Late in the second season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, one of the principal characters, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), sinks into her leather-bound chair, tuning out the incessant droning of the tirelessly pragmatic “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) as he lays out their next course of action in excruciatingly dull legalese. The scene transpires in the season’s penultimate episode, “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” an hour of television that transforms the sophomore season’s chief liabilities—the diffusion and doldrums that follow white-hot dramatic peaks—into assets, as the miasmatic oblivion of crime and double-dealing in the Roaring ‘20s has driven every soul, crook or copper, clear off their respective paths. If it’s protocol for serial television to set up a group of pins to be knocked down for cathartic effect, “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” is a nigh-abstract study in fallen pins that won’t ever be set right. Directed by one of the sharpest regular directors from The Sopranos, Allen Coulter, the episode’s images are coated in pitch and drenched in whiskey sweat, in a rolling boil of hallucinatory anti-drama. Only as it closes do violent urges make themselves manifest in incidents that limit our players’ options, often to zero.
The season that leads up to Coulter’s knockout punch (the finale has its share of shockers, but they’re of the entropic, winding-down variety, as opposed to Camus-esque ruptures emerging from the quagmire) is pretty anti-dramatic, and not always in a good way. A fat lot of anemic dilly-dallying between sensational exhibitions, it’s worth remembering that Boardwalk Empire is the brainchild of another Sopranos principal, Terence Winters. An uncredited “creator” of that elder, similarly acclaimed HBO crime drama, Winters had his mitts all over David Chase’s New Jersey saga, but it seems safe to assume he took the initiative of shepherding it into digressive byways. As it would repeat itself in Boardwalk Empire, the Terence Winters modus operandi concerns itself with character detail and paint-brushed atmosphere at the expense of all else. However, while patterned after HBO flagships such as The Wire and Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire hits all the notes, but fails to play the music: Character development and atmosphere are delivered in an embalmed, diagrammatic death march, where even non-sequitur moments are drained of their juices through the creators’ rigorous clarification and distillation process.
Not that everyone’s hard work is for naught. As it must already have been a certainty since the first, twinkling bits of news of the show’s imminent debut came streaming over the cultural horizon, one of the chief pleasures of Boardwalk Empire is its stunning verisimilitude. You watch the show for the costumes, sets, brilliantly integrated CGI backgrounds, and so on. This is no backhanded compliment either: The show renders Prohibition-era Atlantic City (along with other crucial locations) with back-breaking care and thoroughness, resulting in a Game of Thrones-grade level of immersion on the viewer’s part.
The program’s greater pleasures are found, more often than not, in performances and moments. Of the former, plenty of ink has been spilled (deservedly) on the quartet of leads. There never seems to be an end to the pleasantness of the surprise that Buscemi can carry a top-billed role and that he isn’t playing a putz or a small-time loser (i.e. the type of thing he’s built a career on). Macdonald succeeds in a trickier role, since her Margaret is essentially a piecemeal creation, an embodiment of whatever female archetype the plot requires at any given juncture. If the show can be said to allow for a destabilizing force, the high-density, alien force of Michael Shannon surely provides a refreshing variation on the boring copper this kind of environment seems to require.
The template left by The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, more than most shows, depends on planting character choices and drawing the audience from that point to a violent conclusion. The inception may concern betrayal or ill treatment, or it may only be happenstance and mystery; accordingly, the resolution may take the form of comeuppance, catharsis, or garden-variety bad luck. One essential, if infrequent, pleasure of the second season, as compared to the first—and this may be the result of its overriding sense of post-climax entropy—is that Winters and company render a few choice moments when the cause-effect gas pedal isn’t depressed all the way to the floor, and the viewer is let alone to enjoy the simple drawing of snares, turning of wheels, and closing in of walls.
Not a thing to say, except that, predictably, HBO's Blu-ray set for Boardwalk Empire's second season is tip-top. Visuals and audio are rich and brilliantly managed. No surprise, since presentation is basically HBO's wheelhouse.
There's an appearance of a full deck, if not so much the thing itself. The set is top-heavy with talking-head featurettes that are too bland with everybody-congratulates-everybody, too vague in their treatment of process, and not focused enough on individual subjects. Commentaries, one track for every two episodes, are the usual mixed bag, and there are a few breadcrumbs, including a "Character Dossier" and a 15-minute recap of the preceding season. By and large, not the most satisfying fan/aficionado experience, unless you only ask for the show's vague air of presumptuousness to be confirmed by relentless back-patting.
Style is substance, at least as far as HBO's acclaimed period drama, and its hefty, five-disc Blu-ray (plus two DVDs) set, is concerned.