S301 – “Resolutions”
Dir: Tim Van Patten
The deft-handed Gangster-television director Tim Van Patten brings us back into the swing of things in Prohibition era Atlantic City with the 3rd Season opener of Boardwalk Empire, taking on the challenge of following up the last run’s conclusive shake-up (which Van Patten also directed). The new episode has the show continuing with the same general pace, attention to period detail, and chess move-like development of its character narratives that it has maintained since Episode 1. Eschewing an abundance of show-stopping gestures, the episode deliberately establishes a sense of a new business as usual. Like all things in Atlantic City, even the most impacting of individual events are quickly washed away by the tide of booze and alcohol. Transitions happen quickly and allegiances shift without missing a beat, with only the very few unmotivated by cash and power left to hold grudges. As the final moments of this episode make clear though- it is those grudges and those that hold them that can be the worst nightmares of the powerful.
While the previous season’s shocking closer stopped short of showing Nucky hunched over Jimmy Darmody’s body and devouring his heart to absorb his gangster essence, this season opener certainly goes out of its way to demonstrate Nucky has unapologetically balanced out his “half a gangster” equation (he’s not looking for forgiveness, remember?). Buscemi is all low-angle shots and dramatic framing in this episode, with his throne brightly shining again. These days he lives a dual life with a higher dynamic range- no longer a bureaucrat with one dirty hand and one clean one washing each other, he’s a gangster and a philanthropist operating deeper on both ends of the spectrum.
A neat storytelling decision shoves us a good ways further into the Prohibition timeline- definitely no more than year or so, but I haven’t figured out exactly how much time has elapsed but hospitals have been built, brothels established, and fortunes amply re-accumulated. This helps to give the new season some momentum of its own. We shouldn’t worry though, as the big stuff from before is clearly still smoldering. Nucky –assuredly using the political and interpersonal skill we’re well familiar with– has long moved past Margaret’s decision to fuck him out of his highway fortune, and has characteristically spun the setback to his advantage. We don’t need to see how all that went down, but we’re sure going to see how those lingering resentments play out.
Meanwhile, many of our side characters seem to be desperately seeking the kind of status quo that Nucky has rebuilt for himself. The fugitive former-agent Van Alden is trying and failing to build a quiet family life, and it sure looks like we’re about to find out what would have happened if Willy Loman had ever proven useful to a local gangster. We also might find out what special skills a former G man can bring to the rum-running trade. In that same territory Al Capone is all tempered temper and potential energy biding its time, with the un-killable Manny Horvitz also relatively collared as a cog in Nucky’s machine who uncharacteristically asks permission to strike out on his own.
Even the Harding administration is in a tough place, which Nucky aggressively points out from his high tower that, while evidently quite solid once again, still shows the fresh mortar of a structure rebuilt from near ruins. The show has ostensibly reset itself back to where it was at its start, and you can be sure many parties will be looking to climb up and take over that tower all over again, especially when Nucky is rather shameless about not only showing off, but outright giving away the diamond-encrusted contents of its coffers. It’s apparent none will be trying harder than the newly introduced Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Carnavale), who overcomes a real clunker of an introduction to become a promising threat to Nucky’s hard-won status quo. Equipped with a sharp tongue, a short-fuse, and a powerful network of his own, he should prove to be an interesting threat for a room full of comfortable men.
If there is any man in Atlantic City who is absolutely uncomfortable though, it’s the porcelain-faced Richard Harrow, whose loyalty to Jimmy’s child has rooted him in the new Darmody household. Gillian has made the natural transition into an upper-curst madame all while effectively erasing Tommy’s mother from the young boy’s memory, in an attempt to establish her most fucked up relationship with a family member yet. I guess since raising a son with an uncomfortable dynamic in a highly sexualized environment worked out so well for her the first time.
Aside from a clunky opening and a sense that Margaret is being set up for an overly familiar personal struggle, this episode’s biggest sin is the same as virtually every episode of Boardwalk Empire: not nearly enough Chalky White or Arnold Rothstein. The latter at least manages a few unremarkable minutes, but the sharpest-dressing gangster in a town full of them is conspicuously absent from the premiere. I can only hope that’s because his re-debut is set to be a long, impressive one. With such a major character departed from the show for this season, I hope Winter & co. use that as an opportunity to increase the screentime shares of a few of its most beloved assets.
Boardwalk Empire has always maintained a stubbornly consistent pacing that doesn’t always allow it to move as fast or as mean as we would like, but so far I feel it’s been worth it for the sheer sense of confidence the show maintains. This opener, while by no means a barn burner, is right in line with that sensibility, which values the density of rich nuance rather than the velocity of propulsive storytelling. It tells the story of a changing world that moved slower, and still found awe in the sight of a rickety aeroplane gliding through the sky, inside it a person doing something no one had ever done before. It’s literary television, and it’s a beautiful thing to have it back.