September 19th, 2010
I could very, very easily write a couple of thousand words about the pilot for Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s latest prestige drama series which debuted last night. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning (well, relative to when I should have gone to bed) to watch the pilot, and I enjoyed it a great deal: Steve Buscemi’s performance is spectacular, Martin Scorsese was his usual talented self in the director’s chair, and Terence Winter has crafted a world which promises great return on investment for viewers.
The problem, however, is twofold. First of all, my Sundays are pretty much devoted to Mad Men at this point – Rubicon, for example, has been piling up on the DVR not because I’m not interested, but because there just isn’t enough time to give the series its due on Sundays and the rest of the week is just too busy to catch up. This means that it’s difficult to fit in yet another complex serialized drama, at least until Mad Men concludes its season in a month’s time.
The more important factor, meanwhile, is that the critics have the first five episodes, and many of them are devoting themselves to full-fledge weekly analysis of the kind which I would be creating. Normally, I wouldn’t use this as an excuse not to write: if I didn’t write reviews because other people were writing them instead, Alan Sepinwall and The A.V. Club would have scared me off a long time ago. However, starting a new degree program as I am, there comes a point where I need to make a decision: do I want to watch Boardwalk Empire and enjoy it, or watch Boardwalk Empire and feel the stress of trying to write about it?
As a result, this may be my last word on Boardwalk Empire for a while – as usual, I’ll probably be tempted into writing something when the show gets particularly spectacular in the weeks ahead, but it will remain something short instead of something fully detailed. If you’re looking for that sort of analysis, it’s like I say: between Todd VanderWerff at The L.A. Times, Noel Murray at The A.V. Club, Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, and (eventually, he promises) James Poniewozik at Time, I think the critical community has this one covered.
However, I do want to offer a few more detailed thoughts about the pilot, while I’ve got the time.
What strikes me about Boardwalk Empire is that it is almost startlingly honest (for those who tune in to The Event tonight, you will find quite the opposite); outside of the in media res opening, which I’ll get to in a moment, the pilot doesn’t present Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson as a man who keeps secret. While the show may be build around a secret (the efforts to keep Atlantic City wet amidst prohibition), the show itself has little time for such efforts. As a result, there are no truly “shocking” reveals in the episode, and the post-pilot conflict is driven by a complication within the given system rather than a substantial deconstruction of the series’ world.
The one potential exception, of course, is the reveal that it is Jimmy (Michael Pitt) beneath the mask as he and Al Capone gun down the New Yorker’s men. And yet, even then it feels as if the pilot did a good job of building to that moment where it felt less like a surprise. That’s how In Media Res openings work, really: it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was revealed in the beginning since we hadn’t even met the character yet, and it isn’t a surprise at the end because we’ve seen Jimmy struggle with his identity in the wake of his return home to Atlantic City. Given the opportunity to play the rat and take a job with the federal government, Jimmy decides instead to fully embrace the lifestyle that his mentor lives without truly admitting to it: he gives up the funeral home distillery in order to remain tight with the Feds (and take a form of revenge against its operator for the practical joke earlier in the Pilot), but then takes on the shipment to secure that much more of the available gangster credibility.
I love the moment when he explained to Nucky that you can’t be halfway in this environment: you are either a gangster or not a gangster, there is no in between. And yet it’s clear that Nucky has always lived in the liminal, straddling that line between politician and the criminal, but Jimmy argues that this is no longer acceptable. It’s a brilliant pivot for the series in that the dynamic entirely shifts: while we spend most of the episode lamenting that a young family man could be corrupted by Nucky’s criminal influences, we end the episode with Jimmy placing Nucky in a difficult ethical and moral position in regards to the events which have transpired. The role reversal is a really clever bit of writing, and plays nicely with the final scene of Nucky visiting Kelly MacDonald’s battered wife character – while he seemed to be unquestionably corrupt in the early parts of the pilot, the final act shows that Nucky is perhaps less corrupt than we first imagined.
And, instead of registering as a surprise, it registers as a clever bit of narrative construction, and gives the series some pretty solid momentum heading into subsequent hours.
- Still not entirely sure what went down in Chicago – who, precisely, shot the restaurant owner who had been part of the deal brokered by Nucky with the New Yorkers (and who Capone worked for)? Perhaps that was supposed to remain a mystery, but I was perplexed.
- I know everyone else noticed this as well, but Molly Parker plays the part of Nucky’s deceased wife, in purely pictorial form of course: curious to see if we will see her in flashbacks at some point.