Season one of 'Boardwalk Empire' ended with Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) staring out over the ocean as the sun rose on another day in Atlantic City. Warren G. Harding had just been elected president with Nucky playing a central role in getting him there. Everything was looking up for Nucky and his stranglehold of power on Atlantic County. Even so people were beginning to conspire against him. The people he trusted the most were slowly beginning to turn on him. Nucky felt like he was at the peak of his powers, but season two came and swept his legs right out from under him.
If we've learned anything from mob movies and TV shows it's that there's never enough power to go around. Sooner or later the underlings tire of being underlings and decide that the person they've sworn allegiance to isn't fit to rule any longer. Of course the scorned always think that they'll be better leaders.
Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and Nucky's brother Eli (Shea Whigham) step up to lead the charge against Nucky's rule. Backed by Jimmy's now not-so-dying father the Commodore (Dabney Coleman) the three of them start out the season seeking to undermine everything Nucky has built. It's an interesting dynamic, because you never know if the Commodore is quite right in the head and it's clear to see that both Jimmy and Eli are driven by hate and revenge instead of by good business sense.
Like other HBO shows, for example 'Game of Thrones' or 'Rome,' 'Boardwalk Empire' is best when it features the deeply political world that the characters inhabit. It's always surprising to me how political 'Boardwalk Empire' really is. Here's a show about organized crime where guns and violence are commonplace, yet when the characters are engaged in backroom political wrangling and scheming, that's when they seem the most dangerous.
The