Not So Fast, "Homeland": "Boardwalk Empire" Is Where the Real Crazy Is At
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Not So Fast, "Homeland": "Boardwalk Empire" Is Where the Real Crazy Is At

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | October 26, 2012 | Comments ()


Sunday is a crowded night in TV land, one filled with the likes of zombies and terrorists competing for ratings and attention. HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" has an equally compelling hook -- gangsters! -- but it still gets somewhat overlooked in the usual Monday morning rehashing, especially now that Showtime's "Homeland" is back. That's a shame, because "Boardwalk Empire," halfway through its third season, is one of strongest, most consistent dramas around. It can be a slow-burner. Sure, there are plenty of deaths, and many episodes end in blasts of violence, but the show's steady, deliberate pacing puts it more in the territory of "Mad Men" than faster-paced dramas. You've got to stick with it. Those that do have plenty to dissect thanks to the series' delightfully damaged stars, characters methodically developed over time, without gimmicks. You think Carrie and Brody on "Homeland" are screwed up? You haven't gotten to know the residents of Atlantic City, New York and Chicago circa 1923, particularly the fictional ones. The real-life gangsters/criminals depicted in the show -- Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (modeled after Enoch "Nucky" Johnson), Vincent Piazza as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Anatol Yusef as Meyer Lansky, and notably Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein and Stephen Graham as Al Capone -- are great, but anyone who knows their history isn't sweating over these fellas' fates. No, it's the other players that really keep us guessing.

This week's episode, "Ging Gang Goolie," ratcheted up the disturbing factor, particularly for one character, and reminded me that few shows have such a vast array interesting, broken people. We can't salute them all, but here at least is a look at several of the more notably messed up characters.

(Note: If you aren't up to date on the series and don't want anything spoiled, stop reading now.)


Richard Harrow (John Huston)

The disfigured WWI vet may be my favorite character of the series, and he also brought us one of its sadder scenes: In Season Two, we saw Richard working on a scrapbook filled with pictures of families -- a "normal" life he will never have, or at least can't imagine having. He envied mentor Jimmy Darmody's family and even avenged his wife's murder, and it's easy to understand why a man missing part of his face would believe he will never find happiness, much less acceptance. After he met Jimmy in Season One, he took to the hired gun/bodyguard line of duty with ease; however, he knows the exact number of people he has killed. He doesn't take it lightly, as he told Nucky earlier this season when he revealed himself as Manny Horvitz's killer. Thankfully, his suicide attempt in Season Two was interrupted, and I only hope that the recent entrance of a veteran's daughter -- who looked him squarely in the face, shook his hand and treated him as if nothing were different -- will bring something positive into his life. "Boardwalk" isn't one for keeping its characters happy, of course, but perhaps he can at least have a brief respite from his gloomy existence. He needs it.


Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon)

Nelson's story has slowed down since Season One, when Shannon gave an Emmy-worthy performance as the hard-lined and tortured government agent who drowned his partner in a moment of self-righteous and religious fervor. Hard as he tries, Nelson has never been able to avoid temptation and skirting the law, whether it be giving in to drinking and subsequently cheating on his wife (and getting the woman, Lucy, pregnant) or stealing money from the bureau to help care for Lucy. And also murdered his partner. He's on the run from the feds, in Chicago with his immigrant nanny-turned-wife and his child (Lucy split after giving birth), and even as he tries to make a living as a salesman, he finds it difficult to survive while playing things straight. Thanks to his overly helpful wife, he has another dead agent on his hands and is forced to turn to a criminal connection he inadvertently made earlier this season. Nelson has a look about him that says he doesn't know how he ended up where he is -- wondering how things fell apart and why he can't seem to make them right. Most of "Boardwalk's" characters are in that boat, but out of all of them, Nelson is truly conflicted.


Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Canavale)

The impulsive, vengeful Italian gangster is a new addition to the cast (and one that may not survive the season), but he brings such a sadistic flair to the story that he outshines most of the regulars. Sociopathic characters can be problems for some shows; it's too easy to have someone behave recklessly and chalk their behavior up to, "Well, they're crazy." AMC's "Hell on Wheels" fell into this trap in its second season, having not one but two characters go 'round the bend and start terrorizing others. It's a cop-out for wanting to inflict violence without having to develop a story behind it. Gyp has more depth than that. We see how much of his actions stem from his insecurity and fierce temper, and his desire for pain reaches into the bedroom as well. It doesn't take much for Gyp to feel slighted, and in turn, he will beat a stranger to death -- or set someone on fire -- without warning. The unpredictability he brings to Nucky's world works, and Canavale must be having a great time delving into such depravity.


Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol)

The real winner here is the only female on the list -- the cold, opportunistic and truly wrecked mother of the late Jimmy. Gillian had her child when she was still a child herself, having been brought to the much-older Commodore, Jimmy's father, by Nucky as a young teen. Gillian and Jimmy grew up together in a way and were always close -- too close. The Oedipal nature of the relationship was made clear in during the chilling final episodes of Season Two, when we learned through flashbacks how mother and son slept together during his college days, Gillian whispering to Jimmy that what they were doing was all right. Jimmy killed the Commodore, too, but his own death is what still has Gillian reeling. She hasn't even told others, including her grandson, that Jimmy is dead, although that is partly out of self-preservation; she has a high-dollar whore house to run in the Commodore's mansion, which is in Jimmy's name. One of the more unsettling developments of the season -- perhaps the series -- came this past Sunday, when a lonely Gillian picked up Roger, a young, naïve Jimmy lookalike along the boardwalk, taking him home and sleeping with him. She decides to give him the nickname "James." Why, he asks? "Because he was a king." Moving on doesn't appear to be an option for this mom.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • PuraPuma

    It took me awhile to get into this series. I watched season 1 along with season 2 and am so hooked. Gyp is one messed up dude and the story development is great. The stuff that went on in the 20s is pretty crazy compared to how things are now - and we complain about violence? Oh right, this is on tv but I imagine a lot of what goes on in the show may have also gone on in real life.

  • Masterpiece

    About time Pajiba gave some love to Boardwalk. Season 3 has been great so far. I was sceptical after they killed off Jimmy, but it was necessary to the plot and Gyp Rosetti is a perfect(temporary?) replacement.

    Ive been saying to my friends who watch the show that there are to many good characters and that HBO could easily have a spinoff show with Capone, Luciano, Lansky and Rothstein in New York.

    Great Show!!!

  • Rocabarra

    Richard and Gillian are two of my favourite characters for sure, but I have an intense loyalty and love for Eli. The underdog brother who tries and tries, but fails to ever achieve the success he so desires.

    The scene a few weeks ago when he is released from prison and wants to make the model with his now almost-grown son was utterly heartbreaking. I love Eli unconditionally, and if he was to die in the show I'm not sure I could continue to watch it. It would be like killing off a disabled puppy, and like Tyrion, I have a soft spot for cripples, bastards, and broken things.

  • Kala

    I agree completely. The writers have done a lovely job constructing the many layers to that character. Last season, I wanted to shank him with a table; now I want to check in on him and occasionally bring him a bag of groceries. That character deserves far more screen time.

  • GojyoChan

    It's Jack Huston, not John.

  • e jerry powell

    I think Cannavale is too good to be tied to just one show, and certainly not trapped in his own show. I think he's got a good balance for the moment, between this and his work on "Nurse Jackie."

  • John W

    I was happy they brought Julianne Nicholson back.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    She gotta crazy, he gotta crazy... everybody gotta crazy!

  • lowercase_ryan


  • TheOtherOne

    This show my be where the "Crazy" is but it is also where the "Suck" is. It's dead to me after what the did to Jimmy.

  • Clitty Magoo

    If "they" is the writers then so be it. But if "they" is the characters, Jimmy died because Jimmy lost the will to live in world where he was a motherfucker. RIP King James.

  • ceebee_eebee

    My only issue with this review is that Gillian wasn't just "brought to" the commodore. She was raped by him when she was pretty much still a child and then, apparently, tossed aside when she became pregnant by him. I find that a rather important distinction when trying to understand why she's so broken.

  • Great roundup! And I am so glad to read about BE on Pajiba again!

    I just have one problem with this season--all of these characters--particularly Richard-- are getting the shaft in order to service Nucky. I am not amused.

  • Andrew Norris

    I know, right? For such a great show it has to have the world's most boring protagonist.

  • aroorda

    Fucking FINALLY!!! This season has been intense, and the round ups have been missed. Bobby Canavale is a boiling mess of intensity and Nucky is finally developing as a character. This show is barely edging homeland in my book this season.

  • John G.

    Does this mean we finally get to talk about this great show?

  • lowercase_ryan

    Bobby Canavale deserves an award for this season. He is absolutely riveting. You can't look away all the while he's making your skin crawl. I don't think he'll last the season, but ooooh what a run he's having.

    John Huston, however, has been riveting for the duration of the series. No skin crawling, just incredible acting. He's far and away my favorite and I'm not happy about his reduced role this season.

  • the other courtney

    Absolutely - I remember Canavale from his stint on Will & Grace. Never thought he had this kind of range. The man oozes menace and violence and has absolutely filled the void Jimmy's character left.

  • lowercase_ryan

    The first time I saw him was (and remembered him) was in the station agent. Dude has range for days.

  • Clitty Magoo

    I felt so sad and lonely being a BE disciple. Thank you Pajiba, and Mrs. Carlson. This is only the only place I can confess that I have been haunted for two weeks by Gyp Rosetti's flaccid member flailing about soaked in his dead lover's blood (along with the rest of him) after a bracing bout of homoerotic asphyxiation as he ran after his would-be juvenile murderer who was cackling the whole time.

    That shit just don't leave the memory quickly.

    It was like a retro, Italian Patrick Batemen with a belt around hist neck instead of a chainsaw, and it left me silently wishing someone would say... Did you see that shit?!

    In my time of need pajiba was there.
    Thank you.

  • The Four Four

    Perhaps you meant AUTOerotic asphyxiation? Which it wasn't because there was another person involved. And it definitely wasn't homoerotic.
    Craaaazy and awesome scene though.

  • Clitty Magoo

    Ahhh, yes! That explains the weird looks I get at the message parlor.

  • Ernest Hirsch

    The Godtopus replied "My precious, precious child,
    I love you and would never leave you.
    During your times of trial and suffereing,
    when you see only three sets of tentacle-prints in the sand,
    it was then that I carried you."

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