‘Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season’ Doesn’t Disappoint

Boardwalk Empire opens this season as it did the last: with Atlantic City’s Treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) standing at the edge of the ocean, staring pensively at a darkening sky as foamy waves and liquor bottles crash against his pricey shoes. The water finally recedes, and Nucky trudges back across the sand toward the glow of his empire with the gait of a strong man bearing the weight of many burdens.

It isn’t easy for a corrupt politician like Nucky to run Atlantic City, especially with Prohibition in the way. He has always been surrounded by danger and betrayal, but he never expected them to come from his closest allies—his brother, Eli (Shea Whigham) and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), the young man Nucky raised as a protégé and a son. Jimmy’s biological father—the wealthy, powerful, and nefarious “Commodore” Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman)—sired Jimmy in the most heinous manner, and Nucky took care of Jimmy and his mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), when The Commodore didn’t.

But Jimmy and Gillian seem to have forgotten that. Their treachery, Eli’s disloyalty, and Nucky’s legal troubles seriously wound him but never hinder his game. He continues his political dealings, his illegal activities, and his live-in relationship with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) and her young children. But Nucky and Margaret’s emotional ties fray as her concerns about his morality grow. “We began in sin,” she tells Nucky in a burst of newfound religious fervor. “We’ll end in it.”

“I’ve given you everything,” he reminds her, and this truth adds to her confusion. Margaret simultaneously admires Nucky for acting as a doting parent to her fatherless children and judges him for being the reason their real father isn’t around. She enjoys running Nucky’s lavish house, bossing the servants, and dressing in the finest fashions while she secretly condemns Nucky’s criminality, steals money from his pocket, and does more than lust for Irishman Owen Slater (Charlie Cox), a vicious thug with a charming smile.

Margaret and Nucky’s complex personalities and Buscemi and Macdonald’s stellar performances were among the many strengths of Boardwalk Empire’s first season, and these aspects of the series are even more remarkable in Season Two. Boardwalk Empire’s creator, Terence Winter, excels in this series as he did in The Sopranos through his ability to draw characters that are often admirable, sometimes despicable, and always real.

This season also delves deeper into the characters’ minds—especially the psyche of Jimmy, whose dysfunctional relationship with his unusually young mother is explored in shocking and disturbing detail that sheds light on his soullessness. “I died in the trench,” Jimmy says, “years back.”

It’s through these few words that Jimmy’s motivations are understood. And when Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta) simply tells Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) that she didn’t terminate her pregnancy by him because “I wanted to be important to somebody,” it’s easy to see what lies beneath her former party-girl flapper exterior and her sultry voice. There’s much more to Lucy than previously known, and her unfortunate circumstance of virtually being held prisoner by the stern and priggish Van Alden is a compelling new element of the plot that showcases de la Huerta’s praiseworthy acting skills. Shannon continues his flawless portrayal of Van Alden, whose frightening treatment of Lucy is tempered by one touching act of kindness, and whose stiff interactions with his wife are heartbreaking.

Also poignant is Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), Nucky’s link to the African-American community who, despite his illiteracy, has earned career and financial success. But he deals with racial discrimination and degradation—even from Nucky and in his own home, where his wife looks down on Chalky’s roots and tells a guest to “Forgive my husband’s country ways.” Williams is excellent in his role, especially when Chalky’s long-simmering anger overflows as he reminds his wife that “My country ways put the food on this table.”

Other recurring characters are equally noteworthy, including Stephen Graham as Al Capone, Vincent Piazza as Lucky Luciano, and John Huston as Richard Harrow—a disfigured killer with a tender heart. “How does it feel to have everything?” he asks longingly after observing Jimmy with his wife and son. Although Richard is a cold-blooded murderer, he sparks many tear-jerking moments—especially when he spends time alone, gluing pictures of happy families into a scrapbook.

A new and important addition to the cast is Manny Horvitz (William Forsythe), a butcher and gangster based in Philadelphia. Forsythe—a gifted actor and master of accents who deserves more attention—delivers a brilliant performance as a portly, genial, middle-aged man who smiles as he calls Jimmy “boychik” and seems harmless at first glance. But when another mobster tries to kill him, Manny plants a meat cleaver in the man’s skull. As Manny seeks revenge for the attempted murder and an unsuspecting wife gets in the way, he kills her after saying “The most important thing in life, darling, is your health. Your husband did this to you.” Manny has several sides to his personality, and unlike Mad Men, which tends to get lazy when writing ethnic characters and paints them as laughably stereotypical (Michael Ginsberg is a glaring example), Boardwalk Empire depicts Jewish gangsters—Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, and Manny Horvitz—as refreshingly nuanced and diverse.

The only instance of Boardwalk Empire lapsing into caricature is when the real-life singer Eddie Cantor (Stephen de Rosa) visits Lucy while she’s being held captive by Van Alden. It’s doubtful that Cantor would keep up his vaudeville shtick in his free time, and de Rosa’s performance therefore comes off as fake. Another issue is that the pace of the series might seem rather slow—but only to the impatient viewer. Boardwalk Empire commands the art of storytelling, taking time to develop its characters and storylines, allowing them to simmer and reach a boil that’s more than worth the wait.

The series also has a gorgeous ’20s era soundtrack and visual appeal, from its costume design to the ocean breeze that flows through the delicate lace curtains inside Nucky’s house. The cinematography effectively symbolizes the unfolding story, especially when natural light gradually dims from the beach house that Jimmy shares with his wife.

Boardwalk Empire’s conclusion wraps up its storylines in an astonishing way and leaves a craving for more in the upcoming season. “I keep people satisfied,” Nucky says, and he doesn’t disappoint.

The DVD contains numerous intriguing and worthwhile extras, including a recap of Season One, information about new characters, and an interesting segment regarding the styles and trends of the ’20s.

RATING 9 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.