Why haven’t we heard more about how great Boardwalk Empire has become? Three seasons in, and the prohibition-era gangster story has finally come good on all the potential it showed when it debuted back in 2010, yet this year it was pushed out of the Outstanding Drama Series category at the Emmys, overlooked for the impressive yet inferior Downton Abbey, House of Cards and Homeland. Rarely is the show mentioned alongside the very best that small screen drama currently has to offer, namely Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but if it keeps up the quality it manages to hit during the back end of Season 3 then it has every chance of establishing itself amongst the greats of this golden era of television.
It’s perhaps understandable that some people will require some convincing that Boardwalk has finally made the leap from very good to great. The first two seasons, while visually spectacular, impeccably paced and wonderfully acted, always felt like they were holding something back. And then, just as the second season reached its climax, creator Terence Winter killed off the show’s most interesting character in Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, and with him went arguably the most compelling character relationship too between Jimmy and our antihero, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi).
But Season 3 returns with renewed verve. A little over a year on from the Season 2 finale, Nucky is making good on no longer being “half a gangster,” but that brings him a new foe in the form of Bobby Cannavale’s Gyp Rosetti. Gyp’s a little like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, only he takes offense easier. Some may find him a little cartoonish, and Cannavale certainly has a lot of fun hamming it up to play the character, but he’s also well-drawn by Winter and his writing team, and as a plot-driving device he works superbly. In its broadest strokes, this third season is about Nucky embracing what it means to be a no holds barred gangster – even if his eyes are being drawn away from the prize by beautiful showgirl Billie Kent – and fighting to keep control of Atlantic City as he does.
But in Boardwalk Empire, there’s always interesting stuff going on around the edges too. How could there not be with a supporting cast as strong as this? Shea Wigham gets some great material this season as Eli slowly tries to rebuild his relationship with Nucky. Jack Huston, still magnetic as the facially disfigured Richard Harrow, remains relevant while on the fringes, and develops a crucial relationship with Jimmy’s orphaned son as well as enjoying a romantic subplot. Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White and Stephen Graham’s Al Capone both get a couple of wonderful spotlight episodes early on, before both playing key roles as the conflict between Nucky and Gyp reaches a head. There are almost too many characters to mention, and that’s a problem the show has to deal with too as wonderful actors and characters are routinely asked to sit on the sidelines for a number of episodes as there’s just not enough time to service them all each week.
What’s impressive though, is how just about every plotline comes together in the final few episodes. No subplot, no character, no scene or even line from the season proves superfluous. Characters develop at just the rate they need to in order to serve the story, but never at the expense of that character either. By the time the final couple of episodes roll around, and the penultimate episode ‘Two Imposters’ may be one of the finest single hours of television in recent years, Winter’s grand plan for the season falls into place in a flawless fashion. The final scene of ‘Two Imposters’ plays out like Boardwalk’s Avengers Assemble, and, for want of a better phrase, it’s absolutely fucking awesome. That’s perhaps why this season is a marked step up from the previous two. It’s still got all of the things going for it that the other two had, yet it does all of them just that little bit better and has a handful of additional moments that make you want to stand up and applaud. The pace is a little more brisk, the stakes feel higher, and those standout moments are more exciting than the ones that came before. Roll on Season 4.