I’m really admiring Boardwalk Empire‘s narrative audacity this season, from a structural perspective. Last season’s cliffhanger was that Jimmy, Eli, and the Commodore were conspiring to take Nucky down. My assumption, and everyone else’s I assume, was that we’d spend much of Season Two watching this happen. It’d be a slow race toward the final coup attempt: the conspirators working to keep their plans secret before the trap is sprung, Nucky working to stay on top and get to the bottom of the setbacks that would surely start to befall him.
Instead, the coup happened in the season premiere. It turns out Nucky’s too big to take down in one fell swoop, but that aside, he learned that his brother, mentor, and protege had all betrayed him; that the city bigwigs were backing his enemies; that he was all alone, with his money and clout in serious danger. Instead of whether the coup would take place, the season is about what happens afterward. Smart stuff.
So too is the arrangement of the warring parties. In a battle between Nucky and Jimmy, there’s no default for the audience’s sympathies. Nucky’s the guy in the credit sequence, but the story we were really sold from the beginning is the story we’ve seen many times before — the hungry young man on the make. In other words, there are two protagonists, and after watching them work together for a full season (albeit with some hiccups), we’re now watching them become one another’s antagonist. Who do you root for? What’s more, their primary allies on the criminal end of things are the show’s two most compelling such characters, Chalky and Richard. We’re obviously to root against the conniving, child-raping Commodore, and the politicians on both sides aren’t worth spit, but there really is no easy way to take sides between the primary players. Obviously there are plenty of big prestige cable dramas who at least attempted to split audience sympathy between rival factions, but for the most part there were still clear good guy/bad guy lines established initially, regardless of where things went from there — sheriff versus crime boss, cops versus druglords, stern but kind Northerners versus arrogant, hedonistic Southerners. Boardwalk Empire has really split things down the middle, and I’ve got no idea what side I’m gonna come down on. Mostly I hope for a rapprochement. Don’t you?