Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Review: BOARDWALK EMPIRE, 2.1 - "21"

Tuesday, 27 September 2011
written by Terence Winter / directed by Tim Van Patten
starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon & Shea Whigham

The opening of Boardwalk Empire's second season included a handy recap of season 1, where half the summary was taken from the pilot, and rest from just a smattering of the episodes that followed. This appeared to confirm most people's belief the first season was bloated and dragged its heels mid-season. Boardwalk Empire is a sumptuous HBO production with first-rate performances, so you can overlook some issues in the short-term, but it was definitely a season that had problems the writers need to iron out. There was a serious lack of action for what many people want from a Prohibition era gangster epic, and not enough emotional moments shining through. Thankfully, some of that is fixed with showrunner Terence Winter's season 2 premiere, delivering an hour that felt more assured about itself.

There was a more readily entertaining feel to "21", so that the hour passed by without getting bogged down in itself. It was a wise idea to enhance the profile of black bootlegger Chalky (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams), who steals every scene he's in. Here, Chalky White's bootlegging business was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan with a vehicle-mounted machine gun, which managed the tricky task of making Chalky look both human (the fear etched his face when a Klansman pointed a rifle at his head) and a composed badass (his considered one-shot response to the retreating KKK, killing one of the fleeing attackers).

The fallout of this bloody attack also gave treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) some great material, as he told Chalky he can't retaliate because that will cause a race-war for the city's black community. And, to remind us of Nucky's duplicitous nature, there was a great moment of editing where Nucky gave rousing speeches at two opposing meetings: rallying a black congregation and promising to bring them justice, while later condemning the blacks to a room full of white voters. Buscemi's at his best when the two sides of Nucky's character come into conflict, or he reveals himself to be a disingenuous schemer.

As of last season's finale, we know that Nucky's protégé Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and his Sheriff brother Eli (Shea Whigham) have sided with his mentor Commodore Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), who in one great scene recalls the tale of how he hunted and killed a formidable bear that now stands stuffed in his front room. Clearly The Commodore views Nucky as the next animal he'll be stalking as political prey, ready to eliminate him to retake control of Atlantic City.

One character that had problems last year was FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who was enjoyably relentless in his pursuit of illegal booze, yet slightly too overbearing and repetitive. His character remained fascinating, though, as Shannon's a screen presence you can't take your eyes off. Perhaps as an intentional way to prevent Van Alden becoming too odd and dislikeable, the premiere actually gave him some of the funniest moments. His anniversary dinner with his wife saw a softer side to his nature (giving her a beautiful brooch as a present), before he exploded into fury when the restaurant manager unwisely alluded to there being alcohol on the premises (having remained composed for as long as possible). But rather than spoil the moment, Van Alden's wife found it all a big turn on, as this was possibly the first time she's seen her husband's authoritative side. After a very funny moment where the squeaking springs of a double-bed was revealed to be pernickety Van Alden testing the mattress for faults, they shared a rare moment of intimacy.

The premiere wasn't brilliant, but it felt much easier to watch and follow. We had a year of setup last season, so it feels like we can move forward with more purpose and confidence now. It helps that there's clearer definition when it comes to various character's allegiances and plans, plus a loose theme of parental bonding. Jimmy's trying to recapture his lost youth with "Uncle Nucky" through his son (teaching him to shoot guns), and Nucky trying to be step-father to Margaret's (Kelly Macdonald) naughty son Teddy (who's scared of father-figures and just expects beatings from them).

I won't be reviewing Boardwalk Empire every week, as there sadly doesn't appear to be enough of a following here to justify my time and effort. (It can be dispiriting enough writing about my favourite show, Breaking Bad, and seeing those reviews sometimes attract zero comment.) I'm not blaming anyone, because an audience is an audience, and DMD simply appears to attract people who prefer other genres. But it's a show I'll continue to watch with interest, as it could really become something special once the writers get a grasp on what works and what doesn't.


  • Great to see the weird family dynamic at Jimmy's home, where his wife Angela (Aleksa Pallodino) now lives with their son and his youthful mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). One of the creepier elements of this show is the potentially Oedipal relationship Jimmy has with his mother (often kissing her full on the lips), and there was a brilliantly icky moment when Jimmy's mother admitted to her daughter-in-law that, when Jimmy was a baby, she'd kiss his "winkie".
  • One of the most memorable characters last season was disfigured war hero Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who now works for Jimmy as a one-eyed sniper, half his missing face hidden behind a mask painted to give the illusion of a normal face. I was glad to see him back, and apparently jealous of Jimmy's family life. He even spends his free time pasting photos of families into a scrapbook. Shall we remain sympathetic towards Richard and his behaviour, or is he going to crack this season?
25 September 2011 / HBO