On Friday afternoon, Time media critic James Poniewozik tweeted a few short impressions about the opening episodes of Boardwalk Empire’s third season. The most interesting of those comments were Poniewozik’s two related questions: “Whose story is this? WHAT story is this?”
Seen 2 eps so far of BOARDWALK EMPIRE s3. As always, strong individ scenes. But overall: whose story is this? WHAT story is this?— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) September 14, 2012
For a prestige drama that has won some major awards, been nominated for a slew of others, and is now in its third season, those aren’t the type of questions we should be asking. Alas, Poniewozik’s tweet was right on-point. In its 24 episodes, Boardwalk Empire has consistently marveled on the visual front (thanks in part to Terence Winter and company’s attention to detail and HBO’s deep pockets), but even more consistently frustrated on a larger thematic level. The show wants to be great—and even thinks it is great—but impeccable set and costume design and wonderful acting don’t mean as much with all those things build to an empty core.
The first season cast far too wide of a wide net, with its narrative that never caught much of anything interesting. Last season was much stronger once Michael Pitt’s Jimmy took center stage amid a series of miserable life experiences—it’s tough to top discovering your wife’s dead body, killing your father, failing to kill your father-like figure, and getting hopped up on drugs to recall your incestuous affair with your mother in the “worst year ever” pool—but then the show made its first big move in having Steve Buscemi’s Nucky kill Jimmy. And although Boardwalk would like us to believe that that shooting served as a pivotal point in a much more complex story, the point remains that the show built up one character solely to be dispatched by the lead, mostly to make him more interesting on the surface.
Nevertheless, Jimmy is gone now and gone with him is a center of the Boardwalk Empire universe, a universe that is vast and somehow always expanding further. Certain current-era cable shows like this one share a tendency to craft sprawling stories about two-dozen or more “important” characters without always making the individual units fit together. Game of Thrones, Treme and True Blood immediately come to mind.
And although it sounds insane, Boardwalk Empire is closer to True Blood than Game of Thrones and Treme because like HBO’s vampire soap, Boardwalk Empire is a show almost entirely about plot. It’s a “stuff just happens” show. Is it as hollow or stupid as True Blood? Of course not. But could Winter and his team serve to push a little harder to move away from the straightforward (yet sometimes narratively convoluted), blood-drenched violence and gangster imagery? Absolutely.
Thus, this is something of a make-or-break season for Boardwalk Empire. The awards buzz will probably never stop and HBO will keep the show around for a long time. But if I can borrow a line from the show, Boardwalk can’t be half a prestige drama forever.
Unfortunately, the Season 3 premiere, “Resolution,” didn't do a whole lot to convince me that anything is going to change on Boardwalk, even though the episode was all about the possibility of “the new.”
Nowhere was this more obvious than with the introduction of Bobby Cannavale’s Gyp Rosetti. When his car had tire trouble on the way into Atlantic City, a random Samaritan offered to help Rosetti with the rusted lug nuts. The Samaritan unintentionally confused Rosetti about the name of product that would solve his problem, so Rosetti returned the favor by beating the innocent, helpful man to death with a tire iron. In his second scene much later in the episode, Rosetti learned that he won’t be able to buy Rum directly from Nucky anymore, which resulted in an overly masculine response full of curse words, personal insults, and egotistical posturing.
Clearly, Gyp isn’t an educated man. He’s a gangster in a nice suit, and that’s all he wants to be (unlike Nucky, who won’t stop until he rises above the criminal fray, even if illegal activity is all he can do to get to the top). Still though, there’s something very fitting about Boardwalk replacing the Ivy League-educated, soft-spoken, complicated, and introspective Jimmy with the loud, aggressive blunt object that is Gyp. Cannavale is a great performer and I have no doubt that he'll do fine work throughout this season. However, Gyp is just another brash man to add to the fray of a dozen brash men, all of whom are shooting and yelling and screwing their way into... something. If there’s one thing Boardwalk didn’t need, it was another gangster.
In certain instances, “Resolution” suggested that change might be coming. Nucky’s spent the last year building himself into the full gangster Jimmy claimed he had to be, and we know that because in tonight's first scene with him he outsmarted a petty thief into giving up his wheelman, then had the thief executed. When Nucky said, “Put a fucking bullet in his head,” he appeared to mean it—and when another character told him, “You’re a gangster, plain and simple,” it felt like the show trying to convince itself of this half-truth.
Meanwhile, now locked into a loveless marriage with Nucky, Margaret is finding it pretty easy to throw lavish New Year’s parties and tour the hospital wing that she (with Nucky’s money) helped develop. There’s no more feeble Mrs. Schroder left in Margaret. She’s aware of her circumstances and has no qualms about spending Nucky’s money or challenging the head doctor of the hospital on its poor care of pregnant women.
