December 3, 2012



The Season 3 finale of BOARDWALK EMPIRE, like the season itself, was an exercise in patience and a mix of satisfaction and anti-climax.   Written by series creator Terence Winter and Executive Producer Howard Korder, and directed by house director Tim Van Patten, the first half of the episode had antagonists Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) holed up in their respective hideouts, Nucky in a lumberyard owned by Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), and Gyp in the bordello “social club” run by Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol).  Both were essentially trapped, unable to risk leaving his sanctuary, and for half an hour of screen time, not very much happened.  Then plenty did, but while the last several episodes had built up the structure for a grand confrontation between Gyp and Nucky, the two never met in the course of the hour, and Gyp was quietly snuffed out (at Nucky’s instructions) by his own lieutenant Tonino, while he peed on the beach.  The one truly dazzling action sequence of the episode had nothing to do with Nucky and little, really, with Gyp:  Richard Harrow, the Dark Knight of the Boardwalk Empire universe, and his one-man assault on Gillian’s establishment, singlehandedly killing virtually all of Gyp’s remaining henchmen and capping it with an impossible off-the-floor shot with his sniper rifle right through the eye of the gangster threatening Richard’s unofficial ward Tommy.

Because of the sometimes laborious way Empire lays out its multiple storylines, it’s not always clear until season’s end just what characters and plots were worth our time, and which were ultimately just tangents.  It was fun to watch Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), having triple-crossed Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) out of his heroin, get trumped by Nucky’s quadruple-cross, with the somewhat unlikely help of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell), which bilked Rothstein out of Mellon’s Pennsylvania super-distillery–but did it justify all the time we spent in Washington this season, not to mention the screen time devoted to Luciano, his partner Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and their entry into the drug trade?   Former Treasury agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon), now a low-level soldier for Al Capone (Stephen Graham), didn’t even appear in the finale, and Capone’s own brewing war against his don never quite came to a dramatic boil.

On the other hand, Richard’s halting romance with Julia (Wrenn Schmidt) paid off tremendously when he brought Tommy to her house after rescuing the boy, but like John Wayne in The Searchers, remained outside alone, the blood splashed over his face and mask making him unsuitable (at least in his own mind) for a normal life with her.  We were also able to appreciate what it took for Nucky’s wife Margaret (Kelly McDonald) to resolutely have an abortion after following her attempt to provide sex education to local women all season.  (Margaret’s final scene with Nucky was less effective, since it seems unlikely she’ll spend next season living in a Brooklyn hovel.)

Boardwalk Empire is a series that’s consistently better than seems likely halfway through a given season, yet never quite as good as it aspires to be.  Splendidly produced, with skillful control of its huge cast and at least a few superb scenes per episode, it hasn’t yet mastered its mix of traditional crime saga and sociopolitical historical commentary.  Nucky himself, while more compelling than he was in the show’s early days, is a bit tinny as a central character, without the grandeur or scale to be a truly memorable protagonist.  Some of the supporting characters are wonderfully drawn, like Richard Harrow, Gillian Darmody and Nucky’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham), while others like Van Alden never quite make sense.  This season, although Cannavale did a great job playing Gyp Rosetti, the character himself often felt like a second-hand Joe Pesci role, with schticks like his murderous responses to the slightest embarrassment becoming too predictable.  The show is both over- and underambitious, with a broader scope than it really needs and yet too much willingness to feature undeveloped figures at its center.

Empire is a comfortable success for HBO, not a giant hit but reasonably strong in the ratings; similarly, it gets plenty of Emmy nominations each year but can’t seem to win any of the big awards.  It’s classy and provides the kind of image the network wants for its programming (even if subscribers don’t actually watch the show, they’re glad they could watch it if they wanted to).  This season, as in the past, it’s good enough without ever quite being great.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."