Boardwalk Empire's character problem

02:06, Nov 27 2012

As of last night's episode on SoHo, we're halfway through the third season of Boardwalk Empire - and it might be the best season of the show to date, with Nucky facing attacks from all sides, personal, professional and political, and a riveting new character who I'm afraid to take my eyes off (even if I wish I had last week).

(Warning: Spoilers from the latest season of Boardwalk Empire follow.)

It's incredible how things change: a couple of years back, I wrote that the centre of Boardwalk Empire is a story of right versus wrong, of choosing to do good versus choosing to make money and chase power. Of course, that idealistic dilemma was only our way in to this world. Boardwalk is very much a show about a man (Nucky Thompson, brilliantly played by Steve Buscemi) who has decided, unequivocally, to amass fortune and influence, whatever the cost, resulting in the kind of wealth that allowed Atlantic City's most powerful man to hand out faux-Egyptian trinkets at a party.

Well, I mean, that happened six episodes ago. The season has been so fast-paced that it feels like only a week or so since Nucky wheeled out the chest of faux-Egyptian treasures at his New Year's party and somehow offended Gyp Rosetti - the electrifying new villain, played by Bobby Cannavale.*

All credit must go to the writers, though, as they've managed to maintain the intensity throughout a season in which so much is happening on both a week-to-week and a season-long basis, even as some members of the cast go missing for episodes at a time, and every second episode seems to be used to reintroduce long-forgotten characters and provide large amounts of exposition for the next.

For example, after last week's big shoot-out in Tabor Heights, last night was devoted to exposition for the second half of the season: Nucky is arrested for alcohol possession - and gives the best line of the night to the fine collector, "can you break a hundred?" - leading to a chance meeting with Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), the prosecutor who tried to take him down last season, and the beginnings of a plan to go after Harry Daugherty (Christopher McDonald), the attorney-general with Nucky in his pocket.


We also got to spend a little time with Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who meets a potential love interest, while Margaret (Kelly McDonald) rekindles her affair with Owen (Charlie Cox), and Gillian (Gretchen Mol) goes out scouring the streets for a Jimmy lookalike, calling to mind that disturbing episode from last season in which she had sex with her own son. Hold on, I'm just going to rock back and forth in the foetal position for a moment.


The tradeoff, of course, is that we didn't get any time with Gyp - easily the highlight of the season so far - at all, while Van Alden, Rothstein, Capone and Chalky White (the most underused character on all of television) were missing, too.

I think this is the biggest fault with the show. Don't get me wrong, I think Boardwalk Empire is a great series, one of my favourites on television right now. But there are just too many characters at this point, too many stories that need to be serviced during the season. I find myself wishing that we didn't have to be dragged away to spend time discussing the day-to-day operation of Gillian's brothel, or exploring the pyromaniacal tendencies of Margaret's son.

The story of Nucky Thompson - his business troubles with Rothstein, legal ramifications with Daugherty, the threat of Rosetti, and the problem of manning an operation of his size - is one of the best stories on television, more than strong enough to carry the show. I just think it's time for a little pruning, time to lop off a few characters and tales that just aren't serving that main, over-arching story, before they become a problem that starts to affect viewer enjoyment.

What do you think: is Boardwalk Empire getting bogged down by too many side stories and extended character absences? Or do you think the show is perfect just how it is? Remember: no spoilers.

(*) Cannavale is pulling double-duty, appearing on Nurse Jackie as Dr Cruz, 9.30pm on TV3. Though, I haven't yet seen Dr Cruz set a nurse on fire or put in a drip line while a patient chokes him with a belt.

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