When Boardwalk Empire premiered last year, with great fanfare, it seemed almost tragically destined to disappoint. The pedigree was certainly there, with longtime Sopranos' writer Terrence Winter at the helm and Martin Scorsese as a producer (and the pilot's director), but it also needed to find a way to get out from behind that perhaps greatest-show-ever's long shadow. HBO certainly pinned many Sopranos-level hopes on the series, as the network had been struggling to find a series that was both a critical and mass-appeal success. (True Blood, while popular, probably wasn't going to win a Peabody any time soon.) The stakes were high and sure enough the show premiered to big numbers, but the rest of the season proved a bit... lackluster.
The show just didn't become the watercooler buzz hit that many hoped it would be. While it was a good show, it also seemed a bit strained, too hung-up on artistry for artistry's sake while the real meat of the story went a bit unattended. HBO renewed the series almost immediately after the premiere episode, so we knew there would be more, but would the second season suffer under the same towering expectations, giving us floridly desperate stabs at Great Televisionism rather than an engaging story?
As it turns out, no! As last night's episode "Fight of the Century," the ninth this season, proved, the show has remarkably found its footing this year, eschewing a lot of the half-baked attempts at deeper psychology stuff (for which the Sopranos set such an impossibly high bar) and settling instead to be a well-paced, exciting, and yet still thoughtful look at a grandly grimy little corner of American history. Currently on the show we're dealing with an increasingly bloody war between father-figure and son-figure, the sexual awakening of a once prim and proper woman (Kelly Macdonald, gangbusters this season), a scarred war veteran (scarred both physically and mentally), simmering race relations, and a slew of peripheral characters who enliven every scene they're in with strange little ticks and details.
Specifically last night we saw a terrifyingly gruesome failed attack on Jewish mobster Manny Horvitz (the great William Forsythe), our hero Nucky Thompson (the still too remote Steve Buscemi) travel to conflicted Northern Ireland to run guns and barter for booze, and Margaret discovering that her young daughter might be hobbled by polio. (Will Margaret see this as some kind of divine punishment for her dalliance with the dashing and roguish Owen, played so slyly by Charlie Cox?) And Chalky! The Wire's resident badass Michael K. Williams was woefully underutilized last season, but now his Chalky White, essentially the black community equivalent of Nucky, is at the center of much of the back room scheming. It's unclear where exactly this little restaurant rebellion he helped stage last night is leading, but to see this very real yet often overlooked piece of the American landscape at this time period is fascinating no matter the outcome. The show this season is basically a big three-ring circus, busy and crowded, but so far nothing's been allowed to drop, nothing feels lopsided or spread too thin. The writers are humming along.
Like the Chalky storyline, it's hard to see where exactly the rest of the season is headed (we've only three episodes left), but unlike with last year's ponderous and muddled happenings, we now trust the show will deliver something big and satisfying and quite possibly, rather moving. As everyone races unwittingly toward the cataclysm of 1929, we can't imagine anything is going to get any easier. But this year, thankfully, it's only the characters who are struggling. The boardwalk itself is built solid.