A new year and new problems for Nucky
By Edward Copeland
The premiere episode of the second season of Boardwalk Empire is titled "21" to indicate that the calendar has flipped over from the many eventful events that happened in the United States, the world and the life of Nucky Thompson in Atlantic City in 1920. However, that doesn't mean the HBO series takes time to relax as the conspiracy to topple the Atlantic County treasurer and powerbroker, as plotted by his sheriff brother, his political mentor and his surrogate son, hasn't wasted any time in getting underway.
Boardwalk Empire won eight Emmys for its first season, most for technical achievements given at the nontelevised Creative Arts Emmys given the week before the televised event Sunday with the series' only win last weekend going to Martin Scorsese's knock-your-socks-off direction of the pilot. The technical awards certainly were deserved because, as I wrote in its first season, Boardwalk Empire grabbed the title of best-looking show on television away from Mad Men. (Speaking of Mad Men, how in the hell did "The Suitcase," one of its best episodes ever, lose drama writing?)
Then, the Emmys always tend to get more things wrong than it gets right. Think of all the nominations and wins Jeffrey Tambor didn't receive for creating one of the greatest characters in TV history in Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show or Ian McShane only getting a single nomination as Al Swearengen during the three seasons of Deadwood. Of the many fine actors in Boardwalk's cast, only Steve Buscemi as Nucky and Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder, in my opinion the performer who consistently provided the first season's most amazing work, received acting nods, though both lost. I've never seen Justified, but I've heard very good things about it and I know what a truly remarkable actress Margo Martindale can be, but when Macdonald's mesmerizing nominated work loses and the spectacular performances of Khandi Alexander and Melissa Leo on Treme don't even get recognized in the supporting actress category, and Treme, as in its first season, was ignored across the board, I don't see how anyone takes the Emmys seriously. Your jaw drops when the right shows and performers win (you don't know how hard it was not to change the station at 9 p.m. to Breaking Bad instead sticking with the Emmys for its final hour — it's astounding the TV Academy has honored Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, though they still haven't given Breaking Bad its due as a series or for its writing, directing or other performers), but then it's been hard to ever take the Emmys seriously as many times as they've tried to fix the process only to screw it up further. The Emmys' level of respectability has dipped to that of the Grammys and heads perilously close to People's Choice Award territory at this point.
Enough moaning about the Emmys and start talking about the second season of Boardwalk Empire, which premieres Sunday on HBO with three back-to-back airings of "21" starting at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central, so if you're looking to watch it Sunday night, you'll have several opportunities even without resorting to a DVR. The first episode, written by creator and executive producer Terence Winter and directed by executive producer Tim Van Patten, doesn't waste any time in getting things moving. (You think I joke about the number of producers but the opening credits list five executive producers, two co-executive producers, two producers and a co-producer. At the end, they add another co-producer and three associate producers.) As far as the cast goes, everyone who was named in the opening credits in season one remains while they've bumped up Gretchen Mol, who plays Jimmy's mother Gillian, and Jack Huston, the first season's greatest acting find as the facially disfigured WWI vet Richard Harrow who is befriended by Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and happens to be a crack marksman turned dependable hit man and bodyguard.
The series also does what I liked about it last season (and like about shows which do this in general) — events that happened, some that might not even have forecast repercussions down the road, do come back, often in unexpected ways. I have seen the season's first four episodes, but rest assured no spoilers shall be spilled here today. This post intends to refresh memories as to where we left our characters and what strands the series dangled in front of us. If you'd like a bit of a refresher and haven't had an opportunity to re-watch the first season, feel free to consult my Boardwalk Empire index and read my recaps of the 12 first season episodes and my first season review. One development in what I've watched so far that I find quite encouraging is the expanded presence of Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White. In the first season, we only got to see him sporadically, but he plays a major role in the story, at least in what I've seen so far, and we learn more about him, including his real first name, and get to meet his family which includes a wife and children. I did worry when I read that Williams has joined the cast of Community if that meant Chalky's days were numbered, but he's alive so far, even if he's being used as a pawn in the plot by the Commodore (Dabney Coleman) to bring down Nucky and the old pol isn't above using rising racial tensions in Atlantic City in the form of the KKK (which HBO previews have given away) to further his aims. (I guess the Commodore still feels sore at Nucky for letting his ex-maid leave town instead of going to jail for trying to poison him to death. I wonder if we'll ever learn what she wrote to Nucky in that Bible.) As for the KKK, some just can't forgive a severed finger.
