* As I sat down to write this I thought it would be worthwhile to do a quick re-read of the reviews I wrote last season. There weren’t many; this isn’t a show I felt compelled to examine week after week, even though I invariably enjoyed myself. That changed with the final two episodes, which were haunting, nihilistic, exceedingly well-made even by Boardwalk Empire‘s big-budget standards, and deeply, batshit weird. The penultimate episode in particular developed its own syntax of dialogue and editing the way a great film does, while the finale was the equivalent of chopping your arm off, fully expecting a new arm with superpowers and three-foot claws to grow in its place. The skill, audacity, and brutality had my expectations high for this season premiere.
* Imagine my disappointment when we open with Terence Winter’s fanfic version of the coin toss scene in No Country for Old Men: “If I wrote it, he’d'a BEAT the guy to death with those sunflower seeds!” It turns out that if you rupture the tension by allowing it to vent through violence, you turn the scene into sort of a turd! The rote retread of another, better scene, coupled with the depressing addition of a cute little dog barking in anger and confusion as someone kills her daddy, was a “Man, have I been wasting my time with this shit all along?” moment — a moment many other critics have had, by the look of their tweets and headlines last week. (It didn’t help that we got another warmed-over, dumbed-down cover version of a famous scene from a crime-cinema landmark later on, when Agent Van Alden served as Enzo the baker to the Irish gangster-florist’s Michael Corleone as he bluffed Al Capone out of attacking.) If, as it seems from his position in the credits and the promotional materials, Bobby Canavale’s dyspeptic Chip Rosetti is going to be this year’s Jimmy, I felt like we could be in for a long season indeed.
* But as I went through those reviews I was struck by this passage, which I remembered in terms of the general sentiment since it’s something I think and talk about often regarding genre art but which I’d completely forgotten writing in the context of this show:
I think that when genre material gets sufficiently dark or weird, when its tropes become a form of sinister spectacle rather than just hitting the marks required by convention, that’s a depth all its own — a way to communicate the emotional and philosophical themes more commonly articulated by plot and dialogue, if at all. Boardwalk Empire the balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism is saying at least as much as some theoretical Boardwalk Empire the meticulously drawn character study, or Boardwalk Empire the rigorously developed allegory for contemporary political issues.
“Balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism” is as good a way as any to describe Boardwalk Empire when it works. The “periodic fits” thing is key, because this is a far less rigorous show than any of the truly great TV dramas. Its bursts of brilliance are just that, bubbling up from a cauldron of gorgeous clothing and thoughtful lighting and sumptuous sets and giallo violence and a suite of the strangest gangster performances of the post-Godfather era.
* This means you have to put up with some imbalances as the contents shift during takeoff: building up Manny Horvitz as a macher (up to and including a giving him a hand in Jimmy’s death) only to ice him in the season premiere; inexplicably delaying Richard Harrow’s vengeance against the guy for a year and a half even though Richard as we know him would have murdered literally everyone involved in Jimmy and Angela’s deaths before the following weekend; weathering whatever dull do-gooding conscience salve they’re making Margaret apply to herself this season (temperance! Catholicism! prenatal care!); airing a premiere with no Eli or Chalky or Junior Soprano Van Buren; etc.
* But it also means this show has an easier time stumbling into weird little treasures, like Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow or Erik LaRay Harvey’s Dunn Purnsley or Paul Sparks’s Mickey Doyle, that normal shows have to strive for, if they ever even get close. (Paz De La Huerta was just a little too close to the sun.) That’s what you watch for.
* Anyway, the only thing I can really think of to say that doesn’t pertain directly to that Grand Unified Theory of Boardwalk Empire for Better and for Worse is that I’m glad Nucky and Margaret are going full Lockhorns. Nucky’s cool-customer asshole persona, the one that coldly orders a man’s execution while walking out of a room, doesn’t do much for me; we’ve seen that a million times, and it’s Steve Buscemi’s least convincing look. (Although you can make the argument that that’s as it should be, since it’s probably Nucky’s least convincing look, too.) Angry asshole Nucky, on the other hand, is really something — vibrant and frightening and unpredictable. His contretemps with Margaret have historically been where that side comes out most reliably, and I’ll be glad to see it more often, especially in contrast with his new iceman approach to gangstering.
* Oh yeah, one other thing: Nice fakeout, making it look like Van Alden was going undercover to investigate a bathtub gin maker as a kind of vigilante, but then revealing that nope, he really is a door-to-door salesman now.
* Anyway welcome back Boardwalk Empire, the most decadent show on television.