Somehow, someway, Boardwalk Empire has managed to sustain itself in the upper echelons of great television in spite of the potentially-controversial decision to kill off the series’ second-most important character in the final moments of last season’s finale. Immediately following this jarring narrative twist, Boardwalk Empire was praised by critics and fans alike for its risk-taking and bold storytelling. Truth be told, Boardwalk Empire is the type of show that audiences could easily become bored with if too many episodes go by without a violent death or curve ball thrown at the plot. Still, part of me wondered whether it was the right call to axe *SPOILER ALERT* Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) from the series. In Season Two, Jimmy was unquestionably the most interesting, complex and well-rounded character in the entire cast. Michael Pitt even managed to make us forget we were watching Leonardo DiCaprio Jr. on-screen. Pitt demonstrated an unusual amount of sincerity for a gangster who spent all last season ruining the social position of his adoptive father, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), so much so that Darmody’s plunge from power drew all our sympathies. We hated Nucky for choosing his thuggish brother Eli over the salvageable Jimmy, and couldn’t shake the feeling that Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody was Atlantic City’s most unfortunate victim. Can Boardwalk Empire thrive or even survive without its most fascinating character, its most gifted actor (Michael Pitt’s Emmy snub elicited more weeps than during his death scene)? Based on last night’s season premiere, it just might.
Season Three of Boardwalk Empire opens with a stunning establishment shot. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from the side of the road is a man we cannot recognize but seems oddly familiar. His back is turned toward us, his hat covering the entirety of his head where no trace of hair can be seen. Is the back of his head clean-shaven, with 1920′s curtain hair hidden underneath his bowl hat? Could he perhaps be Jimmy Darmody, back from the dead, or are we simply kidding ourselves? Hey, I’d even take a dream or flashback sequence if the possibility arose for a potential “Guest Actor” Emmy nomination. The mysterious figure turns around, and he reveals himself to be…Bobby Cannavale?! Because I don’t read pre-season notes, this came as a huge shock to me. The entrance is grand and memorable thanks to the cinematography and Tim Van Patten’s unpretentiously stylized direction. Cannavale appears both unhinged and determined in his introductory close-up, and intrigue immediately sets in. It doesn’t take long for Cannavale’s Gyp Rosetti to make a big impression as the Season Three “baddie.” Within minutes, he’s beating a helpful old man to a pulp, steals his dog and rides on into town, ready to scare the living nightlights out of Atlantic City. On the one hand, I felt like groaning. We’ve seen the short-fused gangster with a propensity for gratuitous violence many times before (Joe Pesci, anyone?), but somehow Cannavale as Rosetti elevates my excitement for the season. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been dying for an all-out villain to appear that can go toe-to-toe with Nucky Thompson. Arnold Rothstein, Eli, The Commodore, and Nelson Van Alden have all been more nuisances to Nucky than legitimate threats to his empire and livelihood. Jimmy Darmody was the only one who was able to put Nucky out of action last season, but in my estimation he was our wounded hero that lost his way, hardly villain material. Did I also mention Cannavale is given the best lines of insults in the show’s history? Yep, Cannavale’s Rosetti is keeper. Let’s hope he’s not whacked too quickly.
Aside from Cannavale, Atlantic City and its inhabitants are thriving and bootlegging as they always do. The premiere is set more than a year after Jimmy’s death: New Year’s Eve, 1922. Nucky Thompson is disturbingly quite comfortable in his new role as a “true gangster,” a far cry from his former “half-gangster” standing. I guess the rite of passage for becoming a “true gangster” is losing your murderer virginity, which Nucky accomplished when he shot two lethal bullets into Jimmy’s face. I don’t always buy Steve Buscemi’s “tough guy” act as Nucky — I far prefer his sardonically-delivered monologues — but he’s getting there. Nucky still holds a monopoly over the illegal buying and selling of liquor in Atlantic City, but his political allies are giving him the squeeze to cut down operations, worried the city’s increase in illegalities could risk exposing their bootlegging patronage. Last season’s break-out character, Manny Horvitz, returns as Nucky’s new enforcer, committed to taking out Nucky’s dirty laundry if it means putting food on the table for he and his family. Also returning is — ugh — Owen Slater (Charlie Cox) as Nucky’s personal assistant/bodyguard. Owen’s never left a great impression on me, and his flirting with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald) rears its ugly head again near the end of the episode. I sure hope Margaret doesn’t fall prey to her “temptations” like she did last season. Although Margaret and Nucky may not make an ideal couple, the forced chemistry between MacDonald’s Margaret and Cox’s Owen was one of the very few bumps in the road from Season Two. Plus, Margaret and the audience are meant to believe that their brief affair is what caused her daughter’s polio. God is punishing Margaret for her sin of adultery, according to the narrative unfolding and the scary priest who Margaret confesses her sins to. Therefore, it’s impossible not to despise Owen.