Commodore Louis Kaestner does seem revitalized after his near-death experience last season and though just a few months have elapsed since the end of season one, the former Atlantic City bigwig moves quickly and furiously in his plan to punish Nucky for that jail term he had to serve. Besides, now that his illegitimate son Jimmy Darmody is grown, he's ready to groom him and he welcomes Nucky's skittish brother Eli (Shea Whigham) as an ally. Nucky is not a stupid man and has his suspicions that something's up as he never fully trusts Kaestner and he knows that some fissure has erupted in his relationship with Jimmy, but he seems blind to his brother's double-dealing. On the homefront, Margaret, having made peace at the end of last season with living in sin with the man who ordered her abusive husband's murder, may hold secrets of her own relating to her native land as Ireland becomes a bigger factor in the lives of the American Irish. When Nucky faces trouble, Margaret proves her worth as well — if only Breaking Bad's Walter White's Skyler was as quick on her feet as Margaret, who knows how to take care of potential problems that her mate neglects. Jimmy's personal life has taken a big leap since the end of season one. When we last saw him, he was snubbing his common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) after her plan to run off with her lesbian lover, taking her son by Jimmy with them, didn't happen as the woman fled with her husband instead. Things evidently warmed in the Darmody residence as Jimmy and Angela sneaked off and officially wed and bought a house of their own. Jimmy's mother Gillian was one of the many put off that she wasn't told of the marriage in advance, but she's a common fixture at the Darmodys, to Angela's annoyance. She also spends a lot of time tending to the Commodore, though her motives toward the man who raped her and made her pregnant with Jimmy at 13 remain unclear.
Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) appears to have a larger staff of agents working under his supervision to enforce the Volstead Act, which appears to be a bigger joke now that Prohibition has entered its second year than it did in its first. At any rate, there are far too many agents for Van Alden to drown them all should they get on his nerves — and Van Alden's nerves appear to be edgier than usual since he's keeping a rather large secret. When Nucky's ex-plaything and all-around goodtime girl Lucy Danzinger (Paz de la Huerta) informed the Fed that the one night they spent together when he fell off his high horse and landed in the devil's playground, Van Alden left his barren boarding room and set the two of them up in a house (with separate bedrooms, of course) and gives Lucy an allowance as long as she stays sequestered until the child is born. Meanwhile, on the other side of the law…One thing that made me curious at the end of season one is how a series set in Atlantic City would continue to integrate the stories of real life gangsters such as Al Capone (Stephen Graham) in Chicago and Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (Michael Stuhlbarg, Anthony Piazza, Anatol Yusef) in New York into the main story strands on the New Jersey shore, but they do. From the first four episodes that I've seen so far, the Chicago connection to Atlantic City seems to be tenuous at best while story developments do at least provide justification for the continued involvement with the New York gangsters as Nucky reaches out to Rothstein while at the same time Lansky and Luciano, who have been cultivating their own criminal enterprises, seek to make separate deals with Jimmy.
Since 1921 isn't an election year, this season doesn't promise that element of interest but from what I've seen of the second season of Boardwalk Empire so far, it continues to churn out fascinating stories that intermingle fictional characters with historical figures. It also has a knack, no matter who is writing any particular episode, for delivering exceptional dialogue, often in monologue form. I'm only four episodes into the season and they already have introduced some intriguing new characters and added interesting shadings to the ones we already know. One of the new characters only has appeared twice and spoken once, so I have no idea yet exactly what role Leander Cephas Whitlock will play in the season's story other than the Commodore describes him as "one of the men who built Atlantic City." What makes him intriguing is that he's played by Dominic Chianese aka Corrado "Uncle Junior" Soprano from The Sopranos. It certainly is a sight to see Chianese without Junior's huge spectacles but with muttonchops instead. We also will get to see the final screen performances of another Sopranos alum as Tom Aldredge (who played Carmela's father on that series), who passed away in July, returns as Nucky and Eli's cantankerous father, Ethan Thompson.
Like season one, season two of Boardwalk Empire will be 12 episodes long. While Martin Scorsese continues to play an active role as an executive producer, he won't be directing any of this season's episodes.