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Boardwalk Empire has never quite lived up to its promise as a sort of Goodfellas meets Deadwood concept. I spent my season two review, struggling to put my finger on exactly where the writers, producers, and directors fall short, but came up empty-handed (or fingered, I suppose). Instead of approaching season three on an episode-by-episode basis, I have chosen to write up a series brief season arc ‘reviews’ for the major characters. Minor, mostly unspecific spoilers follow.

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi)


Sadly, the show’s main character is also one of season three’s least interesting ones, at least for the majority of the episodes. Nucky spends most of the season resting on his laurels in terms of his criminal activities. He’s no longer forced to defend his kingdom from a cabal of former allies. In season three, the majority of his character conflict revolves around his jealousy toward his flapper girlfriend, Billie Kent’s (Meg Chambers Steedle) sexual proclivity and his unfocused guilt about killing Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) at the end of the last season (his visions of a surrogate son with a bullet hole in his cheek are provocative, but quickly forgotten). I assume that the writers are making a point about the dehumanizing components of running a major criminal empire, but these concepts drain the character of the things that make him interesting to watch. It’s difficult to build a story around a character that is such a drag. Finally, after nine episodes, the character and, in a way, the entire season is rebooted when a bomb destroys one of the boardwalk’s major establishments and kills a character before Nucky’s eyes. He’s driven batty by PTSD, not to mention a major concussion, and begins madly planning bloody vengeance. This confusion makes him more interesting, but it also draws unfavourable comparisons to every other jostled, made-for-TV criminal protagonist, like Tony Soprano or Walter White. Still, a monster with his back against the wall is usually more provocative than a constantly brooding one and the final three episodes are a thrilling gang war movie onto themselves.

Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale)


The season’s big bad is Gyp Rosetti – a hothead bastard that gives all the show’s other hothead bastards a bad name with his brutal antics. He’s an archetypal, surprisingly funny villain who serves little purpose beyond being a threat to the other characters. He doesn’t grow as a person, he just grows more dangerous as the situation grows more dire. The only real reprieve we’re given from his relentlessly antagonistic behavior is a glance at his home life, where he appears to be dominated by a house full of women. What I found interesting about the treatment of Gyp is that the character embraces the movie gangster stereotypes that the series usually avoids, to the point of parody. Sometimes he even seems to be a direct homage to executive producer Martin Scorsese’s films – beyond the fact that he’s a bit of a Joe Pesci stand-in. A Taxi Driver-inspired overhead panning shot following a botched assassination attempt is a pleasant surprise.

Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald)


Margaret ended the previous season by ‘misappropriating’ a whole lot of Nucky’s ill-gotten gains (she gave millions away to a hospital without him knowing), but the gamble seems to have paid off and has given her a new cause. The first five or six episodes of the season see her actively trying to change the world for the betterment of womankind. Her women’s hygiene classes are met with resistance from the sexist doctors at the St. Theresa Hospital and the Catholic Church they represent, but she shrewdly maneuvers around the problem by playing on Nucky’s implied influence. This sets up a potent undercurrent of feminism early in the season that is, unfortunately, forgotten around the time that the writers begin to formulate their endgame for Nucky and the other leading male characters. Margaret is put back in her place as a reactive character when her awkward sexual tension with Nucky’s right hand man, Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), turns to an awkward sexual affair. Because, apparently, every woman in Boardwalk Empire is eventually ruled by her weakness for the wrong man…

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

 Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)


The most likeable and woebegone character continues to be Richard, Jimmy’s half-faced war veteran accomplice, who, following the events of the previous season, is bereft of the only people that made his shitty life worth living. Richard finds himself a cause as Darmody son’s defacto babysitter and struggling under the thumb of Jimmy’s mother, Gillian (more on her below). Unlike Van Alden (more on him below), Richard’s problems aren’t amusing – they’re either touching or tragic. Even his successes are tragically adorable. Richard’s story extends to a group of American Legion military vets and, eventually, one of their daughters – a young lady, Julia (Wrenn Schmidt) – doesn’t even seem to notice his mangled face. Later, she cuts his food into little pieces and offers him privacy while eating, marking her as a ‘keeper.’ Richard’s happiness is limited by Gillian’s cruelty and he ends the season with a spectacular act of badassery straight out of John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder.
 

Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle)


Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino), the show’s most unique and well-rounded female character, is dead, putting a huge burden on Margaret to deliver anything satisfying for the women of Boardwalk Empire. The season’s only other two female leads, Gillian and newcomer Billie, function mostly as narrative devices, rather than actual people. They’re really only brought to life via strong performances. Meg Chambers Steedle brings rich humanity to Billie, enough to trick us into thinking she’ll become a major player in future seasons (spoiler: she won’t, she’s just a plot point), while Gretchen Mol at the very least seems to enjoy performing such a nihilistic person. One gets the feeling the writers have no idea what to do with her now that Jimmy and his father are out of the equation. She mostly mopes around the whorehouse for the first half of the season. Eventually, she develops an arc that revolves around gaining control of the house from Jimmy’s estate (she has to find and kill a Jimmy double to have a body for insurance purposes – she sleeps with him for good measure) and Luciano’s interests (more on him below). Then, she goes back to being the show’s most detestable antagonist. The writers revel too much in finding needlessly cruel things for her to do and then, as a final insult, make her fail to kill Gyp, robbing her of any kind of climax. It’s too bad Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), a strong female character based on one of the era’s few historically powerful women, doesn’t make much more than a series of extended cameo appearances.

Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams)


Following a strong, if not segregated, presence in season two, Chalky is largely absent from season three. Like the non-Margaret female characters, it seems that the writers aren’t quite sure how to make him an ongoing part of the story this season. Before finally finding him a place as Nucky’s savior during the final three episodes (where, again, the season finally comes together), Chalky’s only major contribution to the season is a brief arc where he expresses disapproval at his daughter’s attempts at avoiding the high society lifestyle he fought to give her. There is a very potent sequence in episode two where she drags her fuddy-duddy medical student fiancé to a jazz club only to have his face is slashed open on the dance floor. Chalky appears to remedy the situation and effectively proves his point to her in the process. Unfortunately, this is never revisited and Chalky is left a largely tertiary character, despite Michael Kenneth Williams’ best efforts.

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

Al Capone (Stephen Graham)


Al Capone, who will eventually grow into the most famous character in the cast (assuming the show goes long enough to turn into The Untouchables), is a consistent problem for the writers. Besides being based on a guy that was something of a real-life clown, Capone is also located several hundred miles away from the rest of the characters and, with Jimmy out of the picture, he isn’t being visited all that often. His varied misadventures are perfectly entertaining (to the point I actually found myself rooting for the homicidal lug), but the show struggles to attach his antics to those of the other major characters until the season finale. He is, however, given the single coolest entrance in the series’ short history when he’s re-introduced at the very end of the penultimate episode.

Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon)


Pious, bible-quoting G-man turned disgraced murderer Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) continues filling a slot as the show’s born loser and comic relief. On the lam, he finds himself living in Chicago with his new family under the pseudonym ‘George Mueller.’ While selling electric irons door-to-door he stumbles into a conflict between Dean O'Banion (Arron Shiver) and Al Capone. It’s not long before the faux Mr. Mueller finds himself working for O’Banion, running a still and acting as a heavy. The problem with Van Alden this season is less about his relocation away from most of the action (he’s always been a supporting part of Nucky’s A-story and I imagine that too much exposure might render the character less endearing) and more that he was the audience’s only major connection to the law enforcement side of the Prohibition story. I miss the more balanced look at the ‘righteous’ side of this conflict.

Charlie Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef)


If ever there were two characters that were impossible to completely separate, both on the show and in historical reality, it is Luciano and Lansky. Lansky never gets quite as much to do on the show, but season three features less Luciano than past seasons. The writers struggle to keep these two relevant to the larger season’s plot, to the point that Luciano just sort of sporadically appears at Darmody’s whorehouse to remind us he still has a stake in its ownership. The two characters are located close enough to Nucky’s shenanigans, geographically speaking, that they also appear in some of the big gangland meeting scenes. Their oblique business practices serve little purpose to the greater plot and their story ends pretty unceremoniously (I suppose that they learn a pretty valuable lesson). The duo’s main underling, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (Michael Zegen), on the other hand, actually has slightly more to do this time, possibly paving the way for a bigger place in future seasons. Of course, the writers run into a major problem with these guys (and Capone) is that we know them as historical figures that probably won’t be killed or sent to jail anytime soon.

Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham)


Following the events of season two, Nucky’s brother Eli is out of prison and finding himself in the awfully uncomfortable position of being back in the family business without any of the even nominal power he welded in the previous seasons. He’s an incredibly somber character in season three, but also a surprisingly sympathetic one, which is something that can’t be said for him previously.

