TV Review: HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Returns with Most Intense Season Premiere Yet

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CHICAGO – “Ordinary men avoid trouble. Extraordinary men turn it to their advantage.” Isn’t that line from the second episode of the third season of “Boardwalk Empire,” returning tonight, September 16, 2012 on HBO, really at the core of everything we know about Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and the people that play in his circle of violence? Nucky doesn’t run from trouble. He faces it head on. And with that comes great reward but also great risk. And great television. Television Rating: 4.5/5.0
Television Rating: 4.5/5.0

The stakes seem higher at the start of season three, almost as if the loss of Jimmy has opened something darker, more malevolent in Jersey. Not that Jimmy was an angel on Nucky’s shoulder by any stretch but he did sometimes serve as a check and balance in the Thompson regime. At the start of season three, Nucky seems nearly bored by his own power, sleeping with a gorgeous showgirl (Northwestern grad Meg Chambers Steedle) and demeaning his wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) for overstepping her bounds, while almost looking for his next challenge — the next trouble to make him extraordinary.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

That trouble could come in the form of Gyp Rosetti (the great Bobby Cannavale of “Win Win” and recently “Nurse Jackie”), a short-fused mobster who we meet beating an innocent man to death on the side of a road. Nucky will later aggravate Mr. Rosetti and it appears this could be the most notable villain that Mr. Thompson has yet faced. Cannavale brings an air of menace and urgency to the show that had been somewhat missing in the first two seasons. He’s a fantastic addition to the cast.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

While Rosetti represents a powerful new figure in Thompson’s world, it would first appear that Van Alden’s (Michael Shannon) power has completely dissipated. He’s been stripped of his power, selling irons door-to-door on New Year’s Eve and giving himself pep speeches in the mirror before knocking on another door sure to be slammed in his face. That is until he walks through the right door at the right time and finds himself in a situation that could change his life and really the trajectory of the show forever. It’s an amazing scene that I wouldn’t dare spoil here.

Meanwhile, Margaret is taking part in one of several threads that seem to be (finally) addressing the changing roles of women in the ’20s. She may be one of the main benefactors of a hospital but how involved will she be when she hears about the horrible pre-natal care within? And when she hears of an aviatrix who will be crossing her skies soon, why does she seem inspired to do something on her own? Even Nucky’s gal pal, who has other beaus much to Nucky’s consternation, seems a more independent character than the women that have typically been in Terence Winter and Tim Van Patten’s world.

There are other arcs — Al Capone (Stephen Graham) seems about ready to start a Chicago war with the equally cocky Dean O’Banion (Arron Shiver); Gillian (Gretchen Mol) is unhappy with the way Richard (Jack Huston) actually dares to teach her grandson about his deceased parents; Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) continues to sit back and rule with quiet confidence; Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) has some interesting family drama that fits snugly in the motif of the changing independence of women in this world; Elias (Shea Wigham) is about to get out of jail.

And, of course, there’s vengeance in the air. Jimmy’s death does not go unrecognized and, as I mentioned, seems to have tonally changed the show much in the way that Big Pussy’s betrayal/murder made Tony Soprano a much darker character in the third season of “The Sopranos.” After the first two seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” I felt like there was a bit of dramatic urgency missing despite the show being one of the best looking and best designed in the history of television. I don’t feel that this year. The show feels more dangerous and more dramatically sound than ever. That could change in the next few episodes but I know I won’t miss one this season, which I truly believe shows signs that it will be the program’s best.

“Boardwalk Empire” stars Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Gretchen Mol, Shea Wigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham, Michael K. Williams, Jack Huston, Charlie Cox, Bobby Cannavale, Arron Shiver, Christopher Macdonald, Stephen Root, and Meg Chambers Steedle. The premiere was written by Terence Winter and directed by Tim Van Patten. It airs on HBO on September 16, 2012 at 8pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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