This season, the most consistently compelling part of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has been its opening title sequence. (Impossibly cool Steve Buscemi smoking a cigarette on the beach as the clouds morph above him, empty bottles of booze float onto the shore, and Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Straight Up and Down” plays over the scene—it’s gorgeous.) Humdrum episode after humdrum episode, I’m left asking, “Why am I still watching this show? What kind of unholy power does it have over me?”
Boardwalk Empire has never moved at a terribly fast pace. It’s about 1920s bootlegging and all of the politicking and scheming that comes with that, which gives most of the scenes between Atlantic City top dog Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) and his co-conspirators an expository quality—the show revolves around characters brokering shady deals or, as is the case with the current third season, discussing the Volstead Act ad nauseam. But there are also unexpected deaths, unlikely dalliances, and, of course, there’s delightful gangster drama. These flashier story elements in combination with the fact that patience is usually rewarded (sometimes with a character being scalped, other times, simply, with smart writing) make the slow pacing bearable. But we’re now nine episodes into the third season and Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden—one of the most complex, tortured, and surprising characters on the show—is hardly ever present and any time some glimmer of excitement pops up, it’s quickly stomped out.
Last season ended with a bang. Well, maybe not a “bang” but certainly with whatever sound a gun makes when it’s firing a game-changing bullet at one the show’s central characters. The finale introduced a lot of questions about how the story would proceed but was also kind of tantalizing, as it seemed to indicate that no one (save for Nucky, I suppose, unless they change that title sequence) was too precious to get the ax. The third season has seen the introduction of a couple of new faces clearly meant to stir up trouble for Nucky but also to prove that the show can be as gripping as ever after cutting one of its leads. First there’s volatile gangster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) who has openly declared war on Nucky, threatening his bootlegging operation and his life. Next, there’s showgirl Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle), Nucky’s self-possessed mistress who totally distracts him from his business. Billie I could have done without, but Rosetti, whose weird brand of mania has him shifting from charismatic to psychopathic at the drop of a hat, was entertaining early on (he utters this season’s best line: “I got a gun, he got a gun, he got a gun, EVERYBODY got guns!”). Cannavale does wonders with the role, the shift that happens in the character is actually quite scary at times, and he’s likely to get some consideration come next year’s Emmy nominations (for those who care about such things).
Unfortunately, a mostly unmemorable plot has overshadowed any thrill that might come in watching Cannavale in action. Sure, I could tell you what’s happened so far this year (Margaret has started a women’s health clinic; Rosetti has blocked the transportation of alcohol out of Atlantic City to New York; tensions are rising between Irish and Italian mobsters in Chicago; Nucky is making backroom deals with politicos to maintain power and avoid jail) but, notwithstanding increasingly bizarre villainy of Gretchen Mol’s character, Gillian Darmody, the majority of the story doesn’t leave an impression, it doesn’t elicit much emotion from me—yeah, stuff is happening but who cares? Too much energy has continued to be spent establishing all of the players in Atlantic City-Chicago crime machine; events that have an ominous air about them (Margaret’s son’s interactions with a “gypsy”) end up amounting to very little; and Nucky’s relationship with Billie has been tedious—I get that Billie is supposed to expose Nucky’s vulnerability but I think that was effectively established in her third or fourth appearance and the relationship could have come to a head much sooner.
This season’s biggest sin, though, is exiling Van Alden to Chicago in a tertiary subplot (he’s on the lam, selling irons door-to-door, and living with his Norwegian wife and their two babies) that is rarely visited by the show’s writers. When you have Michael Shannon in your cast, you use him. Proof: In a rare moment of screen time two weeks ago, Val Alden unleashes his wrath (a scolding hot iron to the face) on a horrid co-worker and, owing to Shannon’s performance, the seconds leading up to that outburst are the most tense and exciting of that episode—and this is an episode that features an explosion, so that’s saying something.
This is supposed to be the year that Nucky decides that you can’t be “half a gangster” but so far that’s really just translated into him spending a lot of time with a showgirl and having uneventful pow-wows with other crooks. The dullness of the Nucky plot is only emphasized by the fact that other characters like Van Alden and disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)—who may have a potential love interest—are proving to be way more interesting. So maybe you can’t be half a gangster but, if you’re Boardwalk Empire season 3, you can be mostly boring.
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