Far be it for the reviewer to second-guess the showrunner, but as that horse left the stable some time after the term “showrunner” entered common parlance, and we writers began shelling the Internet with day-and-date recaps of every TV program under the sun, there’s no point in being modest. Falling not far from the Sopranos tree, Boardwalk Empire, proud product of that show’s primary beneficiary, Terence Winter, is the beer-drunk, asshole frat boy of HBO’s stable of serial dramas, and its luck has finally run out.
To nick a phrase from Casino’s Nicky Santoro, it shoulda been so sweet. Mounted with all the production values premium cable can buy, its pilot episode helmed by Martin Scorsese, Winter’s sweaty, entitled brainchild ran amok, spending about eight seasons’ worth of melodramatic busywork in fewer than 24 episodes. Creatively bankrupt and shitting credibility, Winters and company—one imagines a classic scene of Black Tuesday panic, desks awash in damning stock tickers, several whiskey bottles three-quarters empty—greenlit a desperate, second-season capper, i.e. the killing of one primary character at the hands of another.
Most shows would recover from this cataclysm, clumsily self-administered as it was in this case. After all, what was Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody to the show but a bloodied sponge for the prohibition era’s worst sins, as well as the poster boy for its grandiose tragic peaks, to be given his walking papers after he finally fucked his mother and killed his father? The cosmic joke—the depressive, acerbic Jimmy would have a dry chuckle, certainly—is that, apart from a few conversations and a misfired set piece involving Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) having visions of a headshot altar boy, you’d hardly know he’d ever even been a part of the program to begin with, let alone one of its key players.
Still, if the decision to relieve Boardwalk Empire of Jimmy Darmody was intended to have cured some kind of narrative cancer, the procedure seems to have had a lethal effect on the patient. The third season, with few bright spots, is hampered by too-frequent bouts of half-assed, melodramatic baloney and a crippling pall of aimlessness. The second season suffered the same, but, somehow, its bloated middle section became, at times, paradoxically compelling in its zombified shuffle.
In story terms, Darmody was a kind of crap hydra: Cut him out, and no one rises to replace him. The result is a crippling blow to the project’s centrifugal force. Without the morally poisoned boy-hero, no other subplot is anointed worthy to serve as foil to Nucky’s morally poisoned Atlantic City puppetmaster. Candidates to the position of Nucky’s narrative running mate abound: How about the tempestuous Charles Luciano, or Nucky’s sad-sack, dignity-reclaiming brother Eli? What of the era’s racial disharmonies, told prismatically through the crooked family man Chalky White?
And what about the volcanic Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon, mesmerizing as usual), hitherto Boardwalk Empire’s neurotic driving force, an unfathomable well of violence nearly contained by a ramrod form of legal and bibilical rectitude? Many of the third season’s high points belong to Shannon, whose disgraced fed now toils as a thankless home-appliance salesman, but his subplot peters out by the final episodes, his path crossing unconvincingly with Al Capone’s (Stephen Graham)—the latter, too, a glorified bit player in a season where nothing seems important enough to grant even second billing.
Nothing, that is, except for the loudest, loutest newcomer on the Boardwalk Empire dance card, the simian gangster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale). Like Nucky, Rosetti is another fictional creation, undoubtedly a composite of real thugs, psychotics, and shot-callers, but his role in the third season unwisely calls to mind Boardwalk Empire’s undisputed better, David Milch’s Deadwood, especially as it concerned the game-changing arrival of Gerald McRaney’s seemingly indestructible backwoodsman-capitalist George Hearst, who loomed so large over that show’s heroes and villains alike that good and evil were forced to strike a truce to defeat him. Rosetti clearly seems conceptually intended to cast a shadow over the bootlegger saga, commensurate to Hearst’s thorough shellacking of the bygone Dakota mining town. Problem is, unlike the vivid, terrifying Hearst, Rosetti scarcely has dimension beyond serving up a series of Sopranos-esque, utterly tiresome acts of violence against the occasional bystander, low-level employee, or priest—all almost invariably innocent of wrongdoing against him. Far from galvanizing the third season with his apparent indestructibility (is there anything more tiresome in character construction, at this point?), the meathead Rosetti is almost exclusively responsible for bringing it down.
The finale, “Margate Sands,” an episode that took an inexplicable Emmy nomination for its direction, is a microcosm for what went wrong with the third season. Low on closure, low on cliffhanger tension, so many plot threads sputter and stall, such as Van Alden’s, Capone’s, Eli Thompson’s, and so on. Playing its remaining ace, “Margate Sands” gives the disfigured Richard Harrow a grand shooting spree that’s been three seasons in the offing. Sadly, as an action set piece it’s a limply handled disappointment, and looks to have been edited aboard a rickety railway car, with unsure hands trying to manage rapid changes in framing and camera distance in a show that’s not known for rapid changes in anything. The nadir is Gillian Darmody’s attempt to assassinate Rosetti using heroin (never mind that her rationale for doing so is muddled), a scene so arrhythmic and badly blocked it defies comprehension.
Defeated and disheveled, Rosetti tells the half dozen or so of his guys who haven’t been killed by Harrow, Nucky’s button-men, or Rosetti himself, that he’ll just start over again with nothing. His right-hand man, incredibly at Thompson’s behest, takes him out with a literal and figurative knife to the back, and with a theatrical flourish, a silly song, and a cartoon voice that suggests Rosetti’s been broken mentally, like Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, or Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner, we’re finally, finally done with this eight-foot moron. (No disrespect to Cannavale, who gives the role everything he’s got.) What ought to be a cocktail of tones like blackly comic, unnerving, and even a little poignant, Rosetti’s kiss-off instead is baldly idiotic, merely another in a long thread of a season’s worth of scenes crippled by apathy and uncertainty.
Not a thing to say, except that, predictably, HBO’s Blu-ray set for Boardwalk Empire’s second third is tip-top. Visuals and audio are rich and brilliantly managed. No surprise, since presentation is basically HBO’s wheelhouse.
The supplements package may depend on how much you enjoyed watching the third season episodes, and how invested you continue to be in Boardwalk Empire’s verisimilitude-happy production. As such, HBO assembled a decent meta/interactive way to redouble your experience of the series: directors Timothy Van Patten and Allen Coulter chat about their decision-making in a sample of scenes; another feature fleshes out the backstory for a handful of characters; another gives the viewer a flash-cards tour of some of the historical business that inspired some of the third season’s main business. Scorsese fans may be excited about the Taxi Driver auteur and series executive producer’s featurette, in which he introduces the season in his own mode, but he adds little in his four-minute thumbnail sketch, aside from a quick synopsis, and some effusive praise for his collaborators and cast.
If only we lived in a world where production values counted for everything, Boardwalk Empire would be some kind of masterpiece. Sadly, its third season suggests a show that’s no longer interested in much else. HBO’s brick of a Blu-ray/DVD set is equally above reproach—grading on a tech curve, of course.