Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tube Steak: Boardwalk Empire Realizing Its Potential

Coming into its sophomore season, the lasting impression that the first season of Boardwalk Empire left had been one of promise but mild disappointment. After a stunning and opulent pilot directed by Martin Scorcese, the first season seemed like it should have been groundbreaking. There was so much capacity for transcendent greatness, yet the show managed to just be very good. Perhaps such expectations for a show were too lofty, but it seemed given the fact that it had a cast and crew teeming with talent and an historical scope that should have lent itself well to a sprawling epic chronicling the rise of organized crime as we know it.

To be fair some of those elements were present and well-represented, but there seemed to be just a little too much potential left unrealized. While always blessed with art direction and production design that should saddle the crew over at Mad Men with crippling inferiority complexes, the style over substance concern certainly lingered.

The second season, which came to a close with its finale Sunday night, quelled any lingering concerns.

[SPOILERS will be prevalent from here on out. Be wary.]

Season Two saw Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson (Steve Buscemi) running scared from enemies on all sides. On the legal side of things, Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) begins sharing an office with Assistant US Attorney Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson)--who along with her chief investigator have been brought in to try Nucky on election tampering--at roughly the midway point of the season. Nucky also is met head-on by a rival faction in Atlantic City led by his spurned brother, Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), his predecessor,  Commodore Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), and his former protege (and bastard son of the Commodore), Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). Those three align themselves with some of the old power brokers in the city along with an up-and-coming Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky, the latter two working under the watchful eye of Arnold Rothstein. And then there is the threat that lies within his own house, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), whose loyalty to Nucky has formed a bond between the two that becomes endangered as she becomes wrought with guilt and turns back to the Catholic Church.

It is with Nucky scrambling to stay afloat that Boardwalk Empire hits its stride. Much like the second season of Dexter, the show only grabs ahold of the audience once the dark anti-hero of the story is backed into a corner and has everybody gunning for him. The stakes are raised for the protagonist just as he is going into survival mode. Perhaps the set-up going on in the first season is necessary to have the audience fully invested, but the fact remains that this second season shows actualization--to borrow from baseball parlance--of its tools.

As the second season progressed, the teeth of history sunk further into the narrative that Terence Winter and Co. were weaving. While not imperative for the telling of this tale, by tying the semi-fictional world* of Boardwalk Empire's Atlantic City into the Genesis story of the modern crime underworld and the infamously corrupt Harding administration there is a heft added to the equation that a simple work of fiction would not be able to attain.

*As you are likely aware, Boardwalk Empire is based on Enoch Johnson and is loosely adapted from the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.

So far, I have really only attributed the success of the show to the narrative backing into a corner of Nucky Thompson, which in and of itself could be enough to induce such a positive response. This would be short-sighted as it is really the world that they have created that makes the show so compelling. The supporting cast of characters provide a rich tapestry of color as a backdrop.

While most of the fascinating character development happened in the first season for Agent Nelson Van Alden, Michael Shannon's turn as the self-flagellating, hypocritical religious zealot who knocks up showgirl and former love interest of Nucky Thompson Lucy Danziger (played by the irritating but oft-naked Paz de la Huerta) while his pious wife sits at home in New York is one of the most interesting acting jobs in recent memory. His face conveys all of the inner conflict and turmoil through his veneer of stoicism.

The hushed and pensive performance of Kelly MacDonald as the widow Margaret Schroeder should be studied by all aspiring actresses. Her approach to the abused Catholic widow gone astray as her life is improved with the interest taken by the complex but corrupt Thompson is one of restraint and subduction (in a non-geological sense). Ascribing her daughter's having been stricken by polio to her wayward relationship with God, the pendulum swings her back firmly into the arms of The Church as is seen and firmly determined in the final sequence of the season finale.

There are also the diametrically opposed right hands of Nucky and Jimmy Darmody, Owen Sleater and Richard Harrow. Sleater, whose Irish brogue and cocksure swagger make him impossible not to be taken by, and the actor Charlie Cox were a great addition to the show this season. Largely a utilitarian, his cold-bloodedness when combined with the general warmth that he exudes is magnetic. As for Harrow, Jack Huston (great-grandson of the legendary Walter Huston) fell into the role of a lifetime. Richard Harrow is a shell of a man, wearing the scars of service to his country both on the exterior and interior. Harrow is broken. While introspective and a sensitive soul, his experiences in war have hollowed him out, making him perhaps the most interesting character on the show. His near-suicide attempt was quite possibly the most emotionally affective moment of the season. His mask bears remembrance of the moment with every shot he is in. As the season closes, the one whose well-being we inevitably grow concerned for is not one of the main characters but is rather Harrow, who over the course of the final three episodes had every last shred of human connection torn from him. These two men are the supporting characters to whom our attention is invariably drawn.

But the heart of the season is in the conflict between Nucky and Jimmy. The dynamics in play give the show such rich subtext. Nucky resents that his protege veered from the path he proscribed. Jimmy resents that Nucky wants him to work for something he feels he has already earned. There is the father/son element playing at so many angles, with Jimmy being the biological son of Nucky's predecessor, the Commodore, while essentially being raised by Nucky--not his father--but feeling as though Nucky's seat was rightfully his on account of his biological father. The overthrow that is engineered is rife with father/son (both literally and figuratively) conflict, and the prince is ill-suited for rule once he has seized the throne.

The conclusion of the conflict between the two is really the only way everything can be resolved. Despite the fact that the assassination attempt was in fact Eli's idea, Nucky has no other recourse but to deal Jimmy's insurrection in the way he saw fit. It shows Nucky to be above emotional attachment, entirely cut-throat, and not averse to getting his hands dirty when the occasion calls for it. Jimmy, knowing that his fate is in Nucky's hands, is also willing to own up to his actions for the first time. It shows just how powerful Nucky is.

Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt play the parts exceptionally well. It seemed inevitable that this would be the case for Buscemi, but Pitt's performance was a bit revelatory. While initially seeming to do little more than his best imitation of Ethan Embry in Brotherhood, Pitt eventually wore down my defenses, winning me over, at least in this role.

All in all, the second time around proved to resolve any reticence among the trepidatious audience. Boardwalk Empire became transcendent television before our eyes.

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