This is a big week for “Boardwalk Empire”–its second season just appeared on Blu-Ray/DVD, and this Sunday will see the premiere of its third season on HBO. I’m curious as to the direction the show will take at this point, after the murder of one of its leading characters. Jimmy Darmody was no hero, but we saw much of the “Boardwalk” world through his eyes. He’s not easily replaced.
When my Season 2 set arrived from Amazon, I immediately cued up the most notorious episode the show has aired to date: “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” when all is revealed—and then some—about Gillian and Jimmy’s relationship. What a heartbreak this is, from the very beginning when we hear Angela’s “Jimmy, I’ve got to leave,” as if in a dream. And then to see Jimmy as a teen-ager, before his service in World War I, before all the killing we’d already seen him commit. If you’d like to know what a fine work “Boardwalk Empire” really is, watch this episode again, this time with the excellent commentary of among others, Gretchen Mol (who for the record was as icked out as the rest of us by Gillian’s behavior). Then go back and watch Season 1 from start to finish, and you’ll find that the show’s creators were amazingly consistent in character development with respect to Jimmy, Gillian and Angela. I suspect they had “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” in mind from the inception of the show, but waited until just the right time to pull that rabbit out of the hat.
Watching Season 1 again is seeing Jimmy lose his humanity, bit by bit, over the course of time. He’s genuinely contrite—he even has tears in his eyes—when he apologizes to Nucky about the booze robbery in the woods gone wrong that left five Rothstein accomplices dead. After he flees to Chicago and sees his favorite prostitute have her face cut up by a rival gang member, he starts his slide. For the remainder of Season 1, Thug Jimmy and Compassionate Jimmy alternate. He beats the boardwalk photographer, Dittrich, unmercifully while Angela and Tommy look on in terror, yet he takes Angela back after her abortive attempt to run away with Mary Dittrich. Throughout this season and the next, we’re constantly reminded of what the war did to Jimmy, and when we ultimately learn the full extent of the damage his mother caused, it’s no surprise to see him welcome death at Nucky’s hands.
After Season 1, “Boardwalk Empire” lost a good deal of its social scope—no more WCTU, suffragettes, the original Ponzi scheme, incubator babies or those Margaret Sanger pamphlets on birth control. Season 2 saw Jimmy’s murder and the loss of an intriguingly complex character whom we could alternately sympathize with and be repulsed by. These are important subtractions from a show that can easily become just a Jazz Age version of “The Sopranos.” “Boardwalk Empire” needs to go back to what made it so intriguing in its first season—the character development against a strong social and political backdrop. The good news is Chalky White is still on the scene, hopefully along with more discussion of the significant African-American presence in Atlantic City. I’d like to see more politics, especially since the new season skips ahead in time to 1923, when the Teapot Dome Scandal breaks and Nucky’s friends in Washington are about to go down. Don’t get me wrong—I could watch Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein outsmart everyone for hours at a time—but I’d like to see more of Atlantic City in its hey day. In other words, more Eddie Cantor, fewer blood baths.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for Sunday’s premiere. I hope I’m not disappointed.