The slogan for Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire is “You Can’t Be Half a Gangster” and the series, about gangsters running amok during Prohibition, shows what happens when they go full throttle. And when they do, the results aren't very pretty, even though the show itself most certainly is.
Premiering this Sunday, September 16, at 10 p.m. ET on HBO, Boardwalk Empire is most often an exercise in theatrical mayhem. An installment of Empire without a creative killing would be like a bride without a bouquet — it just wouldn't be right. (There was a scalping and a slaughter house-style blood-letting last season, so what sort of baroque executions are left? Have heart, the first five episodes this year delivers a couple of inventive ones.)
In terms of tone (and bruised flesh), the show is very close to HBO's other New Jersey mob story, The Sopranos. And that’s no accident since series producer Terence Winters is a veteran of that landmark series.
Lead by Winters and mob herald Martin Scorsese, Empire is a rich and complex portrait of a pre-depression America where corruption and violence still rule, but institutions — the government, church, family, the free press — are gaining substantial leverage. It's an impressive, operatic tale of a country being forged inside a pressure cooker — a very shrewd and compelling history lesson.
And it’s a masterfully crafted one, at that. For all of its gangsterism, Boardwalk Empire is still one of the most visually evocative shows around. In Sunday’s premiere, Atlantic City king-pin and bootlegger Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) host a New Year’s party with an Egyptian theme. A guest says, "If I didn't know better I'd swear I was in Egypt — how did you manage?" Margaret smiles, "We simply studied the photographs."
It’s a nice insider wink to the height of the art direction of the show, which similarly thrives on amazing attention to detail in the sets and costumes. Coupled with the brute force lurking at the edges of virtually every scene, it’s like a very well-dressed but poorly behaved Sunday guest.
This season there's a new threat to Nucky’s territory. Gangster Gyp Rosetti, (Bobby Cannavale, right) is a rival bootlegger, a sexual deviant and a raving sociopath. Rosetti’s antics are blacker than most, and you'll find them either disturbingly brilliant or laughably shark-jumping in an off-the-rails attempt to ratchet up the tension and violence to the highest possible degree.
Rosetti and the other gangsters of Boardwalk Empire may be brutish and half-witted, but the show's women are smart, composed and working their ways within the confines and restraints of the times. Stuck with Nucky, who muscled his way into her life under the pretense of saving her from domestic violence in Season 1, Macdonald's Margaret now lives in an estranged, business-like marriage. She relies on guile and ingenuity and tries to do good where she can — initiating a first-of-its-kind women's health office at the main hospital, for instance.
Macdonald, Buscemi, Cannavale and Steven Graham (as a young Al Capone, rising in infuence in Chicago) make up one of the better casts on television today, and the series continues to excel, even though Winters did the unthinkable and knocked off some major characters during Season 2. As with The Sopranos, no one walking on camera in a scene should be thought to be around for the entire season, let alone another episode. As the Jersey thugs say, crossing Nucky or the other crime lords would be "moidah."
Nucky had a shred of humanity in the first two seasons, but now, pushed personally and financially, he’s forced to outwit his adversaries using more and more extreme means.
And this season, his compassion may all but evaporate, for everyone except new mistress, New York starlet Billie Kent (in a chipper performance by Meg Chambers Steedle) — even though she most likely isn’t facing a very good outcome herself by relenting, and bedding down with the boss.
In the upcoming episode “Blue Bell Boy” (October 7), one of the more tightly wound episodes of the new season, there’s a segment where Nucky might still have the kind of fatherly instincts he showed with former protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt).
We want to believe, with his eloquence and well-bred manners of a corporate CEO, he can't be just a hood and a killer through and through — a natty executioner in an expensive three-piece suit.
And that’s the delight of Boardwalk Empire. It's a tough, conflicted lesson — and one that's beautifully rendered.