Boardwalk Empire's Season 3 Premiere: The More Things Change...

Boardwalk Empire S03E01: “Resolution”

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?”

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.



Notes


– 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...



Gangster Power Rankings


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?




Comments (24)
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I have to agree with your review, sadly. Aleska Palladino's charactar Angela is also sadly missed. Her and Jimmy were the charactars you came to care about. Richard, and bizarrely Nelson also inspire sympathy, but the rest are largely unrelatable, excellent as they all are. There needs to be someone to make up for the loss of the Darmodys. That said, its still one of the best things on tv. Personally, I would like to see a spin-off series just featuring Rothstein.
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Your review makes sense, I would love to see each characters plots become more interwined with one another instead of entirely separate entities, but I disagree that Boardwalk has always suffered from this anomaly, and this is probably only the first episode where things haven't linked up because of Jimmy's departure, it's no where near as bad as True Blood and Game of Thrones.



But yes, Boardwalk is a very plot driven show, and often all of Nucky's business dealings become too convulted for me to follow, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in seeing how things turn out, in fact, quite the opposite.
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I agree the show needs some sort of direction and point. It's verging on soapy now. Also, killing Jimmy off might have been a huge mistake. This could go either way, but I doubt the show will survive longer than this season.
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I've always identified with Jimmy more than any other characters in "Boardwalk".

So, for me, his absence was really felt... Thanks God Richard is still around - without him, I wouldn't have anyone to root for.
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Clearly you're not a fan of the show and as such there will be little to be gained out of these reviews, which is a shame because this show has been neglected on this site. Boardwalk Empire is a novel of a television show, not an episodic thrill-ride. There are plenty of us that appreciate the complexity and surety with which it tells stories. I love watching shows (and movies) where I can't see the mechanics ticking away behind the scenes, where I am completely immersed in a rivoting, brilliantly acted, gorgeous to look at, intelligent and believable story. This show is one of those experiences and it's one of the best shows on tv. Despite it's narrative complexity, when reflecting back on plot lines down the track it is clear just how deliberate and carefully laid each point is, but the show is also very fair to its characters and has many wonderful moments that don't simply telegraph events to come.



So I'm disappointed in your review and wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have someone else cover the story or no one at all as compared to this. Your point that nothing has changed seems curious after your (relatively) positive comments on season 2, and it is certainly too early in season 3 to jump to conclusions. The True Blood comparison is border-line offensive, although tempered.



All in all I believe that your criticisms or perceived criticisms of the show are not actually weaknesses in the show but more likely indicate that this is a show that you do not respond to and do not appreciate fully. As I said I would have much preferred it be covered by someone who does appreciate the show. Otherwise it will just be week to week of 'I still don't like it' which achieves nothing. While the show is not the equal of The Sopranos, mainly due to the remove of the period setting, it certainly is close and should be recognised as such.
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I don't know man. I for one agree with the reviewer. Boardwalk just never fulfilled its promise. Too vague at times, too intricate some other times, but never really evolving the character development much. The story is told for the sake of itself, but there is no clear direction. Who to care for, who to dislike. They are just different shades of themselves. These characters are not very much changed from what we knew them to be, their actions have been passive so far. Jimmy's death was a bit random when indeed we finally had some firm character development ground, and now it's just characters being their same old same old. Just bare with me for a second right, up until now: Nucky, gangster, threatening, but very much passive throughout (except in jimmy's death); Al Capone, same description; Lucky Luciano, same description; Rothstein, same description, and Jimmy was the same description as well. Hell even van Halen has been passive so far even though we know there's some psychosis to him. All of them are very passive considering their god damn gangsters. Shame the German dude is gone, he was interesting at least. I'm gonna give this show a chance to come forth and be what we know it can be this season, otherwise I'm out. Props to Richard for some action!
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SinspaW, I've never understood why people say a show doesn't tell them who to like or dislike. I know who I like and who I dislike. It might not be the same choices as you or anyone else but the show didn't tell me to like Richard or Rothstein or Slater or Dean O'Banion. It presented me a story and I made my own conclusions whether or not I like a character or their motives. I don't feel the need to be told by the show runner who to root for or who to despise.
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You didn't get my point. I don't know who to like or dislike because they're all too vague. What I know from those characters can be put in a slide with 4 or 5 bulletpoints. I don't know their personalities, why they move as they move, they're just reacting to the story, and pretty linearly most of the time.
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Thank you. I've been reading these comments and I'm baffled cos I love this show so much. Boardwalk Empire is the story of Atlantic City and I think one day we'll move away from Nucky's reign and move on to the next guy. I think a lot of people liked Michael Pitt and can't get over him being killed.
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I disagree. I still admire Boardwalk Empire - in part for doing the only logical thing and killing off one of the most compelling characters in jimmy. I can see where the reviewer's opinion is coming from (an entertaining, while admittedly undecided season 1), but after a very strong season 2 (as cory agrees) I find it confusingly early for such a negative vibe, storyline-wise. it's one episode, relax! have some faith in the show! it's a slow one, as we all know by now.

