I believe in Boardwalk Empire. The first season of HBO’s ridiculously expensive Prohibition drama was a bit of a mess, but it was a sprawling, colorful, endlessly fascinating mess, featuring an overqualified cast and a few of the weirdest sequences in TV history. (Remember Agent Van Alden’s murder-by-baptism of his traitorous partner? Or any scene with Mr. Half-Face?) I’m a big fan of the HBO canon, and as I noted last season, Boardwalk Empire carries the DNA of its forbears: The organized-crime-as-modern tragedy duet The Sopranos and The Wire, the history-class-on-acid fantasias Rome and Deadwood, even gonzo misfires like John From Cincinnati and Carnivalé.
I want the show to be as good (or, at least, as weird) as those earlier shows – to actually justify the hilariously elaborate production design. I was excited when Boardwalk’s first season ended with the implication that Nucky Thompson’s problems were just starting, since three of his closest allies – brother Eli, surrogate son Jimmy, and his mentor The Commodore -- were plotting his demise. The season premiere ran with that idea right away: We saw Chalky get attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, who are just another angry constituency in the Atlantic City schema.
The KKK kill one of Chalky’s people – a woman – but this being the 1920s, the real crime is that Chalky kills one of the Klansmen. It’s an instant headache for Nucky, who already has enough headaches in his home life. (They might not actually be man and wife, but the Nucky/Margaret relationship already vaguely resembles the Tony/Carmela marriage from Sopranos: Nucky stays out all night getting naked breasts rubbed in his face, then comes home to find Margaret struggling with her children.)
Nucky and Eli paid Chalky a visit at his lavish house – complete with a college-bound son, who I don’t think we knew about before – and tried to reason with him. But Chalky, the de factor Mayor of the black constituency of Atlantic City, wasn’t in the mood to express forgiveness. “You go school these crackers,” he said, threatening to use his control of the city’s underclass to make life hell for Nucky.
This is all playing right into the Anti-Nucky Triumvirate’s plans. “Ten thousand coloreds up in arms now, Klan boys in our corner,” summed up the Commodore, who is feeling all fat and sassy. Dabney Coleman didn’t have much to do last season on Boardwalk, but we met a new Commodore last night. Makes a big difference in a man’s constitution when he’s makin’ friends with his bastard son and no longer being poisoned by his maid. Coleman played the role – usually filled by Michael Stuhlbarg – of “Actor Delivering Awesome, Totally Random Soliloquy” last night, describing how he faced down a grizzly bear:
“He smelled me. Started coming closer. Son of a bitch got confident. Thought I was scared. Reared up on me. Blasted him right in the gut. He bled out. It was almost like he couldn’t believe it. You’ll be judged by what you succeed at, boy, not by what you attempt.”
Moments like that are so good, it really makes me wish Boardwalk Empire could figure out just what the hell it’s trying to be about.
NEXT: Mrs. Van Alden goes to Town