Warning: this article will feature spoilers up to the first episode of Boardwalk Empire’s third season. Do not read any further if you haven’t caught up to the end of Season 2.
As the third season of Boardwalk Empire opens, Atlantic City boss and bootlegger Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is holding one of his famous New Year’s Eve bashes. This being December 1922, the entire western world is wrapped up in Archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and Nucky’s parties are nothing if not at the cutting edge of fashion. Nucky’s mansion is decked out with golden sphinxes and mounds of fake treasures; the great and good (and the not-so-good) of New Jersey are in attendance, decked out in clothes and jewels inspired by all thing ancient Egyptian. A man dressed as Carter distributes expensive gifts to the guests: the booze trade, after all, has been very good to Nucky Thompson. But as with Pharaohs of old, Nucky’s about to discover that his whisky empire is as vulnerable as a pyramid built on the shifting sands of the Jersey Shore.
At the party, Nucky makes a big announcement to his ‘business associates’ that he will now only be making a single delivery to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and everyone else will have to deal with Rothstein. This would seem like a sensible move for everyone but unfortunately for Nucky, not everyone at the table is a sensible man. We’re introduced to Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), hot-headed Sicilian gangster from New York. Actually, to call him ‘hot-headed’ would be somewhat of an understatement: just a few scenes earlier, his ability to take insult from the most innocuous of comments led him to kill a man who stopped on the road to help him with a flat tire. Naturally, he takes Nucky’s reluctance to sell to him directly as an egregious slight, setting off a chain of events that will lead to Gyp become the season’s big villain.
Boardwalk’s creators, led by former Sopranos writer Terence Winter, had a big task ahead of them coming into the third season. After the exciting events of the Season 2 finale, fans were wondering many things: what year would Season 3 take place in? How were they going to fill the void left by the death of a major character? How were they going to accommodate the ever-expanding cast of characters while staying true to history?
The number of regular locations has expanded and we see many series regulars in new circumstances. Nucky’s ex-mentor The Commodore has passed, leaving his home to be turned into a pretentious cathouse run by Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol). She has apparently taken disfigured war veteran -and fan favourite- Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) on as a nanny to her orphaned grandson. Chalky White (Michael K Williams) remains on the radar, though distinctly off in the periphery. Having killed his own partner, super-intense former prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden has fled to Chicago and is living under an assumed name with his delightful Norwegian wife. Al Capone is also back in Chicago and itching for a turf way – what do you reckon the chances are that the two of them will cross paths?
The Van Alden, Chalky White and Richard Harrow stories are all kind of extraneous to the main story; one could argue that the writers have kept these characters on without knowing how to incorporate them into the rest of the show. But thankfully they did, as their scenes are some of the best of the season, providing some much needed relief from the backstabbing and chicanery taking place in Jersey.Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) also features in a plotline that’s somewhat divorced from the bootlegging part of the narrative. Her plan to build a women’s clinic is met with resistance by the hospital’s deeply catholic administrators. As we are to learn, even rich women get the short end of the stick in a world full with powerful men. This is a story arc we wouldn’t see in any other crime show and it brings a lot of nuance and shade to Boardwalk’s awfully patriarchal world.
As always, we see our fair share of historical figures wade on screen this season. From members of the notoriously corrupt Harding presidential administration to nefarious gangsters like Joe Masseria and Dean O’Banion, the writers have managed to seamlessly weave actual gangster mythology into their own wider story arcs. For maximum enjoyment, you should really avoid looking up the characters on Wikipedia – that is, unless you want to be supplied with all sorts of spoilers.
If there’s one thing that distinguishes season three from the previous two, it’s this greater sense of momentum that they’re able to build up over the twelve episodes. There’s no longer this anxiety that we’re waiting for something awesome to happen; that history is hamstringing the show’s potential. While the quality of the episodes has always been at an incredibly high level, there’s now an added sense of urgency that has positioned Boardwalk as a rival to Breaking Bad in the ‘ohmygod what just happened?!’ stakes. And now that the writers and actors have had two years to fully understand the characters, minor players like Nucky’s lieutenant Mickey Doyle have started taking on new dimensions – he might seem like a complete buffoon to the outside world but he’s a crafty guy with a great survival instinct.
In a time when American cable channels like HBO and AMC are producing some of the finest television shows ever made, Boardwalk Empire has carved itself a niche as an exciting period drama with an unmatched level of detail. From the gorgeous sets and costumes to their choice selection of period music, everything about the show drips with style. Even Downton Abbey cannot hope to keep up with the standard of production that goes into creating the glamour and grime of 1920s Atlantic City. The show won’t be back on our screens until later this year, so savour this amazing season if you haven’t watched it yet: you’re going to want more when it ends and the wait is almost unbearable.
Boardwalk Empire Season 3 is now available at blinkbox