This is why I love episodic TV: When it is at its best, you inevitably arrive at a point -mid-season- where the show's creators have so many plot strands, so many plates spinning -- that all you can do is sit back and admit: I have no clue how this season is going to end but, I don't care. I'm on board for the ride.
After the sucker-punch ending of season two, I found myself utterly baffled. To explain, many years prior to the events of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) met a kid named James Darmody (Michael Pitt), a punk criminal with no future. But Nucky saw something in Jimmy. Nuck took him under his wing and in many ways, saved his life. Years later, on a dark and oh so stormy night, Nucky pulls a revolver from his coat and shoots Jimmy in the face. As his body lies on the ground, we see rain droplets land inside the gushing bullet hole.
I thought this was a story about Nucky AND Jimmy. But I was wrong. When Nucky pulled that trigger, I worried that a plot line had begun that was not dissimilar to one from The Sopranos, the HBO signature upon which Boardwalk creator Terrence Winter first cut his TV teeth. Recall how the murder of Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) haunted Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). One betrayal begat another. He might be the most powerful man in Atlantic City but, all that money doesn't seem to have made his life any easier than yours or mine. Will Nucky –like Tony Soprano- spend the rest of his days unable to look at the photo of his old friend on the mantle?
I am thoroughly enjoying Boardwalk Empire-- don't get me wrong. But, to state it crudely, I really hope Winter has greater ambitions than to merely make The Sopranos 1924 here. (A minor criticism.)
Season three (currently playing on HBO and available on HBO On-Demand) opens with the introduction of a new player from New York, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale). The man is a loutish pig but, also happens to be morbidly deranged and totally psychotic. Rosetti wants to buy alcohol from Thompson and Company but, when he doesn't get his way, he starts making trouble. Big trouble. Big, bloody, skull-cracking, fire-starting trouble. To put it lightly, this guy is a problem.
Then, an entire shipment of booze goes missing. Nucky finds one of the culprits who –before dying- coughs up the name of his main accomplice: Roland.
This sequence is one of the most telling in the show's history. Nucky and Owen Sleator (Charlie Cox), his Irish cohort arrived at Roland's house, not only to discover that the flat is stacked floor to ceiling with Mr. Thompson's stolen booze but-- that the master criminal Roland is actually just a plucky teenage kid. Nucky isn't happy but, it's around this point when the three are interrupted by Federal agents busting down the door, killing Nucky's security men.
Dashing into the basement to hide-- Thompson, Owen and Roland are forced to wait. And wait. All the while, the Feds take their sweet time carting Nucky's precious hooch away. He turns to young Roland, who bears a striking resemblance to the deceased James Darmody. Now, neither the thief nor the liquor's rightful owner end up with the cargo. It is lost.
But they get to know Roland while they hide together in the cellar. Perhaps Roland could be added to the payroll, a new employee under Nucky's wing. Or perhaps not. The moment the Feds depart, Nucky kills Roland. The fact that the dead kid looks so much like actor Michael Pitt, who played Jimmy Darmody in the two previous seasons is a chilling insight. Nucky saw a little piece of Jimmy in Roland. And so, he shot him in the back of the head. The scene may seem predicated on Owen's casual insubordination –Nucky making a point by coldly killing a man- but, the resemblance to Darmody is too close to be overlooked.
Nucky doesn't feel any remorse or regret. He would gladly shoot Jimmy in the face again, without hesitation. The hatred that burns inside Thompson is the show's main mystery. What exactly fuels it? His relationship with his father is strained to say the least. But unlike Tony Soprano, Nucky wouldn't be caught dead on the couch of a psychoanalyst. (I assume there must have been some Friends of Freud in Atlantic City in the 20's.) Boardwalk is a wonderful slow burn and I have foolishly overlooked so many of the show's other strengths. The great Kelly MacDonald, the equally great Michael Shannon and the slightly greater (mainly due to facial hair) Dominic Chianase all remain at the top of their games.
As long as Terrence Winter keeps this ship afloat, I will keep watching. It is one of the most intelligent and skillfully made shows on TV. And, to correct myself from earlier: It is not The Sopranos 1924. Not at all. There is a key difference between Nucky Thompson and Tony Soprano. That difference? Tony actually regretted killing his friend.
Nucky does not.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.