Ah HBO, the cable network that just keeps on giving, providing countless hours of compulsive viewing with the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire, True Blood and Game of Thrones, to name just a few of its quality, adult focused entertainment. And we all know the best way to watch these series is on DVD box set, because you don’t have to wait a week for the next episode. Fans of good drama can rejoice that Season 2 of the brilliant HBO show, Boardwalk Empire was released on DVD this week (September 5th) in Australia. Those unfamiliar with the show may not know its excellent pedigree: developed by Emmy-award winning screenwriter and producer Terence Winter (The Sopranos), the show is also executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who directed the pilot) and Mark Wahlberg.
Based on real-life 1920s gangsters, the show focuses on New Jersey’s Atlantic City during prohibition. Its central character is political game-player Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (based on Enoch L. Johnson) who controls the distribution of alcohol, as well as other illegal activities advantaged by his position as the city’s Treasurer. Other recognisable criminal figures featured include Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Stulberg, A Serious Man), Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham, This is England).
In Season 1 we learnt about the power relationships that enabled Nucky Thompson to run Atlantic City. Charged with setting the scene, the first Season showed how Nucky dealt with corrupt politicians, showgirls and an increasingly demented federal agent played by Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter). As well as establishing the relationship between Nucky and criminals in New York and Chicago, the show also touched on themes of loyalty, religion and racism, with those story-lines bearing fruit in Season 2.
The central concern of this latest Season is the machinations of Nucky’s once loyal followers. Ready for a regime change, Nucky’s surrogate son Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt, The Dreamers) and Eli Thompson’s, the police chief and Nucky’s younger brother (Shea Whigham) discover that power is a hard thing to master. With the groundwork nicely laid in the first Season, the second is given much more room to explore the era, with racial tension increasing with the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, and the appearance of Sinn Fein/IRA raising the ‘Irish question’ interesting additions to the central gangster plot.
Boardwalk Empire is sumptuously filmed, with the costumes and set designs quite glorious, especially evident in Season 2′s new locations- Nucky and Margaret’s house and Jimmy beachside house. Whilst the show is an ensemble piece, certain cast members shine. Michael Stulberg’s eternally calm Jewish King-pin, Rothstein is a smaller character in the show, but his appearance in an episode is always welcome. Shea Whigham as the increasingly desperate police chief is given a great story arc as he realises he has chosen the wrong side. Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men) is great as the eternally conflicted Margaret, Nucky’s mistress. Having grown accustomed to having the finer things, her religious and moral beliefs are tested by Nucky’s business practices as she learns more about the man she and her children live with, but as we discover she too can be tricky and cunning.
No matter how good the rest of the cast is, Boardwalk Empire is undoubtedly Steve Buscemi’s masterpiece. In this Season we see Nucky struggle to retain power: fighting the Law, his family and once loyal generals in the empire he built up around himself. Nucky’s ambition and greed are easy to identify motivations, but his intelligence and ability to see the bigger picture seem to set him apart from the show’s other criminals. Of course it is the duality of Nucky’s character that makes him so intriguing. Whilst we barrack for Nucky, he is a conflicting character who is capable of shocking with his, at times, cruel schemes. Buscemi masterfully pulls off the many nuances of Nucky’s character, the charming and hard-working politician, the criminal puppet-master and more gentle family man.
The slow pace of Boardwalk Empire is sometimes frustrating, but ultimately the pay off is worth the wait, with Season 2′s ending suggesting even more interesting territory to come in Season 3.