Is "Boardwalk Empire" art or pulp?

The show's always torn between prestige drama and gangster shoot-'em-up. This season, will it decide?

Published September 8, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

  (HBO/Macall B. Polay)
(HBO/Macall B. Polay)

Throughout its existence, “Boardwalk Empire” has been criticized for trying to stand in two different worlds at the same time. One thing nobody will deny about the show is that it is a gorgeous experience aesthetically, with an extensive budget capable of creating Nucky Thompson's lavish surroundings and the show's intricate period details. The high-toned, period aspect of the show can sometimes make it a chore to watch, with some of the more historically-angled subplots feeling more like museum dioramas than contemporary TV. The other side of the show's personality -- the “low art” gangster half -- is, well, more lurid. “Boardwalk Empire” has regularly featured some of the most graphic violence and gratuitous nudity of any HBO show. In that sense, the show might be the best example of HBO's perennial push and pull between high-minded drama and crowd-pleasing pulp, the tension between the intricate TV storytelling it helped pioneer and the rawer content it can get away with.

A lot of HBO shows walk that line. What some critics argue is that “Boardwalk Empire” doesn't do it as well, or at least doesn't live up the pedigree of the parties involved. Whether entirely fair or not, “Boardwalk Empire” has always lived in the shadow of “The Sopranos.” Like “Mad Men," “Boardwalk Empire” has a “Sopranos” alum in showrunner Terence Winter. Unlike "Mad Men'"s Matthew Weiner, Winter didn't depart too far from his old gig's territory. He doubled down with another Jersey-set crime saga, featuring another flawed protagonist and another expansive palette of supporting characters. It's been positioned—though by writers perhaps more so than by the network itself—as HBO's official successor to “The Sopranos,” a new gritty prestige drama to fill out a drama lineup otherwise dominated by fantasies (“Game of Thrones”; “True Blood”) and “The Newsroom,” a show that's been troubled since its premiere.

That onus might be artificially written onto “Boardwalk Empire,” but the show doesn't do itself any favors: Margaret and Owen's affair last season consummated what Carmela and Furio had only danced around, both storylines revolving around the boss's wife falling for the right-hand man. Perpetually being compared to “The Sopranos” isn't going to be a blessing for any show. In the case of “Boardwalk Empire,” though, it seems to hold the show in a pattern of criticism for not balancing its violent outbursts and artistic concerns as well as the show that basically invented HBO's split personality.

Once you get past all that, though, it becomes evident that there's a lot more at play than “Boardwalk Empire” is given credit for, particularly in the slight modulations of its violence. When the show killed off Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody at the end of Season 2, it killed off the show's emotional core and its real driving force. Try as the show might to position Nucky as a protagonist as complicated and magnetic as the best of the last fifteen years' legion of male antiheroes, he's been regularly overshadowed by characters far more tortured and engaging, not least of which are the too-often benched Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). With Jimmy went much of the show's conscience and emotional arc (however warped both were, and remain). In its place, we've received something that is at once more banal and vulgar, but that also might expose the show's brilliance.

The premiere of Season 3 opens with a shot of the back of Gyp Rosetti's (Bobby Cannavale) head, and though he's wearing a hat it's not long before you notice his haircut is conspicuously similar to the one Michael Pitt sported for the bulk of his time as Jimmy. The show was clear enough with its intentions from the get-go: Gyp was directly positioned as a replacement for Jimmy in any number of thematic ways. He's a counterpart to Nucky, though more explicitly a nemesis than Jimmy had ever believably been. While Jimmy was vicious and hot-headed, he could also appear physically slight alongside some of the other thugs populating the show. Gyp was a tall, dark upgrade, prone to much more flamboyant and brutal outbursts than his predecessor's more taciturn sullenness. What was less immediately clear about the swap of Jimmy for Gyp was that it wasn't just a matter of plot needs or character arc. It also represented a crucial shift in the inner nature of the show. Jimmy had been the show's compass and heart, as fractured as he was. Gyp would become the show's id manifested and unleashed.

This changed the timbre of the show. “Boardwalk Empire” previously used violence to jolt, as bursts that ruptured the manicured stateliness the show maintained even while depicting whorehouses and backroom politicking. There were moments where the violence appeared to be the show's own bit of irreverence towards itself and towards the period set-pieces it so lovingly rendered. There's the blood spattering onto the camera lens as Colosimo is murdered in the pilot, then pooling onto the pristine floor of his restaurant. A few episodes later Jimmy and Al Capone kill Charlie Sheridan and his henchmen ruthlessly and quickly in a building's lobby, the bloodstains dark against the glistening marble.

Elsewhere, the show's violence was disturbing, out of a fever dream, as psychological as it was physical. Towards the end of the first season, Van Alden “baptizes” Agent Sebso in a river surrounded by black Baptists, then screams at the sky “Thou hast fulfilled the judgment of the wicked!” after he finishes drowning him. It remains one of the show's most striking scenes. A season later, we see Jimmy's drug-haze reaction to Angela's death play out alongside nightmares of his past, culminating in him choking his mother, him being speared in the shoulder by his father, and then he in turn driving a knife into his father's stomach. In either instance violence was intended to be jarring, stark against the show's majesty, justifiable for the way it boiled out of the characters' innermost turmoil.

