In November of 1922, in The Valley Of Kings, archaeologist Howard Carter and his team of excavators broke through to a buried staircase, leading down to the tomb of Tutankhamun, and to treasures the likes of which the modern world had never seen. The international media quickly went King Tut crazy. And why not? Even in a time of prosperity, stories of rooms teeming with wealth are irresistible. And this story in particular was just so compelling. It’s not just about a scientist making a discovery; it’s also about The Boy King, who had so much, but not enough to buy his way out of dying young.
All of which is a way of saying: Welcome back to Boardwalk Empire, folks, where the rich keep getting richer, impeded only by the possibility that they could cross the wrong yegg and catch a bullet in the hatrack.
Season three begins with “Resolution,” which looks initially to be a catch-up episode, letting viewers know what Atlantic City boss Nucky Thompson and his ever-increasing network of mugs, pols, and molls have been up to in the year since our Nuck brought the fucked-up life of would-be Boy King Jimmy Darmody to a quasi-merciful end. Publicly, all looks well. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1922 (this show does so love its holidays), and Nucky is hosting a Tut-themed bash, complete with ersatz sphinxes, a floorshow by Eddie Cantor and his showgirl pal Billie Kent (played by Meg Steedle), and a man dressed up as Howard Carter distributing bejeweled golden baubles to the guests. Nucky’s wife Margaret looks to be throwing herself into her new role as a legitimate socialite (with philanthropic causes); the various crime bosses seem to have the booze situation sorted, as alcohol flows freely and profitably from city to city; and on the surface, it’s all smiles and spendthiftery.
Ah, but underneath…
What I especially liked about “Resolution” is that it doesn’t work too hard to fill in the gaps of what’s happened since Nucky killed Jimmy, and since Margaret signed a good chunk of Nucky’s property over to the church. Partly we can surmise that not much of note has transpired, beyond a brief mourning period and further consolidations of power. What we mainly need to know is that some key relationships have been affected by what happened in the season-two finale. There comes a moment toward the end of “Resolution” when the Tut party ends and Nucky hisses at Margaret because she annoyed a visiting hospital administrator with her questions about his systemic problems with prenatal care. Earlier in the episode, we hear Nucky make an uncharacteristically nasty comment about plucky aviatrix Carrie Duncan, a hero of Margaret’s, whom Nucky says should “spread her legs,” not her wings. When Nucky turns on Margaret, the reasons for his meanness become clearer: He hasn’t forgiven his wife for going behind his back and giving away his stuff. Theirs looks to be a marriage on paper only; Nucky is not happy at all about financing Margaret’s budding feminism.
Or perhaps he’s just settling into his new persona as the head of a mob “family,” and not as the Treasurer of Atlantic City. A lot of the off-season hoopla about Boardwalk Empire has been about what’ll become of Nucky in the wake of shooting Jimmy, and whether he can continue to be “half a gangster.” Frankly, I’m less interested in that aspect of the show as I am in other themes and ideas that Boardwalk Empire explores—which I’ll return to momentarily—but I can’t deny the visceral kick of this episode’s establishment of where the criminal enterprises of Atlantic City and elsewhere stand. There’s a riveting scene early on in which Nucky stands with Owen, Doyle, and Manny and interrogates a thief named Nate, getting the poor schmoe to give up a confederate by insisting that Nucky’s more mad at Doyle for not guarding his warehouse than he is at Nate for stealing. Then Nucky orders Nate killed—without hesitation or equivocation, please note.
Meanwhile, with The Commodore dead and his former alliance scattered, the opposition to Nucky’s consortium has weakened. But it ain’t dried up. Gillian, writing checks in her dead son’s name, has become the madame of a high class bordello called The Artemis Club, and appears to be grooming her grandson to someday take Jimmy’s place (one hopes not in every possible way) raising him as her own son and not showing too much concern that the boy is growing up surrounded by the sounds of whorish revelry. She also has Richard Harrow as her errand boy, handy for a little babysitting, or, in the most shocking moment in “Resolution,” a little retributive assassination. (Let us pause now to say our farewells to the best butcher in Philly, Manny Horvitz, gunned down tonight by a man in a tin mask. May he rest in peace, in that glorious land above where nothing is trayf.)