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

Video


I’ve been watching HBO shows on the HBO GO service now that it’s available on my AppleTV. I always think the HD streaming image looks great…until I watch one of these Blu-rays and realize how noisy and blocky those streaming versions are. Once again, HBO is wasting no disc space and has spread the 12 episodes across five discs. The series continues to be shot on Super 35mm film, leading to another filmic, slightly grainy transfer. The biggest hindrance to a perfect image continues to be the show’s inherent darkness (the directors acknowledge that season three is even darker than the first two seasons), which proves a problem for the included DVD versions – they can’t handle the subtle contrast differentiations without compression noise and general fuzziness. In 1080p, the details are sharp enough to see the flecks of rotting paint on black background walls, even when the image is shrouded in moody darkness. That said, some of the smoother and more colourful walls feature minor, but noticeable macroblocking and banding effects – both are problems for many HD transfers when it comes to darker red, 35mm-shot hues. There are not, however, any noticeable issues with edge enhancement, even along the crisper edges. The warm, mostly brown colours are rich and strong without bleeding into the deeper black levels. That very specific red hue that permeates throughout the series (I like to call it Nucky-carnation red) continues to be the one constant source of vivid colour and remains a pleasantly poppy.

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

Audio


Boardwalk Empire comes fitted with another subtle, but full-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. This time around the dialogue tracks are sometime awkwardly mixed in terms of overall aural consistency. It seems like more dialogue was added in ADR than last season and that some of these tracks were mixed at too high a volume (about 38:00 on episode five, for example). Outside of these minor deviations, the track is up to snuff. The surround channels regularly spring to life with crowd noise (including hedonistic party-goers and a mass of army vets cheering a fist-fight) and feature plenty of punchy, directionally-enhanced gunfire. The biggest aural moment of the whole season crops up at the very end of episode 8, The Pony, when Babette’s explodes onto the street in super-slow motion and utterly engulfs every one of the five channels. The less aggressive effects work is even more impressive. Subtler ambient effects are realistic enough to trick me into thinking the sound was coming from my apartment (‘Where the hell is that dog? Is it outside?’). The series use of almost exclusively period source music, instead of traditional score, also continues to impress in terms of dynamic stylistic deviations – sometimes the music comes full force through the front channels, while other times it leaks softly from a single channel, due to some kind of on-screen source, like a phonograph.

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

Extras


The extras begin with a Boardwalk Chronicle option for every episode. These include character biographies, location info, and 24 total ‘newsreel’ featurettes (which are also available separate from the episodes on disc five). This is followed by a series of cast & crew audio commentaries:
  • Episode 1, Resolution, with creator/writer/executive producer Terence Winter, director/executive producer Tim Van Patten, and actors Steve Buscemi and Jack Huston.
  • Episode 5, You’d Be Surprised, with executive producer/writer Howard Korder, and actors Michael Stuhlbarg, Bobby Cannavale, and Stephen DeRosa.
  • Episode 7, Sunday Best, with Korder, director Allen Coulter, and actors Shea Whigham and Gretchen Mol.
  • Episode 8, The Pony, with Winter and actors Michael Shannon, Charlie Cox, and Meg Chambers Steedle.
  • Episode 11, Two Imposters, with Korder, Coulter, and actors Buscemi and Michael Kenneth Williams.
  • Episode 12, Margate Sands, with Winter, Van Patten, and actors Cannavale and Chris Caldovino.


Besides a distillation of the previous season on disc one, the rest of the extras appear on disc five, beginning with American Empires, a text and image-based interactive look at the real-life Prohibition-era gangsters, divided into sub menus by state and location within the state. Up next is a series of ‘newsreel’ behind-the-scenes featurettes that briefly discuss the historical relevance of the peripheral story elements (1:05:00, HD). These are divided into 12 ‘episodes,’ each with two subjects and featuring interviews with Winter and historians/researchers/authors Ed McGinty, Catherine Gourley, and Howard Korder. Boardwalk Empire: Director’s Chair (30:00, HD) features series directors Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter breaking down key sequences from the season, including narrative themes, stylistic motifs, and script/storyboard to film comparisons (including acknowledgement of the Taxi Driver homage). The extras come to an end with Scorsese on Season 3 (4:30, HD), featuring the executive producer/legendary director talking briefly about the season, and New Characters (5:00, HD), a look at Gyp Rosetti, Billie Kent, Gaston Means, Dean O’Banion, and Benny Siegel (who is not actually a new character…).

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3

Overall


We’re only three seasons in and it already feels like Boardwalk Empire is running dangerously low on creative fuel. The writers definitely pull things together for the final three or four episodes, enough to make me think they aren’t down to fumes just yet, but the bulk of the year is largely an act in spinning wheels. It is also, as always, a beautifully-shot show and this Blu-ray collection looks and sounds wonderful. The extras are a little less substantial than I figured they’d be, based on the box art description, but are still full of historical information and charming stories from behind-the-scenes.


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