Last night HBO concluded its second season of Boardwalk Empire in truly startling fashion (major spoilers ahead), and teased its first episode of Luck, a horse racing drama from Deadwood creator David Milch. How did everyone fare? Well, it was a mixed bag.
The big story arc this season on Boardwalk was the battle between Nucky Thompson and his former protege Jimmy Darmody, the petulant son figure who struck out on his own after feeling stifled under his pseudo-dad's rule. The bootlegging turf escalated into attempts on Nucky's life and other bloodshed, including Jimmy's wife (and her lesbian lover) being murdered by an associate whom Jimmy had tried to eliminate. But finally, after Jimmy killed his small-time monster of an actual father (after, very Greekly, sleeping with his mother in a flashback), he decided it was time to reconcile with Nucky.
He did so by eliminating a key witness in a murder case again Nucky and, in theory, all seemed to be mostly resolved. Nucky tracked down the man who'd killed Jimmy's wife and told Jimmy to come collect the guy to do with him what he would. So Jimmy goes to the meeting, on a dark and stormy night of course, only to discover (though, really he kinda knew the whole time) that he in fact had just shown up for his own execution. At Nucky's hands, no less. So after some rueful talk, Nucky dispatched him with two bullets to the head and that's that for Jimmy Darmody. Truly shocking!
It's rare that a show just up and kills off one of its main characters like that, though I suppose we should have expected that from a former Sopranos writer. That writer, showrunner Terrence Winter, explains himself here, while assuring us that the show won't lose any momentum without Jimmy. New characters are in the offing, and beloved Jimmy-related character Richard Harrow will continue. (What of Gretchen Mol's minxy mama? I fear they won't have much for her to do now that her son's dead, unless she's after revenge?) Whatever happens, it was a thrilling way to end an already plenty exciting season. We'll miss Michael Pitt's tortured Jimmy, but his character had basically run his tragic course and this was a fittingly grim and final way to say goodbye to him.
Speaking of grim, how about this new show Luck, right? Not that the show is about anything all that grim -- it's set at a Southern California racetrack -- but as pilot debuts go, the show's prospects don't seem great. Like, let's be honest: Did anyone besides a horse racing wonk understand a good three quarters of what anyone was saying? More importantly, did anyone care? Sure the tension was there during that big final race, beautifully filmed by Michael Mann, but all the other stuff about horses pooping and jockeys not following instructions? Eh. And, sorry we're old, but could everyone have spoken up just a little bit? Richard Kind, for example? Sir, stop swallowing your words or burying them in a pile of tics. And trying to glean any of David Milch's already knotty language through John Ortiz's thick, put-on accent was mostly an exercise in futility. The same is true of Tom Payne's pretty young jockey with his, what was that, French accent? Cajun? It was unclear.
Lots of the show, sadly, was unclear. Mostly, like, what the hell everyone was talking about. Obviously the gambling aspect was fairly easy to figure out after a short while, but was, for example, Nick Nolte doing anything but whispering incoherently? What was that scene with Dustin Hoffman and the restaurant guy all about? Obviously these things will develop and become clearer, but as it stands Milch's writing here is as impenetrable as it was on his scuttled John From Cincinnati, a show that oftentimes made no sense for entire episodes. We're not trying be dumb here or dismiss interesting writing, but Milch, an avid horse owner himself, needed to leave the door open a bit more for us neophytes.
Still, it's nice to see Jill Hennessy and Rome's Kerry Condon on a prestige show, though it'd be nice if they weren't the only women listed in the opening credits, and if they'd had a little more screen time. The "This season on..." trailer made it seem like some exciting things happen, so we'll be watching in the future (and doing a formal review once we've seen a few more episodes), but as a stand-alone pilot, last night just felt very closed-off and alienating. Horse racing is supposed to be a fun, isn't it? At least a little bit? Last night just felt like work. Deeply confusing work.