'Boardwalk Empire' Premiere Recap: Gangster's Paradise

Nucky Thompson returns with a new look, a new adversary – and a new sinister demeanor

Macall B. Polay
Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson in HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire'
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Don't let the lavish, gold-tinted New Year's Eve party fool you. Things are going to be very dark this season on Boardwalk Empire. Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, from his first appearance in "Resolution," has fulfilled his fallen protégé Jimmy Darmody's prophecy from the pilot: "You can't be half a gangster." In the 16 months that have passed since he put two bullets into Jimmy's head, Nucky has emerged a fully fledged mob boss, with no misgivings over killing anyone who dares stand in his way. His more intimidating approach is also echoed in his updated sartorial palette: The tangerine and lavender shirts under snappy checked suits are no more, with Nucky probably realizing that you can't instill fear into the hearts of your enemies when you could be mistaken for Eddie Cantor.

When we last saw Nucky, at the close of Season Two, he was celebrating a land deal certain to exponentially increase the Thompson bank account. Only glitch in that plan was that while Nucky was out sipping champagne, his brand-new wife, Margaret Schroeder, signed the deed to the land over to St. Finbar's Church. Margaret's decision to settle her debt with God with her husband's dirty money was undoubtedly a game-changer, and the Thompson marriage, whose foundation was unsteady to begin with, is now teetering precariously from a cliff.  

New Year, New Rules

The opening scene of the third season wastes no time introducing its newest villain – the capricious, charming and utterly frightening bootlegger Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale in an explosive performance, and a very welcome addition to the cast). In a matter of minutes, Gyp has presented himself as a hair-trigger gangster with a bit of Anton Chigurh thrown in. The only thanks a Good Samaritan who offered to assist with the Rosetti motorcade's flat tire gets for his generosity is the loss of his dog – and his life. Word to the wise: Don't ever tell a Sicilian that "Regina" (the dog's name) means "queen." Chances are, he already knows.

Photos: 'Boardwalk Empire'

We cut to a misty Atlantic City, where a "Happy New Year 1923" sign sets the date and the jazz standard "There'll Be Some Changes Made" signals that we're about to meet a very different Nucky Thompson. In a seedy part of town, we're reintroduced to Owen Sleater (moving up in the world, his newsboy cap replaced by a smart fedora) and Mickey Doyle (nervous giggle still intact), playing heavies for their employer. Nucky seems like his regular, affable self at first, waxing poetic to an unseen figure about the importance of a hot breakfast. Until the camera pans back to reveal a tied-up man named Nate – I was half-waiting for this guy to call Nucky "Mr. Pink" – with Manny Horvitz hovering over him. Nate was caught robbing Nucky's warehouse, but Nucky assures him there are no hard feelings. Except for when he orders Manny to kill him. Let the era of Scary Nucky Thompson begin.

So how is Nucky able to hold court from his Ritz-Carlton suite while doling out homicides without the feds sniffing around? He's been paying Attorney General Harry Daugherty $40,000 a month in "protection" fees. It's not a perfect arrangement, especially because Nucky isn't blind to the Harding administration's ongoing corruption, but since he no longer holds a government position (he resigned as county treasurer last season), he can't claim to be a "philanthropist" without paying for the privilege.

Continuing in the charitable vein, Margaret's New Year's preparations include touring the "brand-new Enoch and Margaret Thompson Pediatric Annex" at St. Theresa's Hospital. But a pregnant woman bleeding out all over the floor interrupts the tour and inconveniences the doctors, who would much rather discuss the new landscaping than assist in an actual medical emergency. Margaret, having first-hand experience with the devastation of a miscarriage, approaches Dr. Mason, a young physician, to inquire about the patient. A frustrated Mason tells her that the woman lost the baby, most likely from drinking raw milk. He feels if the hospital provided necessary pre-natal instruction to expectant mothers, this never would have happened: "They are ignorant about their bodies," says Mason.

That evening, the Thompsons' New Year's Eve party is in full swing, their house decorated like ancient Egypt – and Eddie Cantor and his Cleopatra-wigged flapper gal pal, Lillian "Billie" Kent, performing a song about "King Tut" (not the Steve Martin version). But the real excitement is happening below, during a clandestine meeting between Nucky and a bootlegging Who's Who: Arnold Rothstein, the third-person-referring George Remus, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky – and Gyp (so how do he and Nucky know each other?), who arrived carrying a familiar-looking dog now answering to "Scruffy." Nucky announces he's simplifying his operations to keep the feds off his tail: going forward, he will only be selling liquor to Rothstein. No one is happy with this arrangement, but Gyp is taking it worse than anyone, using every ethnic slur available to insult everyone from Rothstein to Owen ("I'll shit you out like yesterday's sausage, you bogtrotter prick"). Gyp's extremely short fuse is also ignited when he misconstrues Nucky's goodwill offer to put him up at the Ritz-Carlton as a suggestion that he can't afford his own hotel room. Although Gyp ends the discussion with a conciliatory "Nobody here can take a joke," it's clear Nucky has made a very deadly enemy with this New Year's resolution.

