In our continuing efforts to cover “Boardwalk Emipre,” I want to talk about something. Not last night’s HOLY SH*T moment — the latest in a series of HOLY SH*T moments that have salvaged quite a few of otherwise creaky episodes — nor about last week’s incredibly twisted storyline. I want to talk about Nelson Van Alden.
Nelson Van Alden is a character played by Michael Shannon, one of the most gifted character actors in Hollywood. You may recognize him from a series of mostly low-budget films in which he typically plays a psycho of some sort, most notably Take Shelter, a film that should’ve merited him his second Oscar nomination (he was nominated for best supporting actor in 2009 for his role in Revolutionary Road). He’s also set to play the villain, General Zod, in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel next year, and my guess is that the creative minds behind “Boardwalk Empire” want to keep Shannon on the show long enough to exploit the inevitable surge of popularity he will receive once that movie is out.
However, in the meantime, Shannon’s character, Van Alden, is treading water on “Boardwalk Empire,” appearing mostly, it seems, to remind us that he’s still on the show. He’s been mostly detached from the show’s major story lines since the first season, adrift in season two dealing with a pregnancy subplot seemingly only created to give Paz de la Huerta something to do before the show runners sent her and her crazy packing.
It hasn’t improved in the third season, either. Van Alden — after killing a federal agent — is a fugitive on the lam, which only serves to keep him more disconnected from the rest of “Boardwalk Empire.” He lives in Cicero, Illinois and poses as George Mueller, an door-to-door iron salesman whose closest proximity to the action of “Boardwalk Empire” came last night when he served as muscle for a guy who is selling alcohol to Al Capone, himself an increasingly distant character. Shannon was allowed one explosive scene, however, in which he scalded a man’s face with a hot iron.
Shannon is not the only wasted actor in “Boardwalk Empire,” however. Michael K. Williams, who was underused in season one, had a decently substantive story line in season two, but has barely been heard from in season three. He is another instance where “Boardwalk Empire” wastes not only the talent of the actors involved, but the colorful characters they inhabit. Williams’ Chalky White was initially one of the biggest draws to the series, and he’s been relegated to a tiny storyline involving his a young man courting his daughter, a storyline that’s seemingly been all but abandoned this season.
Likewise, three-time Golden Globe nominee Kelly MacDonald has been pushed into an insufferable plotline this season, again mostly away from the main action. She’s working to get birth control introduced into a health clinic, which is the last thing you’d expect a character in a show about Prohibition gangsters to be doing. Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow, so brilliantly used in season two that he became a fan favorite, has also been pushed to the background, save for an Easter episode centered on his fledgling love life and a brilliant exchange between Harrow and Nucky Thompson about the death of Jimmy earlier this season. Charlie Cox, who plays Owen, and who was a brilliant find last season, has also been given scant screen time in season three.
Indeed, it seems that most of the characters we got so invested in last season have been pushed adrift into the show’s orbit, awaiting for Nucky Thompson’s major storyline to absorb them back into the fold. Seven episodes into the third season and that seems less and less likely, as Nucky is more concerned with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), another amazing actor who seems to be moving the plot along mostly off screen, save for a few explosive scenes scattered throughout season three.
Many thought that, brave though it was to kill off Jimmy Darmody at the end of last season, “Boardwalk Empire” would never be able to regain its footing. So far, however, it seems that the absence of Michael Pitt is not what’s killing “Boardwalk Empire”; there’s plenty of talent to fill the vacuum. What’s really missing is the way Jimmy connected so many of the best characters to Nucky Thompson. It is still a solid drama, and thanks to Steve Buscemi and the political machinations of Nucky, one that I continue to look forward to each week. Unfortunately, until the showrunners find a way to bring all the best characters back into the same interweaving storylines, massive amounts of talent may remain sorely underutilized.