By Ken Tucker
Updated December 06, 2010 at 05:28 PM EST

Boardwalk Empire finished out its first season very strongly, with a finale that ended on a historical note — the election of Warren G. Harding, a Republican Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson backed — as well as on a more emotional note. Nucky’s confession to Margaret about his past (his child’s death and how it drove his wife to suicide) brought Margaret back into his arms. Michael Pitt’s Jimmy tried to rekindle his marriage, but it seems such a lost cause, he was driven to find comfort in family elsewhere — with his dying father (what a wonderfully terse performance by Dabney Coleman) and, at the end, plotting with Nucky’s alienated brother, Eli, to try and take down the Nuckster.

What initially seemed like Boardwalk Empire‘s limitation — the way Nucky was an essentially passive central figure, reacting to things that happen; spending a lot of time mere glad-handing, whoring, and dispensing glib advice — ended up containing the revelation of his deepest nature. The tragedy of Nucky’s personal life is what has compelled him to be the most superficial person he can be. Buscemi played Nucky’s combination of showy bluster and hollow passivity with deceptive ease — it was a sneaky-great performance.

The season was designed, we can now see, to frame a few key supporting characters. Foremost among them was Jimmy, whose initial thuggishness didn’t square with his back-story: How did this Princeton student and brave WWI vet become such a dead-eyed lug? By the end, when Coleman’s Commodore Louis Kaestner told Jimmy his new mission should be to “take back Atlantic City for both of us,” the idea didn’t sound at all absurd or overreaching: Allied with Eli, Jimmy can indeed make a power-grab, perhaps with the aid of another ambitious young buck, Al Capone (the bullet-like Stephen Graham).

Kelly Macdonald led a small squad of strong female characters that made the show stand out among other tough-minded cable dramas in allowing Margaret’s complexity to unfold steadily. Margaret’s fears, intelligence, wiliness, and capacity for love and understanding, combined with the vivid creations of Jimmy’s common-law wife (Aleska Palladino), Nucky’s ditzy but tragic girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) and Gretchen Mol’s mysterious, strong Gillian — all of these woman took their place as equals to the male characters to whom they were subservient in social status only.

As for the agony of Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), this story line continued to seesaw between scary realism and a daring cartoonishness. Shannon maintained a grimace that contorted his face into that of a “Dick Tracy” villain. His fate, after committing a murder that’s been covered up but which haunts his religious soul, will be another subplot I’m eager to come back to next season.

I still think the decision to shoot Boardwalk primarily in the sepia tone of so many period dramas was a mistake. Atlantic City would have been better showcased, more of the character the producers wanted it to be (and distinguished from its New York and Chicago scenes) if we could have seen all the gaudy colors of the boardwalk attractions, to say nothing of the garish glow of Nucky’s red window-pane pattern suits and pearl-gray hats.

But I ended the season far more engaged by Boardwalk Empire than when it began. There’s no doubt the series transcended its initial Scorsese-influenced violence and cynicism. Even as the final episode paid off in standard HBO grisly killings, the real substance of the finale, written by Terence Winter and directed by Tim Van Patten, owed next to nothing to their previous Sopranos experience. The distinction of Boardwalk Empire was in the effulgence of the violent emotions of love and loyalty betrayed.

Did you watch Boardwalk Empire? Are you looking forward to a second season?

Twitter: @kentucker