If you’re a fan of The Roaring ’20s Emmy-nominated gangster drama “Boardwalk Empire,” will launch its third season this Sunday. The HBO cable series has received widespread critical acclaim, particularly for its visual style and basis on historical figures. Last season “Boardwalk Empire,” creator Terence Winter pulled a fast one on viewers by (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen season 2) knocking off one of the show’s central characters. Although untimely death does seem to be a cable requisite at this point — you must do in a central character before audiences expect it, at an unconventional point in the series’ overall narrative.
Actually, Jimmy Darmody, who was killed by his unforgiving father figure, Nucky Thompson, wasn’t just a central character; he was one of the show’s most fascinating and least stereotyped characters. While too many of the guys on HBO’s Prohibition drama, which returns Sunday at 9 p.m., are textbook gangsters dumbos with guns and fedoras, Jimmy was different. He was a smart introverted World War I veteran who was arrogant yet vulnerable. Deeply scarred by his incestuous mother, he was a cauldron of Freudian torment inside his cool demeanor. Actor Michael Pitt, who never got the Emmy acknowledgement he deserved gave Jimmy an early Marlon Brando vibe that could be riveting.
With Jimmy’s juicy story line gone, I’ve been anxious about whether Winter and his writers could keep the momentum going. Jimmy seemed to represent the future of the story — the young man who was ignoring the rules made by Nucky and the other elders; it was the son pushing away the father in his growing hunger for more power.
He was the show’s long game.
Can “Boardwalk Empire” thrive and maintain tension without the next generation hovering nearby? It’s like thinking of “The Sopranos” without Christopher after season 2.
Based on the first five new episodes, I’d say “Boardwalk Empire” does recover, mostly if not completely, but only after a period of creeping aimlessness.
Initially, the absence of Jimmy unmoors on the show, which picks up on Sunday, there’s still plenty of the predictable booze running, gangster turf battles, and decadent partying, with some added spark from Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who continues to ease her conscience by filtering Nucky’s money into charitable works.
But the action — much of it, as always, violent — feels disparate at certain moments; such as when we follow former IRS agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) into his humiliating new life as a door-to-door salesman, the show unintentionally bears some of the randomness of “Treme.”
You don’t feel an arc building behind the episodes, only gnawing questions about where, if anywhere, are all the plots heading.
But if you hang in there, you will be rewarded by some eventual dovetailing of story lines. And anyway, hanging in there is very easy on a show with such dazzling production values that turn the 1920s into a darkly lit dream.
Steve Buscemi continues to be an unexpectedly compelling lead as Nucky, a guy you want to root for against all reason and evidence.
This season, Nucky’s guilt about killing Jimmy seems to have deposited even more ice in his already cold veins. You keep expecting him to soften, especially since he’s having trouble sleeping, but he remains a pale, unfeeling, vampiric creep who doesn’t know how to engender loyalty.
Stephen Graham is captivating as Al Capone, whose temper is as frightening as his affection for his deaf son is touching. The more we see of him this season, the more we want to see of him.
Jack Huston is haunting as the half-faced Richard Harrow, who, along with Michael Kenneth Williams’s Chalky White, deserves more screen time than he gets. I wish that Winter would explore each of these curious men more, rather than dropping their threads for entire episodes at a time. Harrow, in particular, has the potential to yield more emotional complexity than usual now that his brother in arms, Jimmy, and his crush on Jimmy’s wife, Angela, are both gone.
Winter has brought in Bobby Cannavale this season, as Gyp Rosetti, a New York gangster from Sicily who is extremely prickly.
Cannavale, with his dark eyes and thick brow, is perfect as a menacing Joe Pesci type who explodes in anger if someone looks at him wrong. He and Nucky do not click — he calls Nucky a “breadstick in a bow tie” — and I’m expecting that grudge will lead to fireworks later on.
Yes, Cannavale brings focus to the sometimes blurry turf-war drama on the show, but he doesn’t fill the dramatic gap left by Jimmy. He seems destined to move elsewhere before too long, probably six feet under. A more permanent fix is in order, a more stubborn thorn in the rose that’s so often pinned like a medal onto Nucky’s chest.
“Boardwalk Empire” is one of those shows that was never meant for a happy ending (unless your idea of perfect happiness involves a lot of shooting). Even if Buscemi weren’t television’s least likely leading man, he’d still be playing a character whose trajectory arcs toward tragedy.
I miss the Nucky who seemed to delight in his own hypocrisy, paying lip service to temperance but plotting to make Atlantic City the liquor capital of the Eastern seaboard.
In the four episodes I’ve seen so far, that Nucky seems as dead as Jimmy. In his place: a dour and increasingly ruthless figure whose longing for some kind of domestic happiness has a new, less interesting focus than Margaret.
Margaret herself has found some new interests as she parlays the respectability conveyed by her marriage to Nucky in new directions. She’s as ruthless in her own way as her husband, but she, at least, still believes she’s doing some good.
Though I sense the show is treading water a bit as Prohibition drags on and the operations of the black market become increasingly contentious, there’s still plenty to see on the “Boardwalk,” thanks to the show’s secondary characters.
We’ve lost Jimmy, but we still have his mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who’s moved into a new line of work while keeping a close eye on her grandson.
Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is still in and out of the picture, and there’s a story line involving his young son, who’s deaf.
You will not want to miss “Boardwalk Empirre” this Sunday on HBO, and I’