No longer just a fusty, scattered period piece dependent on sex and violence to spice up its extravagantly faithful proceedings, Boardwalk Empire is, in its third season, growing steadily stronger, shedding more of the flaws that hampered its freshman season. A lot of these faults carried over into the superior second season, and some (shocking violence as a shortcut substitute for genuinely conceived action, overripe symbolism, schematic treatment of characters as narrative chess pieces) are unfortunately still evident here. But the series is now more streamlined, more in control of its plot priorities, and more confident about the story it’s trying to tell.
The freshness of that story, however, remains up for dispute. As a recreation of a specific place in time, Boardwalk Empire is unmatched, evoking 1920s America through a macro/micro accumulation of musical cues, historical personages, and revealingly choice details (one character seems to live entirely off of milk, another sups on spaghetti and coffee). At the same time, the series continues to rely heavily on themes and motifs borrowed from The Sopranos, establishing itself as a de facto prequel to that drama, an impression furthered by its writers’-room pedigree, New Jersey setting, and fixation on the murky underside of everyday life.
Season three, which opens on the last day of 1922, borrows yet another Sopranos conceit, both by placing the locus of conflict in New York (“Where things actually matter,” shouts an irate Arnold Rothstein, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and materializing a savage, prickly antagonist out of nowhere. The latter comes in the form of Gyp Rossetti (Bobby Cannavale), a Sicilian bootlegger who quickly lodges himself in the craw of reigning Atlantic City boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, endlessly perturbed as usual). Buoyed by a tremendous performance by Cannavale, this new adversary serves as an apt indicator of the current state of the series, an ostensible stock character who’s finessed into a nasty, neurotic foe, capable of finding “an insult in a bouquet of roses.”
Like so many of the obstacles that have dotted Nucky’s path, the sour Rossetti, who swerves between edgy good humor and wounded defensiveness, is a further reminder that business will never run smoothly. This is particularly irritating for the erstwhile city treasurer, who’s trying to get as hands-off as possible with his bootlegging operation, especially after a key political ally implies that he’s becoming a dangerous liability. Despite Nuck’s desire to retire to a life of “philanthropy,” it’s clear he’s rapidly slipping from a genteel world of backroom deals to one governed by violence and chaos, a descent hastened by his murder of former protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) late last season.
Following Boardwalk Empire’s usual method of diagrammatically charting characters’ rises and falls, the third season opens with nearly everyone in flux. Nucky’s new wife, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), finds herself coming up in the world, using a combination of guile and donations to spearhead a prenatal education program at an unreceptive Catholic hospital. But things are charting downward on the home front, with the couple wavering over an icy truce after Margaret’s impulsive land donation robbed Nucky of millions. In Chicago, ascendant gangster Al Capone (Stephen Graham) enjoys his status as Johnny Torrio’s right-hand man, while struggling with his temper and nagging threats from crosstown Irish rivals. On the other side of the equation is disgraced Treasury agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), now in hiding as a door-to-door salesman in Cicero, Illinois, a town that history tells us will soon become Capone’s home base.
The delicate scene-setting of the early episodes demonstrates that, despite widespread audience fears that Darmody’s murder would be a crippling blow, the removal of the character was a wise choice, fomenting a transition from a bifurcated narrative to one networked around a single figure, all character offshoots tracing back to this central point. These include the miffed Rossetti, who tries to ruin Nucky by setting up shop in nearby Tabor Heights, 60 miles closer to New York, blocking all incoming shipments. There’s also the blossoming heroin business of Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), who again find themselves at odds with Lower East Side boss Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), and the noble struggle of Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), trying to keep Jimmy’s orphan son from falling entirely into the clutches of Oedipally-inclined grandmother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). The show has a lot of balls to juggle, and while most of these are handled deftly, it still has a habit of repeating itself, wasting effort on redundant subplots, like the disproportionate amount of time devoted to Nucky’s relationship with a new showgirl girlfriend.
This is unfortunate, because while it often treads too doggedly in the footsteps of The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is capable of a lot more than gangster retread, even if it is aping the best example of the form. In terms of influences, the series is much better when it’s functioning as a sequel to Deadwood, transmuting that show’s fetid examination of open savagery morphing into decorously masked cruelty, positing vicious gangster avarice as the inevitable outcome of the self-serving corruption of political machine cronyism. Flush with vivid characters, immaculate set design, and increasingly fluid storytelling, Boardwalk Empire keeps getting better, but still feels a few distinct steps short of greatness.