“Boardwalk Empire” returned tonight, delivering on its “full gangster” promise and churning out plenty of tension, booze, and violent retribution as it answered lingering questions from Season 2’s cliffhangers — and introduced new players and stressors to the complex web of corruption and crime in 1920’s Atlantic City.
Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is still the focal point of the series, but the first character seen in Episode 1 is newcomer Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale). He’s an ambitious Sicilian gangster with a volatile temper and unhinged behavior that recalls iconic mafia movie bad guys — akin to Joe Pesci’s Tommy Devito in “Goodfellas.” It’s obvious that he’ll harm whomever gets in his way or offends him, and that includes Nucky.
With his ever-present red carnation boutonniere and his continued — albeit uncertain — control over Atlantic City, Nucky has also taken on more of a classic mob boss demeanor. In his first appearance this season, he lectures a thief and his own associates in a calculated monologue which initially hints at mercy (“I’m not angry, Nate… you were only doing your job”), but then callously ends in execution-style murder. Last season Nucky engaged in his own fair share of dirty work without doling it out to his minions, so it will be interesting to see how much blood ends up directly on his hands in 1923.
Over the past year or so that’s transpired since Season 2, his relationship with Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) has developed into an unhappy and strained marriage (largely in part to her signing away his land to benefit the church and charities). The compassion Nucky once felt for Margaret has dwindled, and he’s having an affair with singer Billie Kent.
There isn’t a single mention of Jimmy Darmody (by name) in the premiere. Gillian (Gretchen Mol) is as manipulative and enterprising as ever, running an upscale brothel called the Artemis Club, with Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) acting as their “caretaker.” Harrow has developed a close relationship with Angela and Jimmy’s orphaned son Tommy, and he’s doing his best to keep their memory alive for the child. However, Gillian prefers to suppress Tommy’s knowledge of his parents. She insists that the child refers to her as “mama,” and threatens Richard when she notices him contradicting her routine.
One of the things that makes “Boardwalk Empire” so compelling is its capacity to capture historical context, especially the harsher elements. Tonight’s episode was no exception: Sexism and racism are liberally sprinkled into the dialogue. Nucky comments that the female pilot making headlines should “spread her legs and leave spreading her wings to her husband.” Italian versus Irish tensions and slurs fly left and right, and although Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) was absent from the premiere, there’s certain to be more brutal glimpses at the African American experience in episodes to come.
Manny Horvitz (William Forsythe) and Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) are running a liquor warehouse together, but Manny wants to break out and “run his own operation.” Nucky agrees to give him what he wants in exchange for killing a man who stole booze from them. But before Manny has the chance to do the deed, he’s gunned down by Harrow in an unexpected act of retribution which serves as poetic justice for the death of Angela.
Though it once seemed impossible, the audience can’t help but feel moments of pity for Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) in the Season 3 premiere. He’s living in the Chicago suburbs under the the alias Mueller, working a thankless job as a door to door iron salesman. His fresh start even includes a newborn son with his wife (the Dutch nanny) in addition to his daughter from his affair in Atlantic City. Still, traces of his insanity are visible (“every day, in every way, I am getting better and better”), and bound to boil over.
In Chicago, Capone and Torrio are having a turf war with the Irish of the north side. In one of the episode’s most tense scenes, Van Alden unexpectedly averts the death of one of Capone’s rivals by entering his flower shop during a confrontation and coolly playing the part of an associate. Capone (Stephen Graham) doesn’t know Van Alden so the connection isn’t made, but it’s eerie enough to convince that this won’t be the last encounter between Van Alden and the gangsters.
The episode’s other nail biting moment happens during Nucky’s New Years party. While Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and the other gangsters ring in 1923, they sit in the kitchen stunned by Nucky’s streamlined selling plan: He’s decided to only sell his alcohol to Rothstein, eliminating the other buyers. Rosetti won’t accept the terms — and is willing to maliciously insult everyone in the room to convey his fury. He storms out before violence erupts, but the scene leaves no doubt that Rosetti will be the wild card of the season. His mannerisms are so erratic, that it’s a relief when he shoves the stolen dog into Margaret’s arms, rather than harming the animal.
The episode marks an engaging return for a show that escalated into a frenzy of outrageous shocks and plot twists last season. Season 3’s new faces promise to keep the momentum going, and those who’ve survived so far will still stop at nothing to reach their own ends. While “Boardwalk Empire” fans were uncertain about how the show would fare without a few favorite characters, it’s a new year, new rules, and a sign of an entertaining season to come.