Following the death of Jimmy Darmody, it feels as though Boardwalk Empire has lost one of its best written characters and the central source of conflict for Nucky Thompson. Jimmy acknowledged this in sorts himself when he said to Nucky ‘I knew it had to end like this’. With that loss, we sat at the cusp of something new. The question on everyone’s mind entering into season three was ‘what comes next?’ The first episode opened on a New Year’s Eve party; the perfect representation of this anticipation of change.
Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly eventful premiere and since then it feels like the show has done little to capitalise on any great conflict. In essence, a few people have died and Nucky has thrown a few parties. That’s not to say the season hasn’t been good so far. The quality of Boardwalk Empire has never truly waned. Instead, the series feels adrift. In seasons past, where if felt as though the show was building towards Jimmy’s rise to power and Margret’s slow realisation that Enoch Thompson was not the great man he seemed, the show had something to drive toward. Without Jimmy, the show lacks a sense of direction.
Of course, the show was never about Jimmy. The show is and always will be about Enoch Thompson. Though the title of Boardwalk Empire may refer to Atlantic City, there is little doubt in the minds of many that this is not the story of a city. It is the story of a man. The series will follow that man from strength to strength, even if it does enjoy the odd excursion into the affairs of Al Capone. I don’t believe that HBO is ready to let this gem slip away and Steve Buscemi has said nothing about moving on from the show yet, so we can relatively assured that Nucky won’t be dying this season.
Will someone try to kill him? Probably. Will martial issues threaten his professional career? Almost certainty. Will he be ejected from office? More than likely. But we can already guess that even if any of this happens Nucky will find a way to survive as he always has. When Nucky has been down and counted out he’s always found a way to get back into the ring, either by making new friends such as Owen Slater and Manny Horvitz, or calling in favours with old friends. Even when there was an entire council of men plotting against him and obstructing his ability to import alcohol, he still found a way to come back to power.
However, without that central character of antagonism, the show feels empty. This season has already introduced a number of enemies for Nucky, his affair was recently exposed to Margret and we’ve seen a number of near death situations for Nucky. Nearly one per episode it seems. The prohibition agents have also come under scrutiny to perform to a higher standard as there have been questions of corruption within the system. It’s much the same as seasons past really, so why does it feel emptier than usual? Is it because Jimmy’s character felt like an opportunist who would seize power from Nucky while he was distracted by politics, relationships and playing gangster? I would argue yes.
This is what Jimmy means when he says ‘I knew it had to end like this’, which I mentioned above. The same reasons that made Jimmy such a compelling villain is the exact reasons that he had to die. Nucky couldn’t trust him. Not at all. Yet, the attempts to replace Jimmy have been poor. The most significant threat is Gyp Rossetti, played by Bobby Carnavale; a Sicilian gangster with a short fuse. The character is first introduced to the audience when we see him beat an innocent man with a crowbar for an offhand remark. Our first introduction to this man is one is brutal violence.
Fast forward to last week’s episode and Rossetti is shown engaging in perverted sex games with prostitutes. No one can say that the writers aren’t trying their hardest to portray the character as deeply disturbed. He is also shown as more calculated than he seems by interrupting the lines of distribution and arranging an ambush with the sheriff in Tabour Heights. However, it takes until the fifth episode for anyone to do anything about it. There’s an underlying theme that Nucky is too distracted by his affair to be the gangster he needs to be in this situation. That said, Owen Slater, a man with Irish paramilitary experience was left in charge. And the viewer is meant to accept that he can’t organise a ramble of men with guns to take him out? And it’s not like they know a skilled sniper who could probably take care of Rossetti without ever meeting the man face to face. Instead, Arnold Rothstein sends a kid to do the job.
Speaking of the skilled sniper, it feels as though the series dropped the ball on introducing Richard Harrow as the next big conflict. He has spent much of this season on the sidelines, until the last moments of the first episode where he shoots Manny Horvitz in the face and in the fourth episode he brings Mickey Doyle to retribution for lying about being involved in Manny’s death. Harrow is a fairly meek character, even if he is deadly accurate with a rifle. Even in season two he never appeared to kill anyone unless Jimmy had specifically ordered it. And I think that would have been an interesting avenue to pursue, whether Harrow was avenging Jimmy’s death or had simply been encouraged by their friendship to make something more of his life. I’m disappointed that strand seemed to be cut off so quickly.
It could simply be that I haven’t quite gotten over Jimmy’s death yet. However, I am interested to see where this season will go. Nucky can’t pretend to be a gangster without incurring the wrath of some real gangsters. It might simply be that their involvement will be the climax of another two season arc and Rossetti is only just the beginning of a bigger conflict. I certainly hope so anyway, as I’m certainly not convinced by his character or the antagonism that he represents. Perhaps episode six can persuade me. I’m doubtful, although even if it can’t, the synopsis says that Owen and Margret spend some more time alone. Don’t be surprised if she plays a little tit for tat by taking Owen Slater to bed again.