New Planks for "Boardwalk Empire”

The HBO series returns Sunday with Buscemi's Nucky Thompson emerging as TV's scariest sociopath since Gandolfini's Tony Soprano.

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Sep 13, 2012  |  Updated 7:00 PM CDT
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New Planks for "Boardwalk Empire”

AP

Michael Pitt (left) and Steve Buscemi in a scene from "Boardwalk Empire," which returns to HBO Sunday.

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We still shudder when recalling last year’s chilling finale of the second season finale of "Boardwalk Empire," which – spoiler alert if you're still catching up on episodes – featured a general television no-no: the star killing off the co-star.

Nucky Thompson’s merciless shooting of his surrogate-son-turned-regretful-rival Jimmy Darmody recalled the jolting whacking of Big Pussy on "The Sopranos" a dozen years ago. It also marked the no-turning-back moment in which Steve Buscemi's Thompson became TV's most stone-cold sociopath since James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano.

We mean that as a compliment. "Boardwalk Empire," the Prohibition-set HBO drama brimming with crime and corruption, enters its third season Sunday in a dangerous state of lawlessness that bodes for new explosive battles, internal and external.

The show ignited a slow-burning fuse two years ago, with its visually commanding premiere, directed by Martin Scorsese. The first season’s deliberate wind allowed consummate character actor Buscemi, a seemingly odd choice for the top role, to emerge as a powerful leading man. Sure, from the start his Thompson was a crooked string-puller in the intertwined worlds of early 1920s Atlantic City politics and organized crime. But we initially saw only a clever, manipulative charmer who managed to keep from getting his hands too dirty – until his hand was forced.

As we've noted, "Boardwalk Empire" owes as much to the modern mob-movie genre led by Scorsese as it does to Shakespeare and Freud. While "The Sopranos" was primarily fueled, at least early on, by mommy issues, last season's heart of "Boardwalk" largely belonged to Daddy. Thompson despised his abusive father. Darmody lived his own version of the Oedipal nightmare, haunted by an illicit relationship with his mother that sent him from Princeton to World War I to the mob to killing his ruthless biological father (played by the great Dabney Coleman) in last season’s second-strongest scene.

The season’s stunning climax came when Darmody accepted the penalty for ordering an ultimately failed hit on Thompson, his flawed father figure. “The only person left to judge you is you,” he tells Thompson as the trigger is pulled amid a driving rain.

The unnerving line sets the stage for this season, in which the now irrefutably amoral Thompson faces the test of preserving self-control amid challenges to his power from fictional versions of real mobsters Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. We expect he'll be trailed by tin-masked assassin Richard Harrow, Darmody's well-armed wingman and fellow veteran who lost his soul and half his face over there. Thompson also could be done in by his own wife, Margaret, even as he plays father to her children in a bid to be a family man – a delusion that’s probably more important in maintaining his own crumbling psyche than maintaining appearances.

The complex characters and intersecting storylines are the product of smart writing from a crew headed by show creator Terence Winter, who previously worked on “The Sopranos.” “Boardwalk Empire” also is boosted by some of the best acting on TV, with stellar performances by Michael Kenneth Williams as mobster Chalky White; Jack Huston as the creepy Harrow; Kelly MacDonald as Margaret, a canny woman bent on saving herself and her children from her husband of convenience; and Michael Shannon as self-flagellating, Bible-thumping G-man Nelson Van Alden, who ended last season as a fugitive turned as wicked as the criminals he once hunted.

We’ll miss Michael Pitt as Darmody. But, then again, Vincent Pastore’s Big Pussy turned up in various forms after his death to haunt Tony Soprano. In the meantime, Nucky Thompson's internal torment threatens to grow even as he confronts more immediate physical dangers. Check out a preview below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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