'Boardwalk Empire' Season Premiere Recap: Boss of All Bosses

The beginning of the series' end poses the question: could this gangster epic secretly be TV's best show on the air?

Steve Buscemi in 'Boardwalk Empire.' Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

"Be honest and true, boys! Whatever you do, boys, let this be your motto through life."
—"Be Honest and True"

"Thought you were being clever before, hm? Thought you were gonna get something. For being honest. What have you got?"
The Commodore

As its final eight-episode season begins, with tonight's ironically titled premiere "Golden Days for Boys and Girls," it's time to be honest about Boardwalk Empire. Appropriately enough given the attention the show has paid to family traumas, HBO's sprawling gangster epic has long suffered in the shadow of its siblings. It lacks the seismic influence of The Sopranos, where creator Terrence Winter previously worked; the acclaim and tonal versatility of Mad Men, helmed by fellow Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner; the relentless suspense and narrative arc of Breaking Bad, the era's biggest crime show; and the epic-fantasy scope and pop-culture cachet of Game of Thrones, the network's other big costume drama about bloody power struggles.

What it does better than 99% of its competitors, however, is mount pure sensual spectacle. No other show on television says so much about its world through sight and sound alone – via meticulously composed frames, thoughtfully arranged sequences, colors, voices, tics of performance, and, yes, gore, all designed to communicate the violent tragedy at the heart of Nucky Thompson's story directly to the heart. Tonight's season premiere offered ample evidence of this — as well as suggesting that Boardwalk Empire might very well be the New Golden Age of Television's secret masterpiece.

Look at the forest where shotgun-wielding wardens force the fallen crimelord Chalky White and his chain-gang compatriots to fell trees. It's not just some patch of woods; it's a wintry, swampy hellscape out of The Empire Strikes Back. The dingy uniforms of the "stripeys," the thick goopy mud that clings to Chalky's worn-out boots, the bark of the trees receding infinitely out into the distance, the slate-like sky overhanging them: It's a symphony of grey, exhausting even to look at. This is a world where a broken shoelace can feel like a mortal wound, where a guy can sing up-tempo songs and tell funny stories one minute, and then nearly murder you because he doesn't understand how telephones work the next.

Contrast it with golden Havana, where Nucky hopes to make his entrance into the world of legitimate big business. Our first view of it is a gorgeous overhead shot that shows local kids cavorting on richly lit stone sea walls, as the ocean's deep blue-gold waves flood the top two-thirds of the frame. The light of the setting sun next illuminates Nucky in his cream-colored suit, looking down from his balcony, all the bright blue and white riches of Cuba laid out behind him. The editing – from Nucky's reminiscence about his impoverished childhood, to the shot of the Cuban kids, to the shot of Nucky now occupying the high place once held by swells like the Commodore – tells us Nucky's American Dream has come true. Steve Buscemi's rueful face belies that immediately. Not even the emergence into the frame of Sally Wheat – the one love interest Nucky has truly respected as a peer, her floral-patterened dress and her necklace giving her deep red accents that immediately set her off from the surroundings – can cheer him. This is smart, expressive filmmaking, speaking right to your eyes.

The ears come in to play, too. Nucky's flashback scenes are extensive, a real origin-story deal involving his brutal and bitter fisherman father (the wonderful Ian Hart), his sickly sister, and his first halting attempts to get into the good graces of the Commodore, his future mentor and nemesis. The visuals here – boys swimming after a tossed coin, or making their way through brown and windblown reeds to snag the runaway hats of passing dandies – are strong. But it's the sound that truly sets it apart. While an incongruous voiceover recites George Birdseye's inspirational poem "Be Honest and True" in the clipped cadences of Gretchen Mol's Gillian Darmody, an unmistakably contemporary instrumental score plays, its American Beauty-style piano-key tinkling a world away from the scratchy Jazz Age records that normally soundtrack the show. Old-timey boyhood flashbacks within a period piece can be a dubious proposition (Don Draper's Whorehouse Memories are no one's favorite part of Mad Men); the nakedly emotional music and sadly ironic poem about the virtues of honesty make this one stickier, harder to dismiss.

Indeed, there's no better show on TV than Boardwalk Empire where voices are concerned. In terms of departed characters alone, there was Jack Huston's guttural rumble as Richard Harrow, Stephen Root's syrupy Southern Shakespeareanisms as the fixer Gaston Means, and the great Michael Stuhlbarg's reptilian soft-spokenness as the late, lamented Arnold Rothstein. (Losing a memorable death scene for Rothstein is the premiere's greatest casualty; credit the time jump from 1924 to 1931.) If this episode has any late entrants to the speech sweepstakes, it's Margaret's bosses: Mr. Bennett, the suicidal swindler who stridently proclaims the virtue of the latest Mickey Mouse cartoon before blowing his own brains out in full view of his employees; and Mr. Connors, who acts as if he's never experienced human emotions himself. ("Did I ask how you feel?...Good.")

But the most revealing speech comes from Salvatore Maranzano, the new "Boss of All Bosses." Like Joe Masseria, the kingpin he dethrones, he speaks with a thick accent, setting him apart from the Noo Yawk voices of younger gangsters like Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Which is precisely the point: Maranzano sees himself as the rightful heir to a grand Italian tradition of empire dating back to the Caesars he pretentiously compares himself to. That rhetorical flourish – drawn from the real-life Maranzano's  – will do him no favors with the ambitious young iconoclasts who've already killed one boss and attempted to off another, Nucky, down in Cuba. When Masseria insisted there should be "one boss" prior to getting gunned down, it's not his face the camera shows us – it's Luciano's. Maranzano's Rome revivalism won't protect him from the barbarians he's already let inside the gates. Empires, boardwalk or otherwise, always end.