Television Revision: Boardwalk Empire – Season 2

Boardwalk Empire S2

By Andrew Williams
October 9, 2013

Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation). 

Now, this is a story all about how… In 1921, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) sees his grip on power in Atlantic City seriously challenged by a group including his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and former protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt),.

Boardwalk Empire S2

Happy days? It depends on what matters more to the viewer: the journey or the destination. The final two episodes of Boardwalk Empire’s second season are outstanding, atmospheric pieces of work; a shining example of what this show can be at its best. Unfortunately, the ten episodes prior feature only glimpses of that same level of quality, plagued by uninspiring drama and underdeveloped characters. The summit is probably worth the climb, but only just.

With a cast this impressive, production values this lavish, and a creative team this accomplished, it’s hard to shake the idea that Boardwalk Empire should be much, much better and more consistent than it is. This kind of prestige television should not also be the kind of show you could happily watch while doing something else, but the soap-opera pacing and surprising lack of stakes mean Boardwalk does not always benefit from your full attention. It’s also difficult to fully engage in a universe (for this length of time) where literally any adult character could die and the world would probably be better off for it. This is Boardwalk Empire, where your hero is Death.

Most of the show’s issues fade into the background at the climax, though, as the smothered genius of Boardwalk Empire comes gloriously up for air. Two plotlines – one simmering, one mostly dormant – emerge at the expense of all the activity on the periphery, and the series is much better for its renewed level of focus. If these final two episodes are indicative of what’s in store come Season Three, we’re in for a treat.

The final frontier: Season Two is a long journey with a thrilling, memorable destination. Just prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.

Boardwalk Empire S2

Top two episodes: 11) Under God’s Power She Flourishes. A flashback tells us more about Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, and it’s exactly the kind of strong character story this show needs to do more. Depth is often the victim of a character surplus, but it’s crucial to our full investment in the stories being told, and these actors are more than up to the task. 12) To the Lost. Two sequences that belong firmly in the best television moments of that year punctuate a thrilling conclusion to Season Two.

Worst episode: 10) Georgia Peaches. Though she’s played by a fantastic actress in Kelly Macdonald, Margaret Thompson (nee Schroder) has been one of Boardwalk Empire’s most problematic characters; always seeming isolated from the main action despite her close proximity to the protagonist. This heavily Margaret-centric episode demonstrates why, as the drama sinks when it should be ascendant.

Season MVP: Michael Pitt’s Jimmy was the most interesting character and performance in Season One, and nothing’s changed. He remains an intensely charismatic actor the camera is deeply, deeply in love with. But it’s his relationship with his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol) that provides Boardwalk Empire with its most fascinating, unsettling plot.

3.5/5

Check out Andrew Williams’ previous instalments:

Television Revision: Boardwalk Empire – Season 1

Boardwalk Empire is available on Quickflix.

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