For a long time, I thought I had Boardwalk Empire pegged. I thought it was a good show that aspired to greatness but could never quite get there, due to genre constraints, lack of imagination, and the unique bondage of Steve Buscemi cast as a leading man. For most of its first season, and the first several episodes of its second, Empire inched along, hinting at grand confrontations and climaxes but constantly retreating from committing to those decisive moments. It felt like a series of false starts, of one exciting episode followed by two and a half slow-bordering-on-dull ones. It was always teasing and hinting; rarely satisfying.
I was wrong.
A full discussion of the series, including spoilers through the end of season two, after the jump.
Boardwalk Empire isn’t a good show falling short of greatness. It’s a glorious mess, pinballing between greatness, disaster, mediocrity and all points on that spectrum.
After an engaging, atmospheric, Martin Scorsese-directed pilot, much of the first season seemed like prelude to the second. The show delivered far too many set-up episodes, and spent hours introducing characters that were ultimately unimportant or underutilized. And that season ended not with a bang, but with an anticipation-building rearranging of chess pieces. At first, it felt like a great finale, until you realized that nothing actually happened, that most of the first season’s storylines went unresolved, and that we were victims of a shell game.
Season two, though, has been more violently erratic.
Quickly, the show made it clear that it was not about to capitalize on the set-up effort at the end of season one — at least not immediately. The first half of the season felt like a holding pattern, while the writers waited until it was late enough in the going to actually kick off the action.
At times, Empire seems like different shows being run by different hands. Unlike The Sopranos with David Chase, The Wire with David Simon, or Deadwood with David Milch, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t feel like the product of one auteur’s vision. Its tone is wildly inconsistent from episode to the next, and storylines appear and vanish. I don’t know whether Terrence Winter exerts as much control on production as the showrunners mentioned above, but I get the sense that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe someone even let Marky Mark have some creative influence? The result is that the series lacks cohesion.
Other problems abound. There is an inverse correlation between the screen time characters receive and how interesting those characters are. Richard, Chalky, Manny, Arnold Rothstein and others light up the screen when they’re actually on it — and then disappear for episodes at a time. Meanwhile, we’re forced to endure far too much of dullards like Van Alden, Eli and Margaret.
Oh, Margaret. Her character was particularly emblematic of this season’s troubles. Her character was written inconsistently from episode to episode, and her sudden personality flips were never entirely believable — even with the ridiculous (and boring) deus ex machina of her daughter’s polio. We spent the first season watching Margaret grow from a timid Christian moralist into Lady Macbeth. Then her kid got sick and she was just like, “Nah!” And she went full-on Jesus-freak hypocrite. It was unpleasant to watch, and not in a way that the show intended.
In fact, Boardwalk Empire may have a larger, 24-esque problem writing for women. Margaret is a wishy-washy dum-dum, Lucy is insufferable on every level, Gillian is a monster, and Angela is six feet under. Confident, compelling prosecutor Esther is now the show’s great (and only) female hope.
Now all of this isn’t to say that there aren’t also moments of brilliance mixed in. The supporting cast is great, and there’s usually a wonderful line of dialogue or speech in every episode. This season, Michael Pitt really came into his own as Jimmy Darmody. The final suite of episodes, with the incest reveal and Jimmy’s shocking demise, was fantastic. In fact, the second season as a whole looks more impressive in retrospect than it did while watching, because it can be viewed through the lens of the Death of Jimmy Darmody. Much of the business that seemed irrelevant at the time takes on added weight because it led Jimmy and Nucky to that climax.
But — and this is a big but — while Jimmy’s death made for thrilling drama, it also likely put the series off the rails for good. I’ve read Winter, and a lot of critics, say that Jimmy had to die because that’s where the story was leading. But the story only led there because that’s the way the writers crafted it. They should have chosen a different path. Because Nucky Thompson is simply not an interesting enough character to carry a show without a co-lead like Jimmy.
Nucky’s not particularly interesting as a glad-handing, political, wheeler-dealer. And he’s not going to be any more interesting as the gangster freed from the constraints of morality. Nucky may now be the one who knocks, but he’s still played by Steve Buscemi and he’s still written by this team of writers. Buscemi’s a great actor, and it’s certainly possible that he could carry a weekly drama on his own, but this combination of actor and character is poison. Thompson is supposed to be larger than life, and Buscemi comes across small.
So while the last three episodes or so were wonderfully done, I fear that they are the best Boardwalk Empire will ever have to offer. I feel certain there will be more moments of brilliance, more cool characters, and more impressive writing in season three. But the series as a whole will remain inconsistent from episode to episode, and from moment to moment. So many elements are there to make a great drama, but they don’t come together the right way under the right guiding hand.