I haven't discussed HBO's Boardwalk Empire on the blog very much nor have I written any recaps. Recaps take a lot of time to write and edit before the next morning so I'd rather save that energy for when Game of Thrones starts up again on March 31, 2013 (if you haven't heard me mention that 10,000 times already).
But Boardwalk Empire is nevertheless a favorite show and one that you should check out. I'm not sure yet if I will write reviews of previous seasons. On Sunday, December 2, HBO aired the season 3 finale. This saw a tidying up of quite a few different storylines but also left a few things open and unresolved for future seasons.
So what's this series about? A lot of different things actually. The dominant thread is actually the quintessentially American spirit of making money and not looking too closely at how that money is earned. On the simplest level Boardwalk Empire tells the story of 1920's Prohibition and its impact on a variety of people in three cities-Atlantic City, New York and Chicago. Enoch "Nucky" Johnson was a real life Atlantic City, New Jersey political leader, who despite avoiding more prominent elected roles, was understood by everyone to be the political boss of New Jersey and the man to see if you wanted to get business done, legal or illegal. Johnson was a corrupt facilitator of bootlegging and somewhat "half-a gangster". There is no evidence he ever murdered anyone or ordered anyone's murder, though he certainly rubbed shoulders with men who did.
Boardwalk Empire has cannily fictionalized Nucky Johnson as Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). This allows HBO to explore more than the bare facts of Johnson's life and create an intoxicating mix of real life events with purely fictional occurrences. In this time period such men as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano are not yet the powerful mob bosses they would become but struggling young hoodlums with big ideas who have to defer to older men. They're young puppies with big paws, to use a reference from The Wire. Speaking of The Wire, if you liked that show you may enjoy seeing "Omar" reimagined as Chalky White (Michael K. WIlliams), the crime boss and godfather of the Atlantic City black community. He steals every scene he's in.
It's hard to discuss everything without detailing spoilers for past seasons or making this post about three times longer than it should be. Let's just say that for most of Season 3, Nucky took his eye off of business and missed the fact that a few people, namely the sexy MILF (and that's a literal definition) Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), a madam with delusions of grandeur, and a stereotypical NY Italian hothead mafioso, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), each decided that the world would be a better place if Nucky weren't in it. Nucky asked for help from New York gangsters, especially Arnold Rothstein, but was rudely rebuffed.
By the finale, Nucky was on the run for his life. Rosetti has eliminated many of Nucky's men and taken over his hotel and casino. Rosetti has also moved into Gillian's brothel over her muted objections. Her objections are muted as Rosetti is the sort of man who takes everything personally and can find deadly insults in the most innocuous of comments. Saying "Good Morning" to him can be hazardous to your health. He combines an inferiority complex with a dangerous and sadistic temper. The heavy lidded Cannavale pulls this off perfectly. Rosetti exponentially raises the testosterone level of a room just by entering.
The acerbic, profane and generally unpleasant Nucky finds that he must rely on people whom he had previously overlooked and insulted, including a loyal aide-de-camp Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura), Chalky White and his crew of black gangsters and Nucky's younger brother Eli (Shea Wigham) the former sheriff, who previously plotted against Nucky out of familial resentment at being passed over (shades of Fredo from The Godfather).
But Nucky's (and to a lesser extent his brother's) power doesn't just come from gunmen but from the ability to outthink rivals and quickly determine the best way by which to corrupt someone. As a political boss, Nucky has an unparalleled ability to give people what they want or in some cases seem to give them what they want. Nucky's brother Eli makes a deal with Al Capone (Stephen Graham). Capone is looking to make moves of his own as Torrio gives him more executive authority. Capone brings in squadrons of gunmen and together with Chalky and his men they strike back at Rosetti's forces.
As the war rages on Rosetti's patron Joe "The Boss" Masseria (Ivo Nandi) tires of the waste of resources and tells Rosetti to finish it or else. Everyone is double dealing on this show. There are double crosses within triple crosses. Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) were looking to invest in a heroin shipment but their boss Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg-he was also in Lincoln) disapproved. So Meyer and Lucky went to Masseria for the money. To prove their good faith they shared what they knew of Nucky's plans, thus allowing Masseria's men to surprise and kill Nucky's top assassin, Owen. Now Lucky thinks he's found a buyer for the heroin. Meyer gets cold feet as he doesn't know the buyers. The buyers prove to be police. However not only are they police but they're on Rothstein's payroll. Rothstein and Masseria split the money and drugs, leaving Meyer and Lucky with nothing. Luciano is infuriated and threatens Rothstein and Masseria while the calmer Lanksy counsels patience, recognizing the danger he and his friend are in.