As for Margaret, I’m happy to report that her religious fanaticism from last year has subsided. She now feels inspired by all the courageous women in the world who are attempting to rise to the same heights that men can reach. In the case of Carrie Duncan, those are literal heights since Duncan is one of the few female aviators who’s traveling the skies. After visiting the hospital that Margaret transferred a hefty donation to (using Nucky’s money, of course), one patient bursts in during a guided tour and miscarries on the middle of the floor. One of the doctors tells Margaret that if women were educated on how to properly take care of their bodies in the prenatal stage, miscarriages like the one Margaret witnessed could be prevented. Margaret delivers this piece of advice to the head doctor during her and Nucky’s New Year’s Eve house party, only to incur the doctor’s wrath and frustration by such an idea. This angers Nucky, who cannot risk damaging his reputation as a hospital benefactor, one of the few times his beneficiary work is in the effort of preserving life, not destroying it. The schism Margaret’s feminist ambitions create between her and Nucky will be fascinating to watch this season, certainly more so than a cliché love-affair between Margaret and Owen (please writers, let that sub-plot die and never be brought to life again).
And of course, we cannot forget former Agent Nelson Van Alden, who may actually be a better human being now that he’s a fugitive on the run. Michael Shannon has always been terrific in the role, even when the writers struggle to bring him to the forefront of our attention. In the Season Three premiere, Van Alden is seen residing in Chicago with his housemaid (now his wife) and daughter, Abigail. He’s fallen far from his position as a well-respected officer of the law, and now works for an iron company as a door-to-door salesman. For New Years Eve, the company is giving away a large cash prize to the salesman with the most customer purchases before 10 pm. Even though Van Alden manages to reap the most sales, the boss lies to him and says that the cutoff time was 9 pm instead. The first time I ever felt sympathy for Van Alden was during his realization of being cheated out of hard-earned money that could have uprooted his family from their harsh living conditions. However, he may yet have an opportunity to strike it rich since he impressed a local Chicagoan gangster by using his intimidating height to scare off Al Capone and his lackey. Van Alden as a gangster sounds like an exciting prospect, one that could further develop an already complicated, morally ambiguous behemoth of a man.
Finally, Boardwalk Empire would not be the hair-raising, shotgun-wielding show we know it to be unless a major character met a violent end in the premiere’s last few minutes. I’m not going to reveal who was sent to meet their maker, but I’m sure many of you are crossing your fingers it’s the monstrous Gillian Darmody (Gretchon Mol) who meets a just end. Gillian’s evilness elevates further this episode after she forces her now-orphaned grandson to call her “mom” instead “meema” (his version of “grandma”). This justifiably upsets masked fan-favorite, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who wants to preserve the memory of Andrea Darmody for both himself and Jimmy’s son. Jack Huston continues to be one of the most unsung talents in television, emoting so much behind the constraints of a mask with just a flash of his sorrowful eyes. Although he’s sidelined for most of the episode, Huston’s Richard Harrow is handed one glorious scene by writer Terence Winter. All I can say is that the common joke, “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” has never seemed more fitting a description.
In sum, the absence of Michael Pitt is felt more than once in the Season Three premiere, but I was amazed at how involving Boardwalk Empire still is even without its most engrossing character. If anything, the show builds off the momentum it carried from last season’s cliffhanger finale, establishing this season as one that raises the stakes considerably for both Nucky and Atlantic City. The worst, most ennui-inducing scenes in Boardwalk Empire are always set in Nucky’s office at the Ritz-Carlton, and the fact that only one Ritz segment was featured already has me doubly excited about the rest of Season Three. The show’s writers are fulfilling their promise of pushing the boundaries even further, and now with Cannavale on board, Boardwalk Empire may jump in front of Game of Thrones as HBO’s best original series.
Tags: Atlantic City New Jersey, Boardwalk Empire, Boardwalk Empire Resolution Review, Boardwalk Empire Review, Boardwalk Empire Season 3, Boardwalk Empire Season 3 Review, Boardwalk Empire Season Three Episode One, Bobby Cannavale, Emmys, Gretchen Mol, HBO, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Steve Buscemi, Terence Winter, Tim Van Patten