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TV Testimony: Boardwalk Empire Season Re-cap

December 8, 2010

Among those I know who have watched HBO’s first season of this complex Prohibition-era show, many complain that both its characters and its plot lines are too sedate  and contradictory.  I find this curious, since the show is historically set in a time period bursting at the seams with contradictions, when America was a petulant young nation trying to grow up after WWI, without leaving the fun of childhood and decadence behind.  This is part of what fascinates me so much about the smooth natures of many of the characters.  They perhaps perfectly inhabit that world of Atlantic City – all cotton candy, family fun and flashy lights on the outside, while the slow roll of smoke-filled rooms provide the setting for the  power plays that  develop inside the shells of  fancy hotels like the Ritz.

Enoch Thompson's Elegant Exterior

It’s true that some characters and storylines have been less successful than others (most notably anything involving Jimmy’s whiny and grating “wife”, Angela Darmody), but on the whole, Boardwalk Empire has set up a second season that could prove to be more interesting and engaging that the first.

Steve Buscemi’s  Nucky Thompson is the social and political glue that binds all the other characters together, but at times the crown of power is a little heavy for him to bear.  He can be both hypocritically cruel and magnanimously generous within the same minute (sometimes within the same sentence), but Jimmy’s words to him earlier in the season still ring true:  “You can’t be HALF a gangster”.   Nucky, at times, loses track of himself in the political sense when he’s trying to reform himself in the personal sense.  His relationship with Margaret is full of the things not said.  I breathed a sigh of relief when those two FINALLY had a fight in the penultimate episode.  It was a clearing of the air that was necessary for the show and those characters to move forward.

Margaret keeps wanting Nucky to have hidden depths of compassion. Ironically, I’m coming to believe that Nucky may be more of a moral center than Margaret.  I get the vibe that there are still quite a few secrets about our Kerry-born lass that we don’t know about.  Actress Kelly MacDonald is one of the best things about the show.  It’s tough to make a short, fragile-looking woman into such a powerhouse of intelligence and determination, but Margaret’s journey from abused widow to Queen of Atlantic City is just beginning.   My favorite Margaret episode of the season was when she has that Diane Keaton-at the-end-of -The Godfather- moment in the mirror at the end of the episode “The Emerald City”.  She doesn’t recognize herself anymore, but her knowledge about Nucky’s actions and past has opened up a world of opportunities for her. Eli pointed out to Nucky that she’s a “liability”, but  she may also be the Nuck-ster’s greatest ally.  She’ll keep Nucky on his toes next season, and thanks to Jimmy’s plans, he may need her more than he knows.

The King and Queen of Atlantic City

The King and Queen of Atlantic City

This may prove controversial, but my favorite character on the show may very well be Jimmy Darmody.  He started out the season as the traditional thug-in-training, but his relationships with Al Capone and fellow WWI vet Jack Huston have been eye-opening for both himself and the viewers.  He has genuine concern and compassion for the wounded and the needy, something even Nucky lacks.    If you track his violent outbursts on the show, you’ll come to see that almost all of them are justified from a certain viewpoint.  He’s learned much from his detour to Chicago under the tutelage of Capone,  especially about strategy, clout and power.  Plus, a guy who reads that much classic literature can’t be all bad…  Jimmy has shades of Sawyer from LOST – a man whose violent past seems to lead him on a pre-destined course.  Jimmy could change that course at any time if he chooses to.  He has the intelligence and drive to be more than a stereotype, but the revelation (to the viewers, at least) that the Commodore is his father is leading him towards an inevitable showdown with Nucky.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that the last we see of Jimmy in the finale is a shot of him silhouetted against the beachfront, an exact replica of Nucky’s position in the opening credits.  Subtle Boardwalk Empire is not.

The one drawback to the Darmody family dynamic ( (I actually enjoy Gretchen Mol’s laid-back, resigned portrayal of Jimmy’s eerily young mom, Gillian) is his common law wife Angela.  Her bizarre plotline with the female photographer seemed set  up for no other reason that to create another impetus for Jimmy to go ape on some poor guy.  I’m hoping this character gets jettisoned sooner rather than later next season.  I’m looking  for a stronger, sassier love interest for Jimmy – creepily, perhaps someone more like his dear mother in terms of personality…

The Dynamic (one half, at least) Darmodys

Then there’s Agent Van Alden.  Where do we even start?  The character arc for Nelson began with promise – his shifty stance, the feeling that he’s eternally uncomfortable in any room, the facial tics…Right up until the finale, his storyline was both compelling and repugnant (which was dramatic genius).  The moment where he drowned poor Agent Sebso in front of the entire baffled African-American congregation was one of the more shocking television moments in recent memory.   Then, in the season finale, he inexplicably changes course, deciding to become a blue-collar schmuck unless GOD gives him a sign?!  What?!  The reappearance of Lucy into this whole tangled mess was an unwelcome surprise for both Nelson and the audience.  I had hoped she was gone for good, but this is very obviously a way for Nelson and his wife Rose to get that baby they’ve always wanted.

On the whole, the first season of Boardwalk Empire has been a success.  It’s a show that keeps me contemplating long after the closing credits have rolled.  Next season, as the stage is set for a power struggle between Eli/Jimmy/The Commodore versus Nucky and his minions, here’s hoping for more murder and mayhem along the salt-filled shores of Atlantic City.  Judging by how uncomfortable both Margaret and Nucky looked in their newly repaired relationship, I’m sensing murky waters ahead.

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