The plot-crazy spectacle of "Boardwalk Empire"

In season two, HBO\'s Prohibition-era drama has enlarged its scope but still hasn\'t found its reason for being

By Matt Zoller Seitz

Published September 26, 2011 1:26AM (EDT)

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) rules "Boardwalk Empire." (HBO)
Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) rules "Boardwalk Empire." (HBO)

Almost every time an episode of "Boardwalk Empire" ends, I feel slightly disappointed -- not because the hour wasn't entertaining, but because it failed to deliver the richness, depth and ambition of the great series that obviously influenced it, chiefly "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood." This is not the least bit fair, I realize, but feelings are feelings. But then the next episode comes on and I'm giddy with anticipation again. Why? Boundless naivete? An unreasonable faith in the creative powers of series creator Terence Winter, one of the secondary architects of "The Sopranos"?

I don't know -- but I'm starting to think maybe it's that terrifically minimalist opening credits sequence, with Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) staring out at the ocean and coolly smoking a cigarette, watching the tide roll in bearing thousands of illicit bottles, then turning and walking back toward the boardwalk, his shoes and trouser legs miraculously dry again.  The music -- "Straight Up and Down," by Brian Jonestown Massacre -- sounds like the middle section of the greatest single the Rolling Stones never recorded, which of course subconsciously links the "Boardwalk" credits to the oeuvre of executive producer and pilot director Martin Scorsese, and then again to "The Sopranos," which specialized in touches that were Scorsesean yet somehow didn't flagrantly rip off Scorsese.

I've been watching and re-watching this opening credits sequence in the run-up to season two of "Boardwalk," and I think I might have finally figured out why it obsesses me so. It's because -- like some of the greatest sequences in Scorsese's films, and in the two most "Boardwalk"-like HBO series, "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood" -- the sequence is not realistic, but expressionistic and dreamy, a slightly mysterious but highly evocative glimpse into the personality of one character. It's subjective filmmaking, subjective storytelling. It considers a character from the inside out, rather than the other way around.

No actual episode of "Boardwalk Empire" has ever attempted anything quite like it. The closest the series got was some long, silent close-ups of key characters in season one: young Al Capone improbably enraptured by a bar mitzvah, and perhaps thinking that it's time he, too, finally became a man; treasury agent Nelson van Alden watching a group of black baptists praying down by a river, and savoring his own deep, if conflicted, Christian faith; the slow zoom into the face of Nucky's kept woman, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), at a meeting of Atlantic City's League of Women Voters, as she watches Nucky in the audience laughing it up with cronies, rudely oblivious to the speech of the mayoral candidate that Margaret just vouched for.

"Boardwalk" scrutinizes these and other characters from a great and detached distance, considering them mainly in terms of their plot function -- which is all right, I guess, if that's all you want from a TV series. And to be fair, that show's massive ambition and ever-expanding universe of story lines and characters is dazzling, in the way that an immense diorama or mural is dazzling.  "Boardwalk" is miles ahead of most hour-long dramas, so a part of me thinks, "The worst minute of this is better than the best hour of any broadcast network crime series, so why be ungrateful?" 

Because of the unrealized potential, that's why. The gifted kids always get criticized more harshly. "Boardwalk" is special, or has the potential to be special. Yet there have been too many times when it seemed to use a knack for period atmosphere and bloody gangster plotting to cover for the fact that it still didn't know what it's about.

One of the most powerful moments last season was the scene where Margaret finally walked out on Nucky, telling him, "There's goodness in you, I know it. How do you do what you do?" To which Nucky replied -- in a curiously flat reading by Buscemi -- "We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with." It was such sub-"Godfather" b.s., so utterly unremarkable, and seemed to bear very little relation to the character of Nucky. He's a lot of things -- clever, ruthless, mordantly funny, surprisingly charming -- but there isn't a spark of Scorsesean or David Chase-ean spiritual torment anywhere in him. He seemed to say that line because it's the sort of thing that post-"Godfather" gangsters are supposed to say when pressed by women they care about.

You can see this sort of disconnect in other major characters, too -- especially van Alden, who's really a grab-bag of cop-on-the-edge cliches and deranged Christian tight-ass cliches. His rigid determination to observe the letter of the law, his horrifying sadistic streak, his fascination with the angel Margaret and the attraction to the whore Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), are arresting but faintly ludicrous. He's like Popeye Doyle crossed with George C. Scott's character from "Hardcore," not so much multifaceted as messily fragmented, and apparently very gullible and dumb, otherwise he would have seen through the pathetic lies of that Judas underling that he ended up drowning in the river. (Michael Shannon's dour magnetism almost unifies the character -- but there are still moments where the panic in van Alden's eyes seems to have less to do with the character's demons than with the actor worrying that he's being asked to perform miracles that would not be necessary if the writers didn't treat van Alden as one-stop shopping for bug-house killjoy pathologies.)

