Boardwalk Empire season 3 episode 1 review: Resolution

HBO's prohibition drama, Boardwalk Empire, is back for its third season with a somewhat uneven series opener. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 Resolution

The finale of Boardwalk Empire’s second season saw Nucky Thompson take his most decisive step yet along the path of becoming fully a gangster. The death of Jimmy Darmody, although something of a narrative necessity, marked a turning point for Nucky and not merely because it came at his hand. It stood to cause a rift in Nucky’s own life, leaving the politician behind and embracing the gangster of his future. If there is an overall arc to the show it could, and perhaps should, be this, the total corruption of one man by the changing circumstances in which he lives. Don’t get me wrong, Nucky was no angel prior to Prohibition, but this huge change in his immediate economic landscape could not fail to alter him for the worse. Through two seasons we have seen how deadly the twenties were. It takes a tough man to survive, an even tougher one to thrive, and, as Gillian mentions to her girls at the Artemis Club, gentlemen remain gentlemen only when they must.

As the third season opens, Nucky is still gamely trying to straddle these two worlds. It is rather cleverly done. His first scene is straight out of the Bumper Book of Gangster Clichés -the elegantly dressed boss man giving some poor beaten sap some friendly chatter. We think we’ve seen it all before, but listen to his language. One minute he’s peppering his talk with ‘aforementioneds’ and genteel euphemisms, then, irritated by Mickey Doyle, he sheds his character and returns to coarse gangster type. The poor sap is led to believe that polite Nucky is letting him go before nasty Nucky orders a bullet left in his brain. Of the many threads promised by the new season, this one – Nucky’s final sloughing of his public persona is the strongest.

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It’s not Nucky’s sole pretence, nor the only one triggered by events from the end of last season. His relationship with Margaret, never totally smooth, has been soured, probably terminally, by her trickery in passing his land deeds to the church. Her destiny is less clear, she is obviously yearning for some kind of mission in life. Her machinations with Nucky have given her the means and opportunity to do so. They are both now generous patrons of a hospital, at which Margaret witnesses a woman’s distressing miscarriage. ‘Preventable’, she is told. Something clicks inside her, the flowering of an opportunity to convert her gains to good. She’s still uncertain of quite how to do anything, in marked contrast to her husband. Kelly MacDonald is wonderful at portraying her delicate indecision, and it is a mark of her talent that her best scene is performed entirely wordlessly.

That scene is refreshing because of its less-is-more approach. So much else is clumsily heavy-handed. That this season will concern the position of women is obvious given the episode’s stress on the suffering and neglect of women in the hospital and the recurrent motif of Claire Duncan the aviatrix. This felt a little too much by-the-numbers, especially Teddy’s brattish dismissal of the term ‘aviatrix’, but the final scene of the biplane over the beach was beautiful enough to win it back. I just hope that the symbolism is dialled down for the rest of the season.

Even more heavy is the addition of Sicilian bad guy Gyp Rossetti, played by Bobby Canavale. The episode makes it clear that he will be Nucky’s chief difficulty for 1923. This is dramatically appropriate, but still I hope that something more is done with him. He’s a man with a temper and a very thin skin. His very first act is to savagely beat a man with a crowbar after some mild misunderstood slight.  The ‘gangster with a hair-trigger temper’ is a very tired cliché and makes for some lazy writing -it’s all too easy to force a sense of menace once you’ve established that this guy will cut someone up for spilling his drink. It’s much more satisfying to see it generated by the setting of circumstances and the clash of personalities.

To see it done properly, you only have to watch Capone. He’s dangerously sentimental and violent, as we know, but his fit of temper is at least blended into the storyline about Johnny Torrio’s control of turf. Going after Irish upstart O’Bannion is stupid but it is never presented as anything other than that. When it comes, it also makes for one of the episode’s best scenes, not least of all because of the unwitting intervention of Van Alden. I have never been so pleased to see him turn up, and not because I had any love for O’Bannion. The erstwhile agent is eking out a bad living as a door-to-door salesman, at which he sucks, big time. Never mind irons, he should be selling pathos. He has it in spades.

Overall, a steady if slightly unimpressive start to the season. When Boardwalk Empire has confidence in itself it is superb, but all too often it falls back on tired tropes and obvious didactic storytelling. The production design and performances remain excellent – so much of the narrative can be told without forcing it on the viewer. Half of this episode did this, half did not. We’re in the third season now; the show should be hitting its stride. After all, you can’t be half a gangster.

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