Boardwalk Empire's premiere in fall of 2010 was met with a mixture of excitement and impossible expectations: here was a show being squarely positioned by HBO as the heir apparent to The Sopranos--created by Terence Winter, one of that show's writers, who brought along frequent directors Timothy Van Patten and Allen Coulter, and even co-star Dominic Chianese--with the extra coup of having that show's uninvolved but oft-acknowledged inspiring force, Martin Scorsese, on board as an executive producer. With that kind of pedigree, it would seem impossible for the show to live up to its hype--and, after the electrifying, Scorsese-directed pilot, it mostly didn't. But few shows on this earth (including, in some of its middle seasons, The Sopranos itself) could satisfy that kind of feverish anticipation. Season two of Boardwalk Empire finds the show still struggling with some of its elemental difficulties--and, in a couple of cases, falling to them. But it also proves itself a sturdy, reliable piece of workmanlike entertainment, a well-crafted show that occasionally tries a little too hard.
As before, the show is mostly preoccupied with the activities of two men in Prohibition-era Atlantic City: Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), officially the treasurer of Atlantic County, unofficially the man who pulls all the strings in the city on the boardwalk, and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a war hero who worked for Nucky in season one before striking out on his own. Season two finds them battling for control of Atlantic City, Jimmy with the backing of several power brokers disillusioned with Nucky--including Jimmy's father, the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), once Nucky's mentor--while Nucky is hobbled not only by their shifting allegiances, but his own potential legal trouble for election rigging and arranging the murder of a man who, whoops, left a widow (Kelly McDonald) that now shares Nucky's home and bed.
But that brief summary of situations and characters barely scratches the surface of the program--a complete summary of the season, of all of its participants and plotlines, would take up the rest of this review, and a couple of pages besides. And that, when you get down to it, is the primary (though not debilitating) flaw of the series: it is, simply put, too damn complicated. To be clear, this viewer has no truck with complexity in television storytelling (please see my review of the medium's finest modern program, The Wire). But it seems, at times, that Winter and his talented writers are being labyrinthine purely for the sake of being labyrinthine. Following Boardwalk Empire is less about viewership than rabid dedication; keeping track of what's going on requires flow charts and spreadsheets, or at the very least, one of those big boards with pictures, pushpins, and string.
There are other, smaller issues: scenes occasionally telegraph too broadly what's coming up (I'm thinking of Jimmy's departure from home in the season finale, or the early moments of the defining scene in his flashback episode), and the season's broadening of an already busy canvas leaves some existing characters without much to do (in retrospect, as much as I enjoy his morally conflicted character, I'm not sure Michael Shannon was even necessary this year). And as impressive, and surely expensive, as the extensive period production and costume design are, it too often feels like a museum piece--like the suits and rooms haven't yet been lived in.
But it must be stressed that these problems don't cripple the program. We may not always be entirely clear on who is doing what to whom and why, but even at its most convoluted, the show is still plenty engaging, filled with bravura performances, bracing dialogue, and terse, raw violence. McDonald goes through a fascinating transformation in the season, first seeming on the verge of becoming a Lady Macbeth figure as she puts on her second-hand clothes and fakes her station in order to steal incriminating documents from Nucky's office, then finding herself in the thrall of a religious awakening when her daughter gets ill. A great scene in the final episode with Julianne Nicholson (a welcome addition as an assistant US attorney) finds Winters laying bare some riveting complexities about both characters. Michael K. Williams (of The Wire) is underused, but when he pops up, it makes an impression; his dinner table scene is nearly as electrifying as that unforgettable monologue in season one. And in many ways, the show's most consistently fascinating character is Jimmy's hired gun Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a disfigured Army marksman whose longing for normalcy provides some of the show's most poignant pathos. (For the record, the character deserves better than the unfortunate and goofy business with the dog in the woods.)
