he’s so good with the verbal acrobatics and couching the brutality of his character’s subtext with gentlemanly (and comic) flair it doesn’t matter. Mol has always been a better actor than she’s received credit for and her performance during this third season shines an even brighter light on her considerable talents and her ability to be authentic, believable in a way that many actors are not. Williams is given some weightier material this season and when he goes toe to toe with Buscemi it’s really something to watch.
Jack Huston returns as Richard Harrow, a character whose internal complexities come more to light during this season. He finds romance with Julia Sagorsky (the breathtaking Wrenn Schmidt) and reveals a toughness that, although there are all along, is rooted in more than brutishness. Michael Shannon’s Van Alden (now George Mueller) continues to unravel in unexpected ways though there never seems to be enough of Shannon to around this season; Stephen Graham continues to play Al Capone with grit and a vibrant authenticity that resonates throughout the season. (Michael Zegen debuts as Benny “The Man Who Will Be Bugsy” Siegel with a quiet flair.)
It’d be foolish not to pause and admire both Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald as both continue to be unstoppable in their performances. But, in a cast this strong, it’s also hard to argue that they work some magic the others don’t––a credit to them as actors and to the show as a whole.
The writing itself is especially electric in episodes such as “Bone for Tuna”, in which a good gesture (sort of) on Nucky’s part is spun out of control by Gyp, and the final two episodes (“Two Imposters”, “Margate Sands”) which lesser writers would be tempted to gallop through in order to tie up loose ends but which these ease their way through with intelligence, sucking the marrow out of each scene.
Not everything’s golden, as mentioned above; the episode “The Milkmaid’s Lot” sees Nucky reeling from a particularly traumatic episode and there’s attempt to replicate the internal madness/disorientation for the viewer, but it never quite comes off. (For more on this see the sixth season of Mad Men.) That said, it’s still better than most TV anywhere. With Breaking Bad coming to an end and Mad Men winding to an ever-weirder close, Boardwalk Empire is poised to become the most talked about show on television. It may very well already be the best.
Extras on this five-DVD set include audio commentaries with Steve Buscemi, Gretchen Mol, Bobby Cannavale, and others, a look at the season with Executive Producer Martin Scorsese, directors Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter breaking down various scenes from the season and a look back at season two.