But let's return to "The Sopranos" for a moment. As some of you know, I used to write about TV and pop culture for the Star-Ledger, the stomping grounds for David Chase's gangster epic. I covered the first three seasons of the series before handing it off to my brilliant colleague, Alan Sepinwall; during that period -- 1999 to 2002 -- I got regular emails and and letters from readers. Some were eager to discuss the show's take on psychology, suburban life, consumerism, the waning of the Baby Boom generation, and other recurring topics. Others -- the majority, honestly -- wanted only to complain that the show kept wasting their valuable time delving into that when what they really wanted to see was more gangster stuff: set-ups and double-crosses, torture scenes, beat-downs, assassinations, drug orgies, visits to strip clubs. This was the "less yakkin', more whackin'" contingent.

"Mad Men" is aimed at the first group, "Boardwalk" at the second. Writer-producer Matthew Weiner, whose "Sopranos" scripts zeroed in on psychology and class anxiety, created "Mad Men," which often feels like "The Sopranos" minus the gangsterism and cruelty -- a slightly caricatured TV cousin of John Updike and John Cheever's fiction, fascinated by the illusions that fuel the American dream, and the lies that its middle class tells itself. Terence Winter, on the other hand, went on to make a series that never seems more alive than when its male characters are engaged in colorful and often violent pissing contests. Not content to explore Prohibition-era Atlantic City as a microcosm of early 20th century America, the show almost instantly widened its focus to cover New York City and Chicago, and added so many gangsters and power brokers to its recurring cast -- Nucky Thompson, Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza);  the great, fictional gangster Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams); Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), a domineering tycoon based on German American hotelier and politician Louis Kuehnle -- that it started to feel like a "Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" album cover of crime.

The show's women are adjuncts to the main action -- even the moral compass Margaret Schroeder, who briefly threatened to become as central as Nucky, then was quickly reduced to kept woman status, a character defined almost entirely through her relationship to the show's male lead.  Cable TV is awash in crime dramas, but none has the overwhelming machismo of "Boardwalk Empire", and none validates the macho code so unironically through its choice of whom to focus on. During its first, twelve-hour season, it never really developed any of its major female characters except Margaret. Lucy Danziger remains a grasping, dimwitted, petty tramp who gets naked a lot; she's just a bit more sympathetic now because she's so pathetic, a broken and discarded sex doll. Gillian (Gretchen Mol), the mother of the Commodore's son and Nucky's protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), started out an aging, manipulative showgirl and has hasn't developed many new shadings; in the second half of season one, she was defined mainly through her sexual relationship with Lucky Luciano (which enraged her son), and the tidbits she's been given thus far in season two aren't exactly harbingers of a well-rounded, non-freakshow character. ("I used to kiss his little winky.") Compare this to "Breaking Bad", "Justified" and "Sons of Anarchy," crime series in which the women routinely affect and sometimes drive the action rather than merely being affected by it, and are complex and intriguing in their own right, and "Boardwalk" seems especially impoverished.

Jimmy's wife Angela (Aleska Palladino) briefly flirted with going off to Paris with a female lover, and had good reason to flee after Jimmy mistakenly thought Angela was having an affair with the woman's husband and thrashed him on the boardwalk in front of their son and dozens of onlookers; but she stayed with Jimmy, and it is impossible to discern what, if anything, the show makes of that beyond its immediate value in situating Jimmy, a World War I veteran who wants ... well, what, exactly? When Jimmy was in Chicago midway through season one, he didn't call his wife for months (although, as readers point out, his letters were intercepted by van Alden), and had an affair with a beautiful prostitute whose face was horribly slashed (the show eventually forgot all about her once Jimmy got revenge). Jimmy doesn't want to be just another gangster, yet he is one, and he's very good at it, if a bit hotheaded at times. But except for the occasional college-boy locutions -- which pleasantly surprised the intellectually vain Arnold Rothstein -- Jimmy still isn't a terribly distinctive character. He wants to escape Nucky's influence and define himself, but in relation to what, or against whom? In season two he's making an alliance with the Commodore and Nucky's resentful brother Eli (Shea Whigham); I can't decide if it makes sense for Jimmy to be betraying his surrogate father, who for all his faults is still three times the man that Eli or the Commodore will ever be, because Jimmy is still a question mark. The downside of not defining a character is that they're blobby and unsatisfying; the upside is, you can have them do whatever the plot requires, and nobody can complain that they're behaving inconsistently.