In spite of the Scorsese imprimatur, Boardwalk has always felt like a show more influenced by The Godfather than Goodfellas, and if the first season was the first film, season two has several noticeable echoes of Godfather II: the strain and betrayal between Nucky and his brother Eli (Shea Wingham), most skillfully manifested in a quiet, powerful scene at their father's wake; a fascinating subplot concerning Irish politics that mirrors the Coppola film's business with Cuba; and most importantly, the slow process of watching a promising protagonist (Michael there, Jimmy here) slowly go dead inside, via several deaths for which he, no matter how you slice it, is ultimately responsible.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season's 12 episodes are spread out across five 50GB Blu-ray discs. The set also includes the entire season on two double-sided DVDs, and an authorization code to download iTunes-ready digital copies of every episode.
Video & Audio:
Boardwalk Empire is, unsurprisingly, gorgeous on Blu. The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer beautifully captures the show's lovely, painterly images, with just the right degree of slightly aged color and impressive contrast throughout. Detail work is also impressive--the scars on Capone's face are utterly convincing, free of the obvious make-up tells that so often show up in HD.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is just as successful, from the clarity of the quietest dialogue scenes to the immersion of well-dispersed gunfire and the music and chatter of the big crowd scenes. The strike riot late in the sequence provides a showcase sequence for sound, with rumbling bass and cracking effects, while the rumbling of a passing train in Jimmy's flashback and the pounding of thunder in the last scene make fine use of the LFE channel.
French and Spanish 5.1 DTS Digital Sound tracks are also offered, as are a Spanish 2.0 DTS Digital Surround mix and English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles.
To their credit, the folks in charge of the bonus features seem well aware that the show is dizzyingly complicated, and offer up some assistance there. "Back to the Boardwalk" (14:37) is a valuable featurette in which creator Winters walks us through the first season, beat by beat; even if you watched that season, it's a valuable refresher of where everyone is at going in to year two. Also handy: the pop-up Character Dossiers available for every episode, which provide a brief text description of who everyone in each scene is. Those can be minimized to the right side of screen, and are thankfully unobtrusive to viewing.
Six episodes offer up Audio Commentary: "21," featuring Winter, Van Patten (who sounds exactly like his half-brother Dick), and Williams; "Gimcrack & Bunkum" featuring co-executive producer/writer Howard Korder and actor Huston; "Peg of Old," featuring Korder, Coulter, co-producer/writer Steve Kornacki, and actor Charlie Cox; "Two Boats and a Lifeguard," featuring Winter, Van Patten, and Buscemi; "Under God's Power She Flourishes," featuring Korder, Coulter, and actor Gretchen Mol; and "To The Lost," with Winter and Van Patten. All are informal but informative, worth a listen, but a warning: though it could just be my player, even after selecting to view the episodes with audio commentary from the bonus feature menu, I still had to manually switch the audio to the commentary track.
"Secrets of the Past: Storytelling in Episode 11" looks at the pivotal penultimate episode; after a brief introduction (with behind-the-scenes footage), the entire episode runs with picture-in-picture images and commentary by the creative personnel. It's well-executed and intelligent--frankly, I wish they'd have mounted a few more of the shows like this.
"Living in 1921" is an interactive archive of images, videos, and trivia about the year in which the season is set; it, too, is nicely mastered and full of cool stuff. "New Characters" (3:35) is a promo piece focusing on season two's Owen Sleater and Manny Horvitz, as played by Cox and William Forsyth; "Updates to the Boardwalk" (3:14) spotlights the new additions to the show's intricate production design; and "The Money Decade" (24:33) is a thorough and compelling combination of period background and show promotion.
A sharp and stylish "Season Two Promo Spot" (1:37) closes out the bonus features.
As with its inaugural season, the meandering and complexity of Boardwalk Empire's second year does, in fact, pull together forecefully into a strong, taut conclusion, with the final three or so episodes simultaneously shocking, violent, and tense. This is a show with the capacity for greatness, and that promise shines through in its best moments and sharpest episodes. If they would just tighten it up a little, this would be one of the best shows on television.