Boardwalk Empire season two

+ Here be spoilers +

The first half of Boardwalk Empire’s second season was on par with its first.  The second half of this season raised the bar; being great, brave, exciting television.

With the sole exception of Jimmy’s flashback segment in episode 11, (which was important to the story but executed in an awkward way) the final six episodes were some of the best TV drama I’ve seen in years.

There were many shocking moments, but none more so than Jimmy’s death.  He showed signs of impending doom – disappointment and frustration in his new-found status, death of a loved one – but this was Jimmy, a character who probably had more screen time than anyone besides Nucky over these two seasons.  And now he’s gone.

I love bold storytelling like this, the type that keeps you on your toes.  No character is safe, destruction is always around the next corner.  Boardwalk devoted so much time to Jimmy’s arc, going from Nucky’s muscle to crime figure to – briefly – top man in Atlantic City.  To build all of that and then end it so quickly is what makes fiction so wonderful.

Come season three, however, there will be a gaping void where Jimmy stood.  With a few episodes of season two left, I confidently predicted that Jimmy would remain on top, and season three would be about Nucky trying to regain his spot while continuing to deal with his legal troubles.  But the law quickly lost, at least temporarily (thanks to help from Jimmy, no less) and Nucky stopped his nephew’s rise with force.  With rapidity (I just wanted to use that word) Nucky returned to the top.  His only major problem, it appears, is his increasingly religious wife, and the land she donated to the church.

The land issue will take up a lot of season three’s screen time.  Understandably, Nucky will be less than pleased about losing out on huge bundles of cash, but it shouldn’t affect his current finances.  He seems to be flush again.  Losing out on a fortune isn’t the same as losing a fortune.  So the fallout from Maggie’s decision will be emotional, but to the viewer Nucky’s status shouldn’t change.

It’s interesting how much trouble one piece of paper could cause.  In the very same episode where we see Margaret sign the land over to the church, we see Jimmy disregard and tear up another legally binding document (the Commodore’s will).  This is a show in which the legal route is rarely the one travelled.  If Nucky wants his land back, he can have it.  Though whether he sees threatening the church as a step too far, or the one thing that would make Margaret leave, is yet to be seen.  If Margaret did divorce Nucky, would she again be able to testify against him?

Margaret continues to be the most well-rounded and sympathetic character in the show.  I’ve compared her to Carmela Soprano before and the likeness increases the more she looks to the church, guilt-stricken about her acceptance of the man in her life.  She’s a smarter, ballsier Mrs Soprano, basically.

Margaret was convinced to marry Nucky when she saw him trying to help Emily walk.  I don’t doubt that Nucky planned to be seen, loudly encouraging Emily, knowing Margaret would hear through open windows.  It was good that the show didn’t make too much of it, such as having Nucky make a knowing grin.

What ultimately convinced Margaret to give the land away was Nucky’s lie about Jimmy re-enlisting.  He’d already learned not to share his business with her, but he’s still giving away too much.  Margaret’s frustration at his silence would be better than her suspecting that he’s responsible for another death.

And what of Van Alden?  He went from being a major player in season one – as Nucky’s main adversary – to being a sideline figure in season two.  And now he’s further out again, a fugitive, with no legal authority nor inkling towards crime.  People with no legal clout or illicit ways to make money have little place on Boardwalk Empire.  There’s the real world situation with Michael Shannon being in demand as a film actor.  I can’t see – and really don’t want – Nelson to disappear from the show altogether, but I have no idea how he would fit into this universe now.  The same applies to Lucy too.  One thing that suggests Van Alden may continue is his new location.  Alan Sepinwall noticed that Nelson has relocated to Cicero, a town that Al Capone later moved to.

One strength of the show is who it can rely on for small roles, such a Michael K Williams as Chalky and Stephen Graham as Al Capone.  Both are charisma machines, total eye-magnets, whether in dialogue or not.  There’s something immensely likable about any Stephen Graham performance, from Boardwalk to This Is England to Public Enemies to Snatch.  He’s so good that even being in an Arctic Monkey’s video couldn’t dent his reputation.

