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.