It’s 1923 in Atlantic City, and no holds are barred on Boardwalk Empire, where the stakes just went up. ‘Resolution’ makes a curious title for an episode that seems to be based less in resolutions than revolutions which push the characters on dramatic journeys; the era of nice guys, or at least gangsters with hearts of gold, is definitely, definitively over on the hit HBO series, which came out of the gate with a bang after the explosive season two finale.
Almost as soon as the opening credits were finished rolling, we were introduced to new gangster on the block Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) in a scene meant to demonstrate his brutality and casual attitude towards human life. His uncontrolled violence was a shocker to many viewers, who are accustomed to a more orderly, coldly calculated version of viciousness. Nucky (Steve Buscemi) had his turn next with the ruthless execution of a thief in a scene intended to send a lesson to an irresponsible business partner.
The scene also presented a stark message for viewers: Boardwalk Empire has gone a lot darker, with much more violence and much less compassion. Our characters have entered the depths of a criminal world from which they cannot return, and they’re drunk on the power. Nucky and Margaret (Kelly Mcdonald) stress that in the scene where they preside over a New Year’s party watching guests squabble over precious baubles; the expression on Nucky’s face is one of disgust and disdain, speaking volumes he doesn’t have to say.
For me, one of the most fascinating things about this episode was the evolution of Margaret, who seems to be developing into her own woman, and one who is willing to challenge Nucky to get what she wants. She’s leveraging her social position to pursue philanthropic projects, backing Nucky into a corner, something he’s clearly deeply bitter about, as we’re shown at the end of the episode when the show finally clues us in to what’s happening with their marriage. Her unhappiness with her relationship is palpable, and not just because of the heavy-handed flight metaphors running throughout the episode.
Inspired by the journey of aviatrix Carrie Duncan, Margaret yearns to spread her own wings, chafing under Nucky’s regime. All the more so because he’s committing himself ever more deeply to criminality, even as he pretends otherwise. Tired of the role she’s being forced to play, she lashes out, and he gives as good as he gets, reminding her that he’s the one bankrolling her activities with his ill-gotten gains. The two appear to be headed for a showdown this season, and one that could be very interesting to watch.
Accompanying the overall darkness of the storylines, of course, is the usual dark, foreboding setting that’s come to distinguish the show. For all the glamour and glitz of the boardwalk mere steps away, Boardwalk Empire is about dark, hushed rooms filled with people in sombre suits. Expect more of that darkness, and more camera angles underscoring the shift to more brutality, in the coming episodes; few rays of sunlight will be fighting their way through the clouds in Chicago or Atlantic City in 1923.
Boardwalk Empire is not the only cable show to have skewed even darker this season. Something in the air, and the economy, seems to be driving creators to work out their darker story arcs, including those that have been long in the planning. It’s a stark season for antiheroes, from Walter White to Nucky Thompson, and we’re going to see them pulled even deeper in to the abyss by the end of the season.
Like Walter, Nucky appears to have crossed a line from which he cannot return, which raises some interesting questions about characters like this; as they demonstrate that they appear irredeemable, where do viewers look for heroes? And how do they feel about their television when the male lead is an epitome of evil, rather than a person with more neutral morals who happens to be surviving illegally? Leads like this complicate viewing experiences as people wrestle with their emotional responses to the characters and their stories.
Nucky is no longer a bootlegger caught up in the exotic frenzy of the Prohibition Era. He’s become a key player in local politics and a ruthless criminal bent on exacting profits at any price, and he’s still the same cool customer he was at the start of the series. While his character may have grown darker, the groundwork was always there, illustrating how easy it can be to go irretrievably dark.
The players of Boardwalk Empire are on a collision course with each other, hurtling towards multiple confrontations this season as Nucky consolidates power and openly changes the face of his business while Al Capone rises in Chicago. 1923 is going to be a wild ride for them and us as we watch the show untangle itself from the aftermath of Nucky’s decisive turn towards unchecked domination of the Atlantic City criminal scene.
Next week, we’ll also be meeting mystery man Gaston Means, who will be adding a new element of complexity to the show. Based on a real person, a con man who worked the scene into the 1930s, Means promises to be enigmatic and fascinating. He’ll probably be giving Nucky a run for his money, and could be part of the pressure that tips him over the edge.