Judge Clark Douglas is only half a critic.
Our reviews of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published December 26th, 2011) and Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published August 22nd, 2012) are also available.
You can't be half a gangster.
"Let's talk about who dies."
Facts of the Case
Warning: this review contains spoilers for the second season of Boardwalk Empire. If you haven't seen that season, proceed with caution.
The year is 1923, and organized crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, Fargo) has grown stronger than ever. His network is well-organized, he has powerful figures like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man) in the palm of his hand and his wealth has grown exponentially. However, all is not well in Mr. Thompson's personal life. His relationship with his wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald, No Country for Old Men) is under a great deal of strain, and he seems to have grown harder and colder in the wake of his decision to kill his young former protégé Jimmy Darmody.
Elsewhere, former federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) has found himself reduced to hiding out in the middle of nowhere and taking a thankless job as a door-to-door salesman. However, it doesn't take long before he discovers that his particular talents may prove useful (and profitable) on the wrong side of the law. The ambitious Al Capone (Stephen Graham, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) flirts with the notion of starting a gang war with an irritating rival. Jimmy's grieving mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page) begins attempting to become a mother to her orphaned grandchild. Skilled gunman Richard Harrow (Jack Huston, Not Fade Away) continues to ponder his place in the world. A violent, angry mobster named Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale, Win Win) finds himself at odds with Nucky in the wake of a failed business deal. Who will survive the latest round of power struggles?
The first shot of Boardwalk Empire's third season features well-dressed man looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. It's remarkably close to a similar shot from the show's opening credits, which features Nucky Thompson striking the same pose in the same place. When the man turns around and faces the camera, we see the face of gangster Gyp Rosetti, played by series newcomer Bobby Cannavale. It's a grand and appropriate entrance for the season's most engaging new character: here is a man who will make it his mission to eliminate and replace Nucky. In many ways, Gyp is the driving force of the show's third season, a hot-headed wildcard who barrels his way through Atlantic City's established power structure with reckless abandon. Fueled by business savvy, a deep-rooted desire for control and an alarming willingness to be outraged by even the smallest and most unintentional of slights, Gyp quickly establishes himself one of the show's most volatile and fascinating characters. Following his lead, the show itself turns in its most violent, unpredictable and engaging season to date.
Though I certainly admired both of the show's previous seasons, I had more or less grown used to the idea that Boardwalk Empire was generally going to remain an unhurried, meditative sort of gangster drama. However, the show's third season rockets forward in startling fashion, not only adopting a faster pace but also offing multiple characters in nearly every episode. Nucky Thompson is no longer half a gangster, and his program is no longer half a gangster drama. The pleasures of the show's first two seasons were quieter; there was much to savor about the program's detailed portrait of life in a particular time and place (even if there were some bloody slayings now and then). This season—and I can hardly believe I'm saying this—the show has veered closer to something like Breaking Bad, offering nailbiting tension and considerable entertainment while still managing to retain its depth and strength of characterization.
In many ways, this tremendously exciting season is also an exceptionally chilly one. Most of our characters are harder, colder figures than they were before. At the beginning of the show, Nucky was merely a corrupt politician who preferred not to get his hands dirty with the messy business carried out by his underlings. As this season begins, we witness the man presiding over a particularly ruthless execution. Nucky's marriage is in shambles, but Margaret has grown almost alarmingly good at playing the games she needs to play in order to preserve the illusion that the Thompsons are a happy couple. Van Alden seems to making a fresh start, but it doesn't take long before we discover that the world's most socially awkward former federal agent is even more mentally troubled than ever. Gillian's method of coping with her grief leads her to some very dark places. In the show's post-Jimmy Darmody era, Atlantic City is a particularly hellish place, and the characters who populate it are taking whatever measures they deem necessary to ensure that they can survive it.
The constant bloodshed and tension offered by this season makes the quieter moments all the more powerful. At the center of many of these quiet moments is Richard Harrow, who finds a romantic interest in a subplot that leads to several of the season's loveliest scenes. Harrow was only intended to be a small supporting figure in the show's first season, but Jack Huston made such a strong impression in the role that he was upgraded to a series regular. In some ways, he seems to have become the soul of Boardwalk Empire. He's also at the center of one of the season's most dynamic scenes: a dazzling set piece in the season finale that is simply remarkable on every level.
