Following the election, corrupt treasurer Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) finds his list of allies growing thin. In a bid to remove him from power, Nucky’s former right-hand man Jimmy Darmody (Pitt) and Sheriff brother Eli (Whigham) side with his former mentor, The Commodore (Coleman), looking to seize control of Atlantic City for themselves. Elsewhere, a Ku Klux Klan attack on Chalky White (Williams) threatens to incite a race war, Special Agent Van Alden (Shannon) is busy dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder (Macdonald) begins to experience a crisis of conscience…
Created by key Sopranos writer Terence Winter, boasting a top ensemble cast, bolstered by the input of acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese (who helmed the pilot) and frequently directed by Tim Van Patten (who fits between all the finest shows on TV), no one could accuse Boardwalk Empire of lacking pedigree. But yet, despite all the undoubted talent and ambition, the first season of HBO’s lavish period piece never quite felt like the finished article and lacked that crucial spark. For all the intelligent writing and dense plotting, the deliberately-unfolding narrative veered between gripping and uninvolving, while the measured, slow-burn storytelling too often segued into frustratingly sluggish territory. In short, it was classy and promising, but not (yet) as brilliant as we hoped.
Happily though, Winter and his writers have clearly taken stock as the second season is a definite improvement. While still not the top-drawer flagship HBO wants it to be, Boardwalk Empire wisely allows more time to the show’s most interesting characters (such as Jack Huston’s haunting hitman Richard Harrow and Michael K. William’s righteous bootlegger Chalky White) while providing a sharper overall sense of direction. Again, there’s a myriad of plot threads and arcs to juggle (which may still prove impenetrable to lazier viewers), yet all the storylines loosely revolve around Nucky’s fall from grace and the simultaneous rise of his former protégé, Jimmy Darmody.
While popular character actor Steve Buscemi continues to split opinion as the former (some rave about his performance, others maintain he’s miscast), Michael Pitt’s brooding, conflicted turn places the latter as, arguably, the show’s most intriguing figure. Though including more ‘action’ and brutal violence (see episode nine’s climax which involves a meat cleaver and a “Fresh Killed Meat” sign), Boardwalk remains a talky show about political manoeuvring, power plays and complex relationships. In amongst the impressive ensemble there’s a few new faces for us to get to grips with (including Charlie Cox’s Irish aid to Nucky and William Forsythe’s butcher gangster), yet Michael Shannon steals it once again with another compelling showing as zealot federal officer Nelson Van Alden.
Though still not quite the top-drawer flagship HBO wants it to be, the second season of Boardwalk Empire is a definite improvement.