personally, I agree with the problem of a convoluted storyline, and I'd like to see more rothstein, rather than other blunt and/or new gangsters (for the same reason as cory). but overall, I'm definitely excited for season 3! after all, a show that made me develop sympathy for a man-slaughtering devil by turning him into a loving jiddish husband in less than a minute has to have some kind swag.
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I would also love to see more Rothstein. He fascinates me, and he is exceptionally well played by the actor. Beyond conniving underneath, but totally innocuous on the surface with killer charm.
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Thank you for your review. You pretty much just said exactly what I was thinking about this episode! The acting is still brilliant, but that cannot stand on it's own. This show has so much potential, yet the storyline does seem disjointed and not as entertaining as it could be. There are a lot of things that do seem repetitive... Nucky has a new topless girlfriend.. etc..



Jimmy was the most interesting character by far, and now I'm wondering if I even still want to watch this show now that he has been killed off. I do like Gillian's thread of the story though. She is very twisted and it will be interesting to see her part in everything will now be..
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Too bad the way the show is moving. The first season was the very best as the episodes were played for artisitic effect. The were not too "crowded" with characters. Last season they started thowing in too much stuff and too many characters in each session. The first year was, to me, a fantastic artistic success, not merely a good series but an artisitic achievement, especially weaving in the politics (Harding, Nan, etc.). The characters all had some "worthwhile" aspects. Killing off Jimmy stunted the show. He could have lived and the Commodore regained his health with Jimmy gravitating to him and learning from him. Great works need some sparseness so you can see the main story apart from the background. The first season had it and was a real artistic success harking back to the early days of live TV. Now there's too much junk, just all kinds of stuff thrown in or thrown at the wall to see what sticks? Has the process of overall control and direction changed from the first year?
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It's a shame really. The acting is so good, the concept is fantastic, and visually the show is amazing. But there's nothing compelling about it, I just leave every episode and I really don't care about what's going to happen next. None of the characters are really sympathetic at all.



I feel as if (and many people who adore the show have said this to me as well) that Boardwalk Empire is trying 8 years later to fill the gap left by the Sopranos. Just having gangsters and illegal activities, and being located in New Jersey doesn't make you the Sopranos. As good as Steve Buscemi is as Nucky, he just doesn't bring the relatability. As horrible a person as Tony Soprano was, you still kind of cheered for him in the end. As horrible a person as Walter White is, he's still the hero of his story (although at this point he is so repulsive that's a pretty big stretch to still say that).



Nucky is so one-dimensional you really don't care if his dreams come true, or he flames out and sits old and broken in the ruins of his former empire, Michael Corleone style, or gets decapitated by the ghost of Jimmy Darmoty. And as great as Al Capone is on this show, I really feel like his whole story is shoe-horned in just to have a certifiable gangster name on the credits.
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I agree with you entirely here. There must be at least one or two characters you can sympathize with for people to want to keep watching.. The show is definitely lacking this. Jimmy filled this role but now he is gone.. Perhaps they will introduce someone new we can care about.
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First of all, great review!



Everytime I watch an epsiode of Boardwalk Empire I have the feeling that I'm watching a great show. But when the end credits roll it feels like I just watched a very good show but not a great show. I highly enjoy watching BE and will continue doing so but somehow it doesn't seem to reach its full potential.
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I miss Jimmy but i couldn't wait Any longer to see what' gonna happen next so i'm glad that shownis back with pretty good first episode. Where's Chalky?!
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And at least Gillian is now in the appropriate profession - running call girls.
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Jimmy was a fantastic character. Saw his rise and fall (which was awesomely done). Now with Knucky going full gangster while still wearing a nice suit, things will definitely get more complicated. Hoping Van Alden goes all Gus Fring on everyone's a**.
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I've always imagined that the show would wander, often aimlessly to see Al Capone become the main character... which would give them a clear path to at least five more seasons.
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I totally agree. Capone has been a favorite of mine since season 1, mostly because, though we know who he becomes, we don't usually see much of the young Capone in other shows or movies. And it'd be pretty cool to build up to a Capone-led power struggle in this roundabout way. I'm a big fan of Georgie Half-a-Face too, so I'm eager to see what's in store for him now without Jimmy.



I still like the way that they took out Jimmy last season- it was unexpected, and it raises the stakes for everyone else. Jimmy grew on me over the first 2 seasons (at first, he just seemed like a poor man's Leo DiCaprio), but his story, tragic as it was, ran its course and served its purpose: to push Nuck to full blown gangster hood.



As for Mrs. Thompson and the aviatrix, what I took away was that she's now taken up the same wistful thoughts of freedom, or even just the ability to leave AC, that Angie identified with so much last season.
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that would be great
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Lol nice name
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Kind of like eating Chinese food----good but you are left hungry one hour later...
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