Boardwalk Empire is getting so good, you guys. Last night’s episode made me wonder once again what we, the TV-watching public, did to get to watch a fucking Martin Scorcese movie written by Terrence Winter (the same guy who wrote much of The Sopranos) every week. TV has has been acknowledge as not-necessarily-an-idiot’s-past time for a while now, and this seals the deal: for every trashy episode of Real Housewives one watches, an episode of Boardwalk will cancel that shit out.
The episode opens with Nucky Thompson experiencing the consequences of his concussion. For the first time, we see him without all his faculties in tact, and this provides the chance for some real narrative blowback as he tries to come to grips with the fact that his spunky girlfriend (who he, and viewers, began to really care about in the last episode) is dead because of him. I’d been thinking for a while that one of “the cheeldren” was going to get it, but he probably loved Billy Kent more, so this makes perfect sense. But where a lot of TV shows use the “someone got hit on the head” conceit for sympathetic or melodramatic purposes, Nucky doesn’t get more sympathetic at all. This is, after all, a man who has become a bad guy through decisions that were entirely his own. Unlike Gillian, he’s not acting out some pathology borne of childhood abuse, unless you count wanting to be a bigger man than his father. And as his hallucinations reveal, he’s a huge racist who only respects Chalky White for his usefulness to him. (I have faith the show will return to Chalky’s story soon enough.)
Like the viewer, Margaret doesn’t have that much sympathy for Nucky here, especially when he keeps mistaking her for the woman he was cheating on her with. She knows any sign of weakness on Nucky’s part will put her and her brood in jeopardy, so she gives a classic Lady Macbeth pep talk that basically boils down to “screw your brain to the sticking place.” He delivers an improbable hail Mary not seen on TV since flu-sick Leslie Knope nailed it on that episode of Parks and Recreation, but oh, wait, it’s not enough! Nobody wants to go to war with Joe Masseria because he’s big and scary and controls the mafia, even though it’s been established that Gyp Rosetti is a fucking psycho who will kill any and all of them, should he feel like it. But if there’s anything this show has taught us before, it’s that Nucky always gets the last laugh. Could he have a bullet with Arnold Rothstein‘s name on it? (Related: I refuse to learn about the real Arnold Rothstein or anyone else the show is based on until it’s over, because I don’t want to know what happens. And I love history. THAT’S HOW GOOD IT IS.)
Then we have Margaret, a conflicted, complicit mob wife up there with Carmela Soprano and Skyler White. I’ve gone back and forth on her over time—She thinks Jesus gave her daughter polio and is mean to the help, she sucks! No wait, she’s a budding feminist, she rules!—but she’s getting pretty bad ass this season, both in her treatment of Nucky and stated desire to run away with her hunky (and sick of being a hitman) lover Owen Sleater. Something tells me she’s going to make her move sooner than later, now that Nucky is weak.
And then there’s Richard Harrow‘s adorable budding love story. Just when he was threatening to become a sad, depressing, caricature of a deformed war veteran with nothing left to lose, love blooms in his heart! He met a woman who seems to appreciate the nice parts of his soul, the part that drives him to make scrapbooks of the life that he longs for, and unlike Angela Darmody, she’s not married to his only friend. Let’s hope his prospects are improved by his career shift from “hired assassin” to “whorehouse babysitter.”
Speaking of which…Gillian is really a bionic bitch now, no? Utterly unwilling to take responsibility for the sexual corruption of not one, but two children she’s in charge of, she blames Richard Harrow for young Tommy seeing what he was bound to see eventually in this “hoo-ah house” (as Lucky Luciano so charmingly pronounces it). She’s such a complex tangle of sympathetic and evil that she deserves her own post, much murkier than Nucky, but for now I will say that I hope she spurs Harrow’s continuing interest in workers’ rights.
Speaking of which…this show has been criticized at times for being too broad and far-ranging, with more characters than a Russian novel, but I think that’s one its greatest strengths. It manages to make us care about (or at least take an interest in) a whole mess of characters at once. This broadness enables it to cover many sections of society, and how they interacted (and still interact) to make history happen. That Scorcese could capture the story of rich, poor, black, white, bohemian, government, and criminal (both the rational kind and the sociopathic kind) shows that it is possible to make a show with an inclusive look at society, you just have to be really fucking good. (Take note, Lena Dunham.)
Lastly, no single character is more important than the story they’re telling. Take, for instance, the death of Jimmy Darmody, arguably the protagonist for much of last season. What was initially shocking and tough for viewers to accept is now an essential narrative motivator, the catalyst that set many events in motion. At the start of the season, I questioned where the show could possibly go from there. To even better places, of course.
TL;DR: don’t get distracted by the sumptuous sets and exposed boobs. Until Mad Men and Breaking Bad come back, Boardwalk is indisputably the best show on television right now, and belongs right up there with The Wire and The Sopranos.