As Nucky and Margaret bid their guests goodnight, so rises the curtain on their sham of a marriage. The second the door shuts Nucky is reaming his wife out for dragging him into her latest "cause" – which amounted to an awkward exchange with one of the doctors on the subject of nonexistent pre-natal care at St. Theresa's – because the last thing he wants is any more reason to interact with Margaret. It's no surprise that he hates her now, although it must solely be on principle, because whatever financial windfall the Thompsons lost from the land deal certainly had no effect on their ability to hire about 10 more servants. But from this brief exchange, we get that Margaret and Nucky barely speak anymore, much less share a bed: "You come and go as you please and I do all that's required of me," says Margaret.

Nucky goes to the Ritz-Carlton, the removal of his jacket revealing that he's packing heat these days. In the quiet of his suite, he rubs his hand (an ever-present reminder of Jimmy's assassination attempt) and heads into the bedroom – where a half-naked Billie Kent is waiting for him.

While Nucky and Billie are getting "reacquainted" – apparently she's been keeping him company for a while now – Margaret is out on the beach at sunrise, under a gorgeous pink-and-blue-streaked sky, watching an aviatrix on her maiden voyage fly overhead. As Margaret gazes at the plane heading off into the distance, the theme for her character this season is established: independence. The first season it was security and power. The second season it was absolution. There's no question she can achieve freedom too, but will that be what ultimately makes her happy? She got herself into this mess – but I look forward to watching her dig her way out of it. And if this episode is any indication, her mission to educate the women of Atlantic City on the concepts of reproductive health will be what fills her days, now that she no longer has Nucky's love. She's a cunning, clever enough woman that I have no doubt she'll succeed in outsmarting her husband yet again. And perhaps that handsome Dr. Mason will play more of a role in her life as well. In that sense, it's fitting that the episode closes out with a vintage recording of "There'll Be Some Changes Made." Because it applies to Margaret as much as it does to Nucky.

Iron Man

Atlantic City isn't the only town getting plenty of action this season. In Chicago, a man is making gin in his bathtub when Nelson Van Alden approaches the door. But Van Alden isn't there to arrest him. The disgraced Prohibition agent, still on the lam for drowning his partner, Agent Sebso, in Season One, is living under the assumed name George Mueller and reduced to selling irons door-to-door. It's a hapless existence, with Van Alden making zero sales and reciting a Stuart Smalley-type affirmation in the mirror. But his luck begins to change when he accidentally walks in on an altercation between Al Capone and his Irish mobster rival Dean O'Banion in the latter's flower shop. O'Banion pretends that the bewildered salesman is one of his men, capable of messing up Capone with the unseen contents of his large case of iron samples. Van Alden, seamlessly playing along, unhooks the latch to his case – and Capone and his man scram. O'Banion, indebted to Van Alden, buys two dozen irons, makes him a bouquet free of charge – and tells him to get in touch if he ever wants a "real job." When it was revealed last season that Van Alden, his Norwegian nanny, Sigrid (now his wife and mother to their baby boy), and daughter Abigail landed in Cicero, Illinois, we knew it would only be a matter of time before he fell in with the aforementioned notorious Chicago bootleggers.

The Masked Avenger

Since her son's "disappearance" and the deaths of her daughter-in-law and baby daddy, Gillian Darmody has kept herself busy running an upscale brothel – and convincing Jimmy's son Tommy that she's not his grandma, but his "mama." Not hard when you're still in your thirties. Lurking in the corners, though, is the brothel's caretaker, Richard Harrow, who is doing his damnedest to keep the memories of Jimmy and Angela Darmody alive in their son, much to Gillian's consternation.

But Richard has more pressing issues this New Year's Eve. Manny Horvitz, after enjoying a quiet celebration with his wife, is heading out to kill Roland Smith – the accomplice of Nate, the thief from earlier – but he never gets past his front door. In a single gunshot, Richard has both avenged his friend's wife Angela and cleared William Forsythe's schedule so he can turn his attention to his new role as a . . . wait for it . . . Chicago gangster on The Mob Doctor. But who is the gentleman wearing a mask similar to Richard's waiting in the getaway car?

Wrap-Up Margaret has proven herself a worthy adversary to her now-very-dangerous husband, but it's hard to feel sympathy for her, because she's getting what she deserves. She had to have known Nucky would turn his back on her when she decided to put the church's name on that deed instead of his. Complicating matters further is Nucky's new mistress, Billie, who already is way more likable than Margaret, and has the potential to win his heart once and for all.

Previously: St. Jimmy

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