Boardwalk Empire: Resolution

Ok, the first point I’d like to make about the Boardwalk Empire premiere involves a massive spoiler from last season’s finale, so let’s just start this whole thing after the jump. My apologies to those who were looking forward to a little more pre-jump introduction.

As all you Boardwalk Empire fans must surely know, the third season of everyone’s favorite Prohibition-era gangster show has some pretty hefty shoes to fill. The Nucky/Jimmy relationship was, in a way, the emotional center at the very core of the show, and it was a gutsy move to wipe that relationship off the map forever. Now, what Boardwalk Empire’s got to do is prove that killing Jimmy was worth it. It’s got to show all us folk in the audience that a post-Jimmy world is just as thrilling (maybe even more so), then the Jimmy-filled world we’ve all been used to.

And judging from the quality of “Resolution,” I’d say that we’re off to a solid start. The biggest, most blatant change here is how Nucky’s handling himself now that he’s the undisputed king of Jersey. That “half a gangster” stuff is nothing but a distant memory at this point, and “Resolution” seems intent to prove that within Nucky’s first few minutes of screen time. When Nucky’s interrogating the poor schmuck that robbed one of his warehouses, he is in total command of that room. He casually insults Mickey Doyle, tauntingly dangles forgiveness in front of the thief’s eyes before ordering his execution (an execution filmed in a rather poetic view from an outside vantage point), and overall seems to have neither the time nor the patience to deal with these pathetic underlings that trod underneath his feet.

That same inflated sense of self-worth applies to Margaret tenfold. All throughout the episode we see Nucky and Margaret as the perfect picture of wedded bliss, with soft smiles and hearty chuckles, and always surrounded by swarms of people desperate to kiss up to Jersey’s first family. And once they get a little alone time, Nucky doesn’t waste a second before tearing her down for the heinous crime of unintentionally provoking a raging windbag of a doctor. Whatever ups or downs these two had last season, Margaret’s generous donation of Nucky’s money has put a wall between these two that looks to be fairly permanent.

It also doesn’t help that Nucky’s found a new squeeze for this season, and casually recommends that a female aviator should “spread her legs” rather than the wings of a plane. Nucky’s still an enigmatic, fascinating protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t also be a gigantic sleaze.

So it makes sense that Margaret, like Nucky, has herself progressed down the path we saw her take last season. Not content to fund a massive new wing at the local hospital, she’s now advocating for prenatal education for expectant mothers and getting some serious inspiration from the female pilot Nucky casually writes off with a crude joke. She’s being belittled, disregarded, and faced with ugly sneers every step of the way, but Margaret isn’t exactly the type of person to back down from this sort of challenge.

Now frankly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Margaret we saw in last season’s finale- the extreme religious aspects to her character seemed just a little bit too preachy and unhinged to be relatable. So I’m more than a little satisfied to find that in the year between seasons two and three, Margaret’s transitioned from an overly pious figure to some kind of proto-feminist women’s rights advocate. A Margaret that tries to combat Nucky’s dark side with religion just doesn’t seem to sit right, but a Margaret that’s fighting back against the blatant sexism of Nucky and his peers seems much more appealing.

So now I’d like to move on to the first major new addition to Boardwalk Empire‘s third season, namely Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti. I’m a big fan of Cannavale (if you haven’t seen him in The Station Agent, stop reading this immediately and go rent that film right now), but the character of Rosetti just doesn’t seem to have enough depth. The idea of a mobster that flies off the handle because of any real or imaginary slight isn’t exactly a new idea, and while Cannavale certainly sells that anger well, there’s nothing Rosetti does in this episode that really makes him stand out as a villain. It also doesn’t help that unprovoked, unbridled rage is something we already saw plenty of in Jimmy Darmody.