And the underdogs at the Artemis aren’t the only ones that Nucky needs to watch out for. “Resolution” also introduces a new character, Gyp Rosetti (played by Bobby Cannavale), a man with a short fuse, who doesn’t even like to feel insulted, let alone suffer an actual sleight. At the start of the episode, we see Rosetti beat a good samaritan to death because the man unintentionally implied that Rosetti was ignorant for not knowing that “three-in-one” is a kind of oil. Later, at Nucky’s New Year’s Eve party, Rosetti gets irritated when he’s interrupted—“That’s okay, I wasn’t really interested in finishing my thought,” he sneers—and gets downright apoplectic when Nucky announces that he will only deal with Arnold Rothstein from now on, and that everyone else can start getting their booze through the middleman. Nucky is trying to put the “organized” in “organized crime.” And Rosetti doesn’t like it. He’s clearly going to be trouble—even just judging by the shot that introduces him, with his back to the camera, looking for just a moment like Nucky in silhouette, hat and all. If a man looks like the king, can he be the king?
Each new season of Boardwalk Empire seems to call up another round of reviews, articles and essays from TV writers who find the show well-made but a little soulless, and not really “about” anything important. I respect my colleagues’ perspectives on Boardwalk Empire, and even share some of their concerns, but I still think this is one of the best shows on TV—and not just because Mad Men and Breaking Bad are on hiatus. For one thing, I never want to shrug off the simple entertainment value of great actors delivering crackling dialogue in nicely framed shots on perfectly dressed sets. “Golden Age of TV” or not, this is still no minor achievement. Moment to moment, Boardwalk Empire is absorbing.
As to whether those moments come together into anything profound, well, I think they do. Boardwalk Empire is partly about Nucky’s descent from corruption to outright villainy, but it’s even more about an America in transition after World War I, simultaneously trying to define itself as “modern” and “moral”—even though those two ideas often stand in opposition. And, y’know, it’s about stepping back into a world where so much that we take for granted—or even think of as outmoded—still felt new, from ideas to technology. There’s something to be gained from spending time in the past, even if it’s a fictionalized past, and even given the form of an occasionally blood-spattered potboiler.
That’s why Boardwalk Empire in general—and “Resolution” in particular—doesn’t feel as scattered and overfamiliar to me as it does to some. There’s just so much to take in on this show, and so many characters who connect to the main storyline in fascinating ways.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Mr. Mueller—whom we used to know as “Agent Nelson Van Alden.” Now relocated just outside of Chicago, Van Alden has become a dogged salesman for an electric iron company, though in “Resolution,” his efforts to win a sales contest come to naught, since he files his winning orders after the deadline. The Van Alden story wouldn’t seem to have much to do with what’s going on in Atlantic City, although his stumbling into the flower shop of Al Capone and Johnny Torrio’s northside Chicago rival Dean O’Banion does suggest a possible future for our Mr. Mueller, as a mobbed-up lummox. But me, I’m still hung up on that sales contest, which Van Alden loses on a technicality. So it goes with this character, again and again: learning the hard lesson that you can follow all the rules, do everything right, have it all on your side, and still get buried.
- The song “Old King Tut” was written by Harry Von Tilzer , one of the legends of Tin Pan Alley.
- Regina means “queen,” by the way.
- As a big Gasoline Alley fan, I appreciated Chip’s little “Where’s Walt Wallet when you need him?” joke when his car breaks down. As a pedantic snob, I was annoyed by his henchman saying, “Gasoline Alley, right?” because I was looking forward to showing off my vintage newspaper comics expertise here in the Strays.
- The little pause that Steve Buscemi gives after noting that Doyle left the warehouse “unattended” is priceless.
- Margaret tells Owen to give her best to Katie, which either implies that Owen and Katie are an actual couple, or is just a way for Margaret to put Owen in his place, dismissively.
- Poor Harrow seems so at home on the Boardwalk—here he can show his skills at the shooting gallery and walk past the sideshow freaks.
- O’Banion telling Capone to say hello to his son “or at least wave” is some cruel, cruel shit.
- Also kind of sad: The doomed Manny telling Nucky that Doyle is his “friend.” (“Yah. What else?”)
- Of all the potential threats to Nucky in the coming year, the one that may be the most necessary to keep an eye on is the press, already hammering away at the corruption of the Harding administration and its cronies.
- Nice touch on the shot of Nucky rubbing his hand, reflecting on last season’s shooting no doubt—and perhaps still feeling the pain.
- One last thing: I didn’t include this exchange in my season-two Walkthrough with Terence Winter, but at the end of our conversation, he made a point to say how much he appreciated you commenters for taking the show seriously and writing here each week last season with such insight. He doesn’t read everything—or every week—but he’s checked in from time to time and has liked what you folks have had to say. So congratulations! Let’s keep it going this season.