The return of the Prohibition-era series finds basically everyone plotting against Nucky Thompson. Meanwhile, the Van Aldens celebrate their wedding anniversary.
Boardwalk Empire
Credit: HBO

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 TownI don’t want to sound like a snoot. If Boardwalk Empire just wants to be a ridiculously well-acted version of Set Designer’s Wet Dream: The Series, that’s fine. But most other successful HBO series have figured out a consistent theme, a basic foundation. That’s true of deep-thought shows like Sopranos and Deadwood, but it was also true of Sex and the City, True Blood, and even Entourage in the earlier non-terrible days. Boardwalk Empire is set at such a fascinating time in American history.

At times, the show feels like it’s sketching in a macrocosmic vision of history, with Prohibition representing an early version of the modern Wars on Terror and Drugs. At other times, it feels like it’s more intrigued in the era’s particular perversions: The cultural PTSD from World War I, the abject corruption of politicians, horrible KKK dudes with big industrial-revolution weaponry. But the problem, I think, is that the show doesn’t really have a center. I like Steve Buscemi, and it’s nifty to see Nucky’s two-facedness – talking to the black church about racial equality, then delivering a fire-and-brimstone speech to the white church about “the obstreperous Negro” – but Nucky himself still feels like a half-formed character.

To me, the real star of Boardwalk Empire has always been Michael Shannon’s Agent Nelson Van Alden, who started out as a kind of Looney Tunes cartoon of law enforcement, and then steadily fell from grace. Last night, we saw Nelson showing Lady Van Alden around Sodom-by-the-Sea to celebrate their thirteenth wedding anniversary. She was horrified by everything: The alcohol, the gambling, the faux-Christian pamphlet with a list of whorehouses. “Maybe it’s better we don’t have children,” she said. “This world, Nelson.”

Boardwalk Empire is an undeniably fun show – flapper parties and period crooning and champagne, woohoo! – but the scenes with the Van Aldens held a particular crackle, because they’re the two characters who don’t find all that stuff fun. They’ve been taught to hold off on their baser impulses, while every other character on the show just indulges those impulses whenever they please. So it was particularly thrilling to see how the Lady Van Alden got all hot and bothered when Nelson staged a raid on an alcohol-serving restaurant.

In scenes like this, Boardwalk Empire feels like it’s zero-ing on an interesting notion: That Prohibition, while apparently an act of widespread cultural repression, actually set loose a whole Pandora’s Box of emotions. By making something as socially fundamental as drinking illegal, it magically turned everywhere into the Wild West. And, of course, Nelson is keeping a big secret from his wife: Lucy Danziger, currently swanning around Nelson’s bedroom with a little Van Alden bun in the oven.

There was a lot more in this season premiere – including a first look at Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior!), an exciting Charlie Chaplin picture, and the immortal line “When Jimmy was a baby, and I would change his diaper, I used to kiss his little winky.” I’m interested, fellow viewers: What did you think of the premiere? Are you intrigued by the five-ring circus of backstabbery coming Nucky’s way? Were you sad that our friends in the New York mob didn’t make an appearance?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich


Episode Recaps

Boardwalk Empire
Steve Buscemi stars in HBO’s sprawling Prohibition drama set in Atlantic City.
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