Monday, December 12, 2011

Boardwalk Empire - Season 2

When the first season of Boardwalk Empire aired last year, I was impressed by the quality of its production and enjoyed its variously interconnected characters and sense of humor. I was less enamored by the plot, which was mostly fine but a bit slow-going and nothing too new. That hasn't exactly changed too much this year, but the show definitely felt more confident and original in what it wanted to be, and that along with an extra year of time to deepen and explore the show's ideas and themes resulted in something ultimately more satisfying and exciting to watch. At the very least, my anticipation for what would happen next was more breathless, and the big moments packed a bigger punch.

Although the ending of season one wasn't exactly a complete upheaval in the show's world, it did provide a number of developments which played out over the course of season two. Nelson Van Alden's upright, do-gooder image was tarnished when he started committing crimes of his own and got someone besides his wife pregnant, and this year we spent a lot of time watching that veneer peel away in public, which made him more sympathetic despite him still being a self-righteous bastard. Jimmy and Eli joined forces with the Commodore and other influential men to challenge Nucky's supremacy in Atlantic City, and their back and forth along with the other organizations in other cities that get dragged into it makes up a lot of the season's most overt conflict. Margaret decided to stay with a man she knew was a criminal in order to provide for herself and her children, and this year she definitely struggled with her own feelings on the matter.

On top of these, the show piles on even more little struggles and battles. Chalky's operation is attacked by white supremacists, and he has to manage both his duties to the black community and his loyalty to Nucky. I thought Chalky had the weakest arc of any that really lasted a significant amount of time this season; Michael K. Williams' performance is strong but they just didn't put the time into making me buy how hamstrung he appeared to be. Perhaps most significantly, Nucky himself is charged with a number of crimes, and finds out who his real friends are as he struggles to keep himself out of jail. He was pretty put upon all season, with the law and a lot of his former friends working against him, and really only having the Irish and Arnold Rothstein (still a fun character even if he doesn't have much to do) on his side consistently. By the end of the season though, he's cemented his ability to fight his way out of jams and win some allies when he needs them.

They've done a good job of building him up from a shrewd manipulator of men and money into more of a complete criminal mastermind, not exactly invincible but smart enough to find a solution most of the time. We do see though that there are still chinks in the armor, and I look forward to the continued development of the character. As far as the content itself goes, it seems like they definitely cut back on unnecessary nudity this year, but they increased the violence to compensate. Boardwalk Empire's first season drew a little criticism for being mellow now and then, a complaint that seems weird to me since The Sopranos and The Wire are two of the best crime dramas ever, and aren't exactly dripping with blood from week to week. Boardwalk was definitely more brutal this year though, and I won't deny that the unflinching nature of the violence enhanced the intensity of the show's most shocking story moments. Maybe just a bit over-the-top though, I was watching the show at the same time as The Walking Dead and it was often the former than was the most disgusting. In any case, I still don't think Boardwalk is quite the classic drama it wants to be just yet, but it's still a very fun and often poignant one, using its period setting to highlight issues that cut across centuries, and always trying to get better. I'm easily on board for season three.

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