And while Jimmy may be gone, the last lingering shreds of the Darmody name still live on. Gillian’s turned the Commodore’s vast mansion into the “Artemis Club,” a swanky-looking establishment of ill repute. Yet while Gillian had Jimmy wrapped around her little finger by the end of last season, she’s not nearly as effective at dealing with Richard Harrow. Jack Huston continues to work wonders onscreen with only half of his face and a monotone, gravelly voice, and Richard continues to be one of the most unique and captivating characters on television. Richard, in his own broken way, is an incredibly affectionate human being- it’s just that he only seems capable of showing that affection through violence. His bond with Jimmy was never expressed through words, but rather through Richard’s offer to join Jimmy on his final, one-way trip to meet with Nucky. So now that the only remnant of Jimmy’s life is his son Tommy, Richard proves his loyalty the same way, only with a BB gun instead of a real one. And when Gillian threatens to erase Angela from Tommy’s memory altogether, Richard fights back the only way he knows how: violent retribution for Angela’s death. Gillian may think she has the upper hand for now, but the people who stand in the way of Richard Harrow don’t often last long on this show.

But by far, my favorite moment in “Resolution” comes from the one major player I haven’t discussed yet.

All throughout season two of Boardwalk Empire, I found myself at odds with Nelson Van Alden’s place in the show. Except for the brief moment where he became part of the case against Nucky, Van Alden was adrift in his own little parallel storyline. While Michael Shannon is an extraordinarily talented actor and it’s always a pleasure to see him dial up the creepy factor as Van Alden, it’s somewhat jarring to have Van Alden be so insignificant to the overall Nucky/gangster storyline.

So I was somewhat hesitant when Van Alden showed up in “Resolution.” Would he actually play an active role in the story this year? Would we get more of the same, with an entertaining story that’s completely useless to the overarching narrative of the show?

And then Nelson Van Alden, unassuming little briefcase full of electric irons and everything, barges into Dean O’Banion’s flower shop right as Al Capone plans on doing something unspeakable to O’Banion. At that moment, everything clicked into place and Van Alden instantly reclaimed his rightful place as a crucial cog in the Boardwalk Empire universe.

There’s so much to love in that one little scene. The way Van Alden, holding up his briefcase to intimidate Capone, toes the line between being imposing and being awkwardly funny. The way the camera downplays Michael Shannon’s height in every scene beforehand, then makes use of every inch of his 6’3” frame once he’s glaring down at Capone. The little half-smile on Van Alden’s face as he realizes he’s just (presumably) won his sales competition with the sale of two dozen irons.

The magnitude of this moment even carries through the rest of Van Alden’s scenes in the episode. When he loses the prize money under shaky circumstances, he becomes a towering figure once more when compared to his boss, even if his words still seem timid. And when he returns home, there’s the added tension because we’re all waiting for Van Alden to throw his family man image to the curb and start working for the mob. At that point, it’s almost a guarantee that we’ll see the completely insane side of Van Alden once more.

I can barely contain my excitement.

Some notes to depart on:

  • Some really great editing moments in tonight’s episode- Van Alden dissolving from one house to the next with a constant stream of rejection, and the contrast in colors when we cut from the drab New Year’s party at Van Alden’s job to the luxurious one that Nucky throws.
  • There seems to be a recurring theme where the innocence of children is compared to the evils of mob life. Tommy Darmody is the last bastion of goodness in the lives of Gillian and Richard, Nucky’s new squeeze is introduced to Margaret’s son, and a dog claimed in a vicious mob murder is given to Margaret as a gift for her kids.
  • Creepiest moment of the episode: the guests at Nucky’s New Year’s Eve party digging into that treasure chest like ravenous wild dogs. Even Nucky seemed to realize that had gone way too far.
  • And yet HBO spends just as extravagantly by including a live elephant in a single shot of Richard and Tommy at the flea circus. That circus could have been just as convincing sans elephant, and the camera never really highlights the elephant anyway. It just seems like an unnecessary and incredibly expensive detail. Unless HBO happened to own an elephant or two of their own, and were able to use one free of charge.
  • RIP Manny Horvitz. Your kvetching will be sorely missed.

Well, that should about do it for this round. I’ll be back shortly to cover episode two.

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