Nucky has previously made a deal with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) to run a distillery that Mellon owned. Now, desperate for assistance and cash Nucky makes a deal with Rothstein for Rothstein to run the distillery. In return Rothstein will have Masseria pull his support from Rosetti. But the greedy Rothstein demands 99% of the profits. Reluctantly, Nucky agrees.
Meanwhile Gillian is unhappy with letting Rosetti setup shop in her brothel. She is starting to realize just how dangerous Rosetti is. She doesn't like having it thrown in her face that she is a madam and a whore. She doesn't like that her grandson Tommy is witness to rough language and public sex. But the black widow like Gillian is infuriated when she discovers her grandson's bodyguard and protector Richard (Jack Huston) making plans to take Tommy and go live with his girlfriend. She has Rosetti's men escort Richard from the brothel. This is a mistake. It's mostly backstory which is not important here but the mild mannered quiet disfigured war veteran Richard was in business with Jimmy Darmody, Gillian's deceased gangster son. Richard is a soldier with a very strict (albeit warped) code of right and wrong and the single most dangerous killer on the show, bar none. By separating him from his friend's son, Gillian tripped his wire and trigged a killing spree that gives shout outs to both Shane and Taxi Driver. (Martin Scorsese is an executive producer so the Taxi Driver reference was especially nice). Richard returns to the brothel with guns up the wazoo and coldly eliminates over a dozen men. He was a wartime sniper. Murder does not bother him and he never misses. He takes Tommy to go live with his girlfriend's family. Just an aside here, Huston likely does the best acting in the show as he can only use about half his face and has to speak in an gravelly monotone. Other than killing people Richard is an intensely moral person who does not like bullies. He will kill and die to protect Tommy. He finds it very difficult to connect with other people. He was painfully shy even before his injuries. Some of the show's sweetest moments involve Richard trying to engage with his girlfriend Julia (Wrenn Schmidt)
Masseria is good on his word and removes his men. But Capone and Chalky gun down all of Masseria's men as they leave. No survivors. Chalky and Capone had previously been at each other's throats but it looks like this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Nucky and his brother Eli enter the brothel looking for Rosetti. Rosetti had been involved in kinky sex games with Gillian which ended when she tried to kill him and Richard went on his rampage. Rosetti escaped. Nucky and Eli find the drugged Gillian rambling and one of Rosetti's men hiding in a closet. Andrew Mellon calls a prosecutor to talk about the distillery he owns. Supposedly he has discovered that it's fallen into the hands of the gangster Arnold Rothstein. He wants the full force of the federal government to be brought down on Rothstein. As Nucky told his brother, sometimes you have to use big bait to catch a big fish. Nucky set Rothstein up.
Rosetti is relaxing with his men on a beach making plans for his next moves. When he's not actually torturing or killing people Rosetti is a nice guy, a real man's man, someone you'd like to hang out with. Rosetti is philosophical about his setbacks. He's singing when his right hand man stabs him in the back, killing him. This is the same man who Nucky and Eli found in the closet. They send him back to Masseria with a message that if Masseria wants peace he can have peace, but if he wants war they're ready for that too. Stay out of Atlantic City. Finally Nucky tries to make amends with his estranged wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald). I don't like Margaret. Nucky saved her from an abusive marriage and impoverished existence by having Eli kill her husband. Nucky has brought her wealth, safety and social status.
She however has never stopped judging Nucky for his crimes or her guilt. She even gave away his property to the Catholic Church. Nucky is raising her children as his own. Margaret has cheated on Nucky with his bodyguard and just had an abortion.
The show leaves it up in the air as to whether the two will get back together. Although Margaret had little to do in the finale, believe me the show spends a LOT of time, too much in my opinion, on her storyline through the seasons. If I were Nucky I would not have listened to her whining or moral judgments more than twice. I would have just opened the door and told her "Sorry it didn't work out. Here's your old life back!". But that's just me. I would not care to hear financial, moral or spiritual lectures from someone that without me had no money, no home and would have been beaten to death by her ex. At the end Nucky tells Eli that they must work in the shadows even more. When recognized on the street he turns away in disgust and throws away his signature red carnation. The main difference between Nucky and Margaret is that Nucky is accepting of human evil. He did not kill his brother even though his brother was involved in a plot to kill Nucky. Nucky uses evil for good and thinks it all works out in the end. Margaret doesn't appear to be able to accept the existence of evil though hypocritically that didn't stop her from taking Nucky's money, using his name and power for her own interests (an interesting subplot around women's rights and women's health), or making whoopie with Nucky's bodyguard. The finale was heavy on action, a little too heavy actually. The yet to occur St. Valentine's Day Massacre shocked Americans and yet only saw seven deaths at once. But this series actually intelligently and sympathetically shows how attitudes in America grew and changed, or didn't change around everything from race, women, wealth, child abuse (Nucky could not forgive his abusive father) immigration, etc. Give this show a look see.