'Boardwalk Empire' Finally Shakes Off Ghost of 'The Sopranos'

By focusing on Steve Buscemi, HBO's drama comes into its own

Macall B. Polay
Charlie Cox (Owen Slater), Steve Buscemi (Nucky Thompson), Anatol Yusef (Meyer Lansky), Glenn Fleshler (George Remus) in HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire.'
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"Ordinary men avoid trouble," one of Nucky Thompson's criminal associates tells him. "Extraordinary men turn it to their advantage." That sums up the moral code of Boardwalk Empire. And as Nucky heads into 1923, he's got plenty of trouble. The last time we saw him, at the end of the HBO drama's amazing second season, he was scrambling to save what was left of his corrupt Atlantic City fiefdom. He went to new extremes, from murder to marriage. Can he stay on top? It depends on how far gangster he's willing to go.

Like Nucky, Boardwalk Empire took some surprising risks last season. The boldest was killing off the resident male sex muffin, the stud who drew more lecherous female viewers than the rest of the cast combined. But enough about Dabney Coleman. No, killing Michael Pitt – that took guts. In the devastating finale, Steve Buscemi's Nucky squeezed the trigger on his surrogate son, Pitt's Jimmy. It was a tough sacrifice to make, but Boardwalk took the hard option, just as Nucky did. The gangster rules demanded one resolution for the Oedipal clash between Nucky and Jimmy – when a plot against the emperor fails, someone has to die. But TV rules demand that you don't whack one of your two leads. Who thought they'd go through with it? Yet they did, and Jimmy exited Ned Stark-style.

That shocker shows how far Boardwalk has come. It always had style, but at first, not much of a story. That isn't a problem anymore. The new episodes hit new highs of feral intensity, as the writers wisely zero in on Nucky, and Buscemi makes him more complex than ever. Now that he's committed murder, he's become a different man, and in Buscemi's hands, a more terrifying and haunted one.

When it started, Boardwalk had aspirations as a wide-scale American gangster pageant, but it wisely accepted that this is not The Godfather, it's Reservoir Dogs – a group of men and their allegiances. These are small-town crooks focused on short-term profits while Prohibition lasts. Nobody dreams of building an empire or shaping history. There is still dazzling high glitz as Boardwalk evokes the 1920s world: jazz, polio, heroin, religion, business meetings where people say things like, "I promised this yid I'd stick it only halfway in." The same gangster calls Nucky a "breadstick in a bow tie." (Why didn't Tarantino think of that?)

The price of focusing on Nucky is that the minor characters start to fade into the background. Some of them still shine – especially Gretchen Mol's Gillian and Michael Kenneth Williams' Chalky. They're just less prominent. Unfortunately, Nucky had to marry his annoying Irish colleen so she couldn't testify against him – but if you thought she was unbearable before, get a load of Prissy O'Frowny now.

Without revealing anything about the narrative, it's safe to say you won't miss Pitt, even if you liked him. Boardwalk moves with a new swagger – it's finally shaken off the shadow of The Sopranos. There's a great throwaway moment early in the third season when Nucky mentions the Pine Barrens. Some thug responds, "I don't know where the fuck that is." Talk about slaying the father.

The most poignant scene came when Jimmy, in his final moments, gave Nucky a few pointers about how to kill. ("My first time, I vomited after, two days straight. Second time, I didn't even think about it.") Nucky has to become as cold a killer to keep his throne – he has to go full gangster. Boardwalk Empire is already there.

This story is from the October 11th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1167: October 11, 2012