In Jimmy's place in stalked Gyp, a human embodiment of animalistic urges and appetite, and with him a different brand of violence. For a long time, there didn't seem to be anything interesting about the character, even with an actor as great as Cannavale in the role. Gyp was in many ways a cartoon villain: vein-popping intensity and rage, not so much human definition. Sure, his first episode was lined with moments made to tip you off to just how much of a loose cannon this guy was; the first scene of the third season revolves around him beating a man to death because he supposedly insulted his intelligence. Eventually, you get brief glimpses into his family life, his interactions with his superior Masseria; you get some sense of how this man became the way he is. But for several episodes, we get this first kind of Rosetti, and it was a bit of a drag — we had lost a layered, beloved character in Jimmy, and Gyp wasn't yet dynamic enough to sell the audience on this move. He was a functioning stereotype, and he was surrounded by the dead weight of storylines that reached too much towards historical-contemporary resonance, like Margaret's crusade for sex-ed classes at the hospital. There certainly didn't seem to be anything symbolic about Gyp. The first half of the season didn't bode well for a “Boardwalk Empire” sans Jimmy Darmody.

Then we arrived at the fifth episode of Season 3, “You'd Be Surprised.” Fed up with Gyp's encampment in Tabor Heights preventing Nucky's alcohol shipments from reaching New York, Arnold Rothstein arranges for a hit to be carried out by a teenaged Benjamin (later Bugsy) Siegel. After shooting one guard, Siegel breaks into Gyp's bedroom, where he's having sex while being choked with a belt. Gyp uses the woman as a shield, Siegel flees, and more are shot in the process. In one of the show's most haunting images, Gyp walks slowly through the house — naked, covered in blood, gun in hand and belt still firmly around his neck. Whether or not this character had any motivation or backstory ceased to matter. Gyp suddenly appeared as pure, primal evil. A force of nature. Now he had become symbolic.

“You can't be half a gangster,” went the tagline for Season 3, alluding to Nucky's transformation to a more hands-on type criminal in the wake of his murder of Jimmy. The slogan could have just as well applied to the show's new attitude, as it moved closer towards the pulpier, nastier edges of its personality, bottling it all up neatly in Gyp Rosetti and waiting for it to pop. You want violence? Here's Owen Sleater, one of the most likable characters, caked in blood and stuffed in a box. Here's one last angelic shot of Billie Kent before she dies in the massive explosion that destroy's Babette's Supper Club. Here's a shootout in Nucky's Ritz suite, his inner sanctum and a key set of the show finally violated, and him cast out on the run, with his back against the wall.

It all culminates in one four-and-a-half-minute sequence in last season's finale. Richard Harrow appears silently like an angel of vengeance in the Artemis Club brothel, and proceeds to single-handedly slaughter what remains of Gyp's crew so that he can reach Tommy and take him away from Gillian. It's the kind of thing that feels cathartic because of the slow build of the season, and also because of the nature of the character. In that regard, it's not the show so much indulging its dirtier side as a logical and well-structured payoff to Season 3. But the sheer surreal intensity of it takes it to a different level, a crowd-pleasing, primarily one-sided shootup, the kind of full-tilt behavior from which the show had previously restrained itself. With the figure of Gyp looming over it, everything in Season 3 came to feel more elemental, more unhinged.

Gyp dies ignominiously on the beach, as we were introduced to him, emphasizing the fact that he was a being of base drives, and the fact that he had blown up the human refinement that had so long constricted “Boardwalk Empire.” You could look at this scene and assume the show was tightening back up the reins on what it had just let loose, and perhaps there are signs pointing towards that. Soon after Season 3 concluded, Winter said he saw the entire show as a multi-part, novelistic project, and implied that with the spectrum of characters and locations already established, it could become more about the rise of organized crime in America than about bootlegging in Atlantic City specifically. It's a fascinating idea, to consider that a show willing to execute one of its most compelling characters could depart from its original premise entirely, and, say, have Lucky Luciano be one of the main protagonists by the show's end (which would play along with the rise and fall of these people historically).

It also sure reads as prestige drama territory, and coupled with this upcoming season's tagline — “Only Kings Understand Each Other” — one could fear that “Boardwalk Empire” would teeter back in the other direction of being too focused on its pretty sets and clever historical tie-ins. But Season 3 suggested the show had become increasingly satisfied with being a gritty crime drama, adapting a new villain-per-season format and remaining rougher and more confrontational than its first two seasons. We know what the true nature of these “kings” happens to be now that it's been laid bare before us. For a few episodes there, “Boardwalk Empire” leaned definitively towards one end of the HBO spectrum, and not only did it make for some of its most entertaining moments, it also felt more honest. The show had come to terms with its own twisted motives, and even if Winter's sprawling vision comes to pass it'd be a shame to put an end to that. After all, maybe the best way to stare into the darkest corners of America's soul and history is to come to more fully understand the darkest corners of your own.

By Ryan Leas

Ryan Leas (@RyanLeas) is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also written for, Stereogum, and the Village Voice's music blog Sound of the City.


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