I know nothing of the real-world history that Boardwalk is based on, but I know Al Capone, so I know that he isn’t going to die anytime soon.  The show might alter history in small ways, but they’re not going to attract historian outrage by killing Capone before his name gets the chance to ring out, as they say in Baltimore.  Now that Jimmy is dead almost no one is safe, but Capone must be.  And that annoys me.

How will Al take Jimmy’s death?  The two were friends early on, then became mere business partners as the series progressed.  As much as it would be fun to see Al seek retribution, he and Jimmy weren’t that close throughout season two.  And if anyone understands that death is a necessary part of the game, it’s Capone.

What of Harrow?  He was close to Jimmy and fond of Angela.  Yet, by the end, he accepted that Jimmy was happy to go meet Nucky, knowing he might never return.  Expect no retaliation there.  What will Richard’s role be now?  He’s a great character so I hope he’s still part of the show, perhaps as muscle elsewhere, though I doubt he’ll work for Nucky.

Manny will likely see his screen time increase.  He’s an interesting character, but there seems little to him besides blood-lust, I don’t know what other dimension he can add.

With a cast so large it was hard to warm to some characters, but that came with time during season two.  Owen was shown as more than just a cheesy ladies man.  He’s dangerous, still running his real mission on the side.  As he gets closer to Nucky, will he continue to try to bang Margaret?  Will she shy away from his trousers in case God is watching?  I particularly liked that Owen had a great line for every occasion.  When Jimmy told him “I used to do your job”, Owen replied “You’re the reason I’m doing it now”.  A quick quip, never overstated, and then he’s gone.

I love Rothstein’s stoic confidence; Lansky’s well-timed verbosity, talking himself out of danger; and Luciano mugging it up.  I love that Nucky, like Tony Soprano, is a deceitful criminal and a murderer yet still massively likable.

I love causality, even in its fictional form.  For instance, take the guy who comes to Manny’s shop to set him up the hit.  The man ran off so early that Manny knew something was up.  He stays a second later, Manny doesn’t have time to react and is killed.  Manny dies, Angela doesn’t.  Jimmy has more reason to go on.  Grand events influenced by one second.  Though in this case it couldn’t have gone any other way.  Fun nevertheless.

It’s interesting that Jimmy did all that work so that Chalky would call off the strike, and Jimmy never got to reap the benefits.  Though he did reset labour in AC and wrap up Chalky’s KKK revenge arc.

Nucky’s last line to Jimmy, “I’m…not seeking…forgiveness” was a bit too overt a reference to Margaret’s godbothering than the show would normally have.  Its obviousness was distracting from the moment, great as it still was.

Some viewers didn’t take to Mickey Doyle, seeing him as a giggling caricature, somewhat of a comic book villain in this relatively realistic show.  As soon as Capone and Luciano thought Jimmy was out of the picture they turned on Mickey.  From then on Doyle became more serious.  In his scene with Van Alden he’s much more composed.  I expect the Doyle of season three to be surprisingly dangerous.

Season three will likely jump forward a year, to Eli returning from jail.  But a year is a long time for a rift between Nucky and Margaret to develop.  Nucky was desperate for Margaret to sign the land back over to him, so he’ll no doubt find out the awful truth about its new owner quickly.

Detractors of Boardwalk call it boring, claiming that its slow pace works against it.  I see their point; the show is poised and confident, never feeling to need to rush, never panicking at the thought of losing viewers.  Paced storytelling on its own is neither good or bad.  The difference is in the creators recognising when a show can pull this off and when it can’t.  Boardwalk’s tales were complex and intertwined.  A slow, Wire-esque pace suited the show.  Could it have done with the occasional burst of adrenaline?  Perhaps.  But the show’s willingness to take its time and trust us to keep watching is what made it great television.  

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