Another quiet highlight is the season's seventh episode, titled "Sunday Best." Directed by Allan Coulter and written by playwright Howard Korder (both regular contributors to the series), the episode essentially hits the "pause" button and observes as many of the show's characters engage in Easter Sunday activities with family and friends. Many simple rituals are observed: a prayer, a meal, helping the kids look for Easter eggs. It's certainly the most understated episode of the season (even if it does include a brutal beating and a particularly unnerving murder), but one that goes a long way toward allowing us to understand where these characters are personally at this particular moment in time.
The performances are terrific across the board. Buscemi seems to get better and better as Nucky, finding subtle ways to clue us in on the motivations of the show's enigmatic central figure. Michael K. Williams (The Wire) sits out many of the season's early episodes, but plays a central role in the events of the season's final stretch. The character was given greater prominence in the second season, but the closing episodes of this season seem to suggest that he'll be a major figure again next time around. Michael Shannon is as terrific as ever and never seems to run out of new ways to make Van Alden seem both frightening and ridiculous, but also seems to play a smaller role this season (perhaps due to the many big-screen appearances he's been making lately). Gretchen Mol has her best season to date, as the show hands her a number of developments that permit her to dig into some strange, fascinating new territory.
Still, it's the newcomers who make the biggest splash, particularly the aforementioned Cannavale. The actor has long been a reliable asset to any project he's been a part of, but this may well be the best role of his career to date. His Gyp is crass, simple and almost preposterously touchy, but his complete disregard for the more gentlemanly manner in which men like Nucky and Arnold Rothstein operate often seems to give him a disadvantage. He does things others in his position wouldn't do simply because things aren't supposed to be done that way. He somehow manages to turn his hair-trigger temper into an asset, and in the blink of an eye he has a rapidly-growing empire at his fingertips. At his core, however, he is a man of deep self-loathing, a factor that manifests itself in some rather troubling scenes of sexual domination. Also making a big splash this season is the ever-dependable Stephen Root (Office Space), all grins and chuckles as a politically-connected figure who prefers to do business as quietly as possible. He's an immensely memorable guy (and he participates in some of the season's most laugh-out-loud funny sequences), but he knows the value of staying out of the public eye. Finally, James Cromwell (Babe) makes the most of a small supporting part as a stern attorney general who seems nearly as rigid and humorless as Van Alden. Fascinating how easily Cromwell can alternate between seeming like the warmest and the iciest actor in the world.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) looks more or less perfect in hi-def. HBO has been rock-solid in the technical department for years, and while Game of Thrones is still probably their best A/V showcase (for reasons more artistic than technical), this show is a valiant runner-up. Detail is astonishing throughout. Nighttime sequences benefit from exceptional depth and clarity, daytime sequences pop with color. Contrast is amazing, flesh tones look natural—it's great all around. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly terrific, rattling the room during the big action sequences and capturing subtle nuances of all sorts during the quieter moments. As ever, the ironically chipper period tunes tossed all over the soundtrack go a long way towards enhancing the show's atmosphere.
The supplemental package is fairly comprehensive, which is the norm for this show at this point. The "Boardwalk Chronicles" feature is a pop-up track that accompanies each episode, offering all sorts of historical tidbits, character bios and even some picture-in-picture video pieces (available for separate viewing on Disc 5). You also get six commentaries featuring showrunner Terence Winter, directors Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter, writer Howard Korder and actors Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Stephen DeRosa, Michael Stuhlbarg, Shea Wigham, Gretchen Mol, Charlie Cox, Meg Chambers Steadle and Chris Caldovino. The fifth disc contains a few featurettes that are worth checking out: "Distilling Season Two" (15 minutes) offers a detailed look back at the events of the previous season, "Director's Chair" (30 minutes) spotlights the work of Van Patten and Coulter and "Scorsese on Season Three" (5 minutes) offers some brief thoughts from the legendary director (and Boardwalk Empire executive producer) on the season's themes and actors. You also get the "American Empires" interactive feature, a DVD copy and a digital copy (quite a rare treat for a TV release).
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Third Season delivers the show's finest twelve episodes yet. The series has always been excellent television, but now it's also thoroughly addictive. Bravo to Winter and his immensely talented cast and crew for really pushing themselves this time around. Highly recommended.
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