Michael Pitt's impossible challenge often reminds me of Michael Shannon's -- and Steve Buscemi's, and Kelly MacDonald's. He's being asked to make sense of a character who often doesn't make sense, and who often seems to be defined -- if indeed he's defined at all -- by the show's moment-to-moment storytelling needs. Even considering Margaret's financial problems after her husband's murder and her growing attraction to Nucky, I didn't entirely believe it when she became Nucky's kept woman, remained in that state for the rest of the season, and eventually returned to him even after she learned that it was Nucky who ordered her husband killed -- and when the new season began last night, she was still with him. This is not a feminist issue, it's a dramatic one. Was Margaret so moved by Nucky's story about losing his wife and baby that she put aside any misgivings she had and decided to try to save his soul and make a good man out of him? Could she be that naive? Is she more weak or hypocritical or damaged than she appears? I can't judge because the show hasn't given me enough information. When writing teachers tell students that action defines character, this is not what they mean.

The interior life goes largely unexamined in Winter's Atlantic City, and it's not a case where a show has decided, a la "The Wire," to depict its characters with an almost journalistic detachment. The characters on "The Wire" were defined in terse scenes and bold strokes, but you got a sense of what they were like on the inside, and you never found yourself two seasons in looking at a major character and thinking, "Who is this person?" The the direction, photography, editing and acting on "Boardwalk Empire" are so much more sophisticated than the writing that it's bewildering. When last night's season two premiere sent Nucky to jail, shored up a Jimmy-Eli-Commodore alliance, and introduced two new cities into the "Boardwalk" plot axis, I groaned. More locations, more gangster characters and more criminal subplots is really not what this series needs. What it needs is more interest in the characters' inner lives, and sense of purpose that's bigger than, "Let's see how much trouble Nucky can get himself out of this week." 

I love individual characters on the show as much as I loved anybody on "The Wire," "Deadwood" or "The Sopranos" -- Margaret Schroeder; the Commodore, who has shown us a terrifying new side of Dabney Coleman, and is turning into this show's version of George Hearst on "Deadwood"; Al Capone, who traded his little-boy porkpie for a proper fedora after his eureka moment at the bar mitzvah; the disfigured sharpshooter Richard Harrow (Jack Houston) with his slurred speech and "Phantom of the Opera" half-mask; Arnold Rothstein with his self-satisfied aphorisms and condescending lectures; Chalky White, who appears to be using his ill-gotten gains to lift himself, his light-skinned, obviously much more educated wife, and their brilliant son into Atlantic City's upper-middle class. (The scene in the premiere where Chalky, Nucky and Eli listened to the boy playing Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" on piano would have been as beautiful as as any of the suspended lyrical interludes on "Deadwood" if it had made any goddamn sense on a plot level. Terence Winter, are you really telling us that Eli and Nucky went over to Chalky's house to put him under house arrest and protect him from violent Klan retaliation, and they had small talk and listened to a recital first?)

But even when I'm getting wrapped up in Winter's world and its people, a misjudged touch will break the spell. The cut from Nucky declaring war on the Klan at a black church to Nucky promising to protect white Atlantic City against the negro menace was an amusing commentary on Nucky's "I'm whatever you want me to be" political style, but it fell apart when you considered how intimate Atlantic City was. Even if we take extreme racial segregation into account, wouldn't you think that both the white and black communities would eventually learn that Nucky played them both for fools? Atlantic City had a newspaper, didn't it? Richard Harrow is simply and powerfully conceived, like a real-world progenitor of the misunderstood monsters that would populate Universal horror films in the 1930s. We already knew that he adores Margaret and her children and covets their domestic tranquility, because we saw how he looked at them and how he acted in their presence. Was it necessary to drive that home with a scene of him going through magazines, cutting out pictures of mothers and children and pasting them into a scrapbook?

"Boardwalk Empire" is a transporting and engrossing series with passages of greatness, but it lacks faith in itself, and it's simultaneously too much and not enough. And it has yet to show us anything with the eerie power of that opening credits sequence: Nucky Thompson standing on the beach facing the vastness of the ocean, with its intimations of mortality, rebirth and subconscious demons, then turning away from it and loping back toward town. I'm starting to see the credits as an accidental analogy for the shortcomings of this promising, infuriating series, which would rather retreat toward the familiar than venture into the unknown.

Matt Zoller Seitz

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