Archive | 11:54 am

End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire

5 Dec

Nuckie and Friends

This was certainly the weakest season of Boardwalk Empire’s three year run (the second was definitely the high point, the first is just a little better than this one), and it ended with a not entirely unsatisfying conclusion, but a not entirely satisfying one either.  I hashed out a much longer article breaking down this season of Boardwalk character by character a couple of episodes ago, and I still may post that, but I’d like to post some general thoughts on the Boardwalk finale and third season in general while it’s still fresh.

One of the primary reasons for the inferiority of the season on a whole is the lack of focus.  Nuckie, the star, continues to be the strongest character; he’s generally treated with the complexity and depth he deserves, and Buscemi carries it off well.  Beyond him, however, the show is a bit of a mess.

His wife, Margaret Thompson, is clearly the second most important character, and in her vast amount of screen time, she provided the worst and least interesting major multi-episode plot this year; her struggle to fight within her limited means as a woman at a Catholic hospital towards medical progress in women’s medical care.   It’s the stuff of a an hour and a half Julia Roberts movie, “The story of one woman’s fight against the government and the church to make pregnancy safer for women” and while it certainly could be inspirational, it was boring, repetitive, didn’t belong in the greater scope of the show, and felt like it was just there to show us that Margaret wasn’t useless, and that she was a powerful women who could fight the man.  Again, I’m not saying this general story couldn’t have ever worked in some form, but it didn’t work in context, and it was clumsily handled.  Her other major plotline was her affair with Owen.  This only interested so far as the effect it could have had on Nuckie, and frankly kind of took away from the other Owen storylines.

The lack of focus was especially clear in the finale when side characters who were largely absent most of the season all of a sudden came back to play large roles, while other characters to whom much more time was devoted during the course of the season were entirely absent.  I by no means believe every character needs to be in every episode or have an equal amount of screen time, but if certain characters are going to be more important at the season’s climax, they should get some more screen time, and I think the time was parceled out very poorly this season.  Additionally, I don’t think the creators necessarily understand which of their characters deserve more screen time in general.

For example, Chalky White, who was basically a non-entity through the vast majority of the season, comes around to play a crucial role in the last two episodes.  I would go so far even to say Chalky has been a non-entity for the vast majority of the entire run of the show; in my longer piece, one of my pieces of advice was that since the writers have decided he’s not important enough to devote more time to, that they should just trim the fat and cut him out entirely.  I do think Chalky can be an interesting and worthwhile character, but I think the writers should have shown more dedication to him over the course of the show if they want us to care about him and treat him as an important character, like they try to in his maybe one showcase episode a season.

Richard Harrow has become a fan favorite, and for good reason; he’s one of the few characters that seems to get just enough screen time and have just enough going on to keep him both interesting and relevant.  While his relationship to the main storyline was often tenuous, it was still significantly closer than say Nelson, and it was easier to take because his arc was compelling enough to live on its own.

Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky; these are all sideline characters; they’re great to have in a show, but they’re characters who are important mostly in how they alter the behavior and decisions of our more major characters.  Capone, for example, gets a small little moment where we see him interacting with his son, but for the rest it feels largely like the show is just telling us to keep watching as Capone moves up to conquer Chicago, like we all know we will.

Primary season 3 antagonist Gyp Rosetti was that was as well; he was a force to be reckoned with, but there wasn’t much going on with his character other than he was a violent psychopath determined to take down Nuckie.  There were some beautifully rendered hyper violent scenes showing just how crazy he was (it seemed like one an episode) and Bobby Cannavale handled the part very well.  Still there wasn’t much going on in terms of motivations or subtitles with him; he mostly existed to put Nuckie in a jam.  Again, it’s fine to have characters like this, who are pretty cool but relatively one-dimensional, but Boardwalk could do a better job investing either more time in the characters on the map that have a little more emotional depth going for them, or add some more subtle layers of depth to these characters.

Nelson Van Alden, who may have gotten the third most screen time during this season after Nuckie and Margaret, didn’t even appear in the finale.  I would have eliminated Nelson’s plot if I was planning out the third season.  Not because I don’t think his character could have any value, but because it just didn’t seem to fit and I don’t find his character in and of itself compelling enough to support his own entirely unrelated subplot, especially when I think focus is such a pervasive problem on the show.

Overall, I think the finale represented a smarter blend of characters than the majority of the season.  Margaret and Nelson’s being largely absent was notable more because they’ve occupied such huge roles over the course of the season than because they were missed in the plot or the flow of the episode.

Okay, these couple of thoughts have gone on far longer than I intended, but I’ll wrap up here.  The second season really came together in the last few episodes over the rise and fall of Jimmy Darmody and Nuckie’s ability to stand up against a series of ultimate betrayals by people he trusted.  The third season felt far more haphazard, zigging and zagging in odd ways to make sure that it reached a resolution after exactly 12 episodes.  Going forward, I’d advise Boardwalk Empire to plan better from the start of the season, to trim the fat, and to take more time to consider who the show is spending what amount of screen time with.