This lack of thunder doesn’t mean people don’t watch and enjoy “Boardwalk Empire”; rather, I think, it underlines a certain maturity with which they do watch, employing a set of manners that hark back to a recent but finished era of viewership that didn’t involve such frantic displays of devotion. To lose yourself in “Boardwalk Empire” is to do so quietly, since, after all, you never lose the feeling that you’re in the presence of the dead, or those who are about to be.
Never has that been more clear than in the first of this season’s new episodes. “Boardwalk Empire,” created by Terence Winter, has established its formula and is in the process of beating itself to a pulp. The show still deserves high praise on its technical merits (and some achingly good performances), but you can tell that viewers are numbed to the violent world of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by the never-wavering Steve Buscemi), the Prohibition-era liquor distributor of Atlantic City, very loosely based on the life of an actual racketeer. It’s a tense saga, but it has nothing like “Breaking Bad’s” relentlessly enthralling tension, pace and talking points. Instead, you just wait for people to get whacked.
Something’s got to give on this show, and soon; there must be some incredible payoff for those of us who’ve held tight since 2010. This season’s first half (caution: light spoilers and plot set-up will follow) unfortunately moves at an almost indulgently slow stride, with some shopworn tricks and debatable turns in the overall narrative. That includes the apparent death of a character that will not be as momentous as the death of Jimmy Darmody at the end of Season 2, but it’s a death that might (I hope) serve as a pivot point for the overall Nucky story, rather than act as another in his long list of inconvenient tragedies.
It is early 1924 now, and we find Nucky still reasserting his grip on the regional underground booze trade, after a near-disastrous showdown last season with the terrifying — and now dead — Gyp Rosetti (in an Emmy-nominated performance from Bobby Cannavale).
We have to take the good things about “Boardwalk Empire” (the acting, the authenticity in its exquisite details and most of the writing) along with the bad (the repetitiveness, the plodding). There’s a bigger role this time for Chalky White, played by the excellent Michael Kenneth Williams, who saved Nucky’s hide in last season’s finale and now runs the Onyx Club. There’s more shadenfreude to revel in when it comes to Gretchen Mol’s character, the faded flower Gillian Darmody, who is still on karma’s receiving end and hitching her hopes to a new love interest (Ron Livingston). “Boardwalk Empire’s” most contextualized and rivetingly complex character (and perhaps its only true soul), Jack Huston’s half-masked Richard Harrow, has wandered afield after a killing spree.