BOARDWALK EMPIRE: A Cast of Thousands

So we are well into Season Two of Boardwalk Empire. I’ve been enjoying it but have not yet had a chance to chime in here. Let’s start with the positives. The season begins with a bang (literally) as Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White engages in a brutal gunfight with members of the KKK’s Atlantic City chapter. While on the surface this is retaliation for Chalky’s carpentry lesson from the first season, it is also just one part of Jimmy Darmody’s (breakout star of the show Michael Pitt) plan to dethrone one time mentor and father figure Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi in a role unlike anything he’s done before) as the King of the Boardwalk. Now allied with his lecherous father (Dabney Coleman’s previously underutilized Commodore) and Nucky’s own jealous brother (Shea Whigham’s bitter Eli), Jimmy is attacking Nucky on all fronts. Neutralizing the uneasy Nucky/Chalky partnership is just the appetizer to the main course: Nucky is facing charges of election fraud for his role in last season’s battle for the mayorship of AC. Our man Nucky is down but not out. A plot to fold his charge into a federal matter, for which Nucky can buy the desired verdict, seems foolproof. But Nucky’s reach in DC is not enough to best one-time friend, now definite enemy, Senator Edge. For a moment we think that Nucky has another card up his sleeve by blackmailing twisted Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon stealing every scene), but the Fed’s new daughter with Nucky’s former mistress Lucy Danziger (a now underutilized Paz de la Huerta) influences Van Alden to turn his case file on Nucky over to US Attorney Esther Randolph (hello, Julianne Nicholson!). Van Alden’s game is still in question (is it possible that he’s playing up to Randolph and her team on Nucky’s behalf?), but Nucky has bigger fish to fry after a foiled assassination attempt. Finally heeding the words of real-life gambler and underworld figure Arnold Rothstein (a cool, controlled Michael Stuhlbarg), Nucky tells Jimmy that he’s throwing in the towel, giving up the boardwalk to focus on his lover (Kelly Macdonald’s tortured Margaret Schroeder) and her young children. Of course, Nucky his just biding is time, preparing to seek IRA assistance with associate Owen Sleater (newcomer Charlie Cox). Undoubtedly, more bloodshed is on the menu.

How many other subplots are in action? Well, there’s Jimmy’s longtime girlfriend and recent wife, Angela (the sorrowful Aleksa Palladino) wanting but not wanting to know about her husband’s illegal activities in between dealing with his manipulative mother, Gillian (the treacherous Gretchen Mol) and, possibly, a growing attraction to Jimmy’s disfigured partner in crime, Richard Harrow (the brilliant Jack Huston). For her part, Gillian finds a way to finally exact a kind of revenge on her rapist, the suddenly incapacitated Commodore. And Richard is battling his desire for a normal domestic life with his loyalty to Jimmy and the impulse to simply end it all (although an almost spiritual encounter with two hobos and a hungry dog seems to have curtailed the latter for the moment). All of this, plus a gorgeous production value unmatched on television, adds up to a rewarding viewing experience. So, you might ask, where’s the but…

Boardwalk Empire’s expansive sets are equally matched by an ever-growing cast of characters. And that’s not always a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes an addition to the cast has unquestioned value to the show as a whole (Huston’s Harrow did not show up until late in Season One, and now it’s almost impossible to envision the show without him). But this season alone has seen the afore-mentioned Owen and Randolph, William Forsythe’s Philadelphia crime boss Manny Horvitz, and Dominic Chianese’s lawyer Leander Whitlock among many, many others. I have nothing against large canvases of characters; any self-respecting daytime drama fan will tell you that’s where half the fun and most of the magic lies. In the HBO universe alone, Boardwalk Empire’s most obvious parent, The Sopranos (Chianese’s old stomping ground), has its share of more mobsters than you can count. And The Wire (where Williams first came to the public’s attention) actually infiltrates every aspect of the Baltimore drug scene to paint a complete picture of that city and, by extension, the world. But there is a difference.

Let’s go back to The Sopranos for a moment. Take a character like Vito Spatafore. Whatever you thought about his eventual arc, and actor Joseph R. Gannascoli’s ability to play it convincingly, Vito is gradually integrated into the landscape. By the time he is involved with Johnny Cakes, the audience was invested. Returning to The Wire, I cite Bunny Colvin. His act of questioning how much good he’s doing as a cop in the second season leads to Season Three’s “Hamsterdam” experiment then a stint working with at-risk youths, and finally to a role as young Namond’s adopted father. In both instances, the shows took the time to let its audiences get to know these people before the drama hit. Now there are exceptions. As Ralphie and Tony B., Joe Pantoliano and Buscemi, respectively, appeared and dominated their Sopranos’ seasons. Seasons Two and Four of The Wire basically reset the stages with new casts of lead characters. But it those instances, there was no question where our focus belonged. I can’t always say that about Boardwalk Empire.

A few episodes back, Empire’s Owen encounters an old enemy from Ireland and promptly murders the man. And I was most relieved. For a moment, my thoughts were “oh God, now I have to get to know this guy, too.” It’s not that I have a problem with new faces appearing on the landscape, but every entrance on Boardwalk Empire is scripted and directed in such a way that you wonder if this man or woman is going to take center stage. And it comes at the expense of established characters. Last week, I could have done without Angela mixing it up on the beach with a liberated female novelist. Where are her scenes with Richard? The Commodore’s stroke gives Gillian an explosive moment of vengeance as she brutally strikes the now helpless man, but I’d rather see the Commodore as opposed to Leander advising Jimmy as he makes his move to take over Atlantic City. This is a show in need of some major balance.

Boardwalk Empire is still on my must-see list (and it’s currently filling the Sunday night void until my beloved Mad Men returns). I almost hesitate to judge this show, or for that matter any TV show, before its current season or the series as a whole is revealed. But this is a viewing experience of highs and lows, and while I welcome the debates after each episode airs, I’d rather discuss what will come next as opposed to what just transpired on my screen.

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