On the surface, then, things might be shifting for Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. But we know that’s not the full story. Nucky decided to funnel all of his booze operations outside of Atlantic City through Rothstein so that he could try to cool some of the heat on his buddy Attorney General Daugherty (Christopher McDonald), in what’s more or less a tit-for-tat type of deal that goes back to last season when Daugherty helped save Nucky’s ass. Plus, Nuck’s still watching a great amount of his money (and that land Margaret sold to the church) go to causes he doesn’t really care about. So, Nucky might be a full gangster now, but he’s still handcuffed by his grand political ambition and his wife.
And for Margaret, the more things change, the more they stay the same. She’s part of the societal elite and making some waves with her charity, but she's found herself part of a loveless marriage yet again.
Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald are both quite good in their roles and their performances in this episode were just as good as they always are. Still though, it’s hard to shake the feeling that as the two lead characters, neither Nucky nor Margaret is as engaging as they could be. And I think a lot of that comes from the show’s unwillingness to go beyond the typical rhythms of the gangster genre (lies and violence, always).
Elsewhere in the vast Boardwalk universe there are the usual compelling, if slightly tangential stories. With Jimmy gone, Gillian has spent the better part of a year convincing Jimmy's son Tommy that she is actually his mother, only further complicating that intertwined family tree. (The best part? Gillian keeps reminding Tommy that Jimmy was his father, making it seem as though she and Jimmy conceived this child together and ow my stomach hurts). The good news is that Tommy’s spending a whole lot of time with Richard, who apparently enjoys babysitting more than one might have expected. Richard wants Tommy to remember his real mother, which didn’t go over well with the manipulative Gillian.
Over in Illinois, Michael Shannon’s Van Alden (still going by an alias) is struggling to make it by selling irons. In what I think was the only truly comedic story in the show’s history, Van Alden spent the premiere going from door to door in hopes of winning the New Year’s contest bonus. He failed miserably but thankfully Van Alden had an assortment of cliché pep talks to give himself between each failure. The best part about these scenes was that Shannon played them completely straight, with the unknowing earnestness of the character helping highlight how silly and sad his situation is. By the end of the day, Van Alden somehow accidentally ended up helping Chicago player Dean O’Banion get out of a jam with Al Capone, suggesting interesting things to come.
Much like the Nucky and Margaret stories, these threads are well-executed, particularly by the actors. Gretchen Mol, Jack Huston and Shannon are always good on the show and that was no different in this episode. However, it’s tough to totally figure out where Gillian and Tommy fit into a world without Jimmy or the Commodore (though the end of the episode suggests Boardwalk won’t have trouble finding something for Richard), and now three seasons in, the Chicago stories have yet to really pay off in a substantial manner. We have a long way to go in the season but the show hasn’t always proven it knows how to pull strands together to make a satisfying whole.
And really, that’s the big issue here. There are very, very few individual scenes on Boardwalk Empire that aren’t well-acted and beautiful to look at. Nothing was different in “Resolution.” But it too often felt like just a collection of scenes that happened to be sequenced together in an episode-like unit. Certain critics have argued that this kind of long-form, “collection of stories” approach works better on a full-season level, removing some of the episodic satisfactions. However, for me, Boardwalk Empire is the opposite: Individual episodes are really enjoyable, but by the end of a half- or full-season, the show is just on to the next thing.
Hopefully that—and things within the show’s world itself—will actually change this season.
– There’s a through-line here about the first female aviator making her way across the Atlantic, which brings up predictable sexist discussions. Margaret was super-psyched about the flight and went to the beach to see the woman fly by. Maybe things are changing for Margaret and other women this year?
– Nucky has a new side piece, performer Billie Kent. She, like Lucy, doesn’t like to wear tops. The more things change...
Since the show wants to cling to the gangster aesthetic, in each week's review I'll list the most powerful characters of the episode. Here’s the inaugural edition:
1. Nucky: Mr. Thompson was the cock of the walk in “Resolution.” He wheeled out a treasure chest of gold and the like at the New Year’s party and just gave it away.
2. Gillian: It takes a special kind of gangster to manipulate a little boy into thinking you’re his mother, not his grandmother, while still reminding him of the identity of his father.
3. Margaret: Nice to see that Marge didn’t stop with giving Nucky’s road away. She’s helped build the hospital, and now it looks like she might help run it.
4. Rothstein: Becoming the sole distributor of Nucky’s booze outside of Atlantic City without having to do much to get it is pretty swag.
84. Chalky: Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White wasn’t even in the premiere. What a disappointment.
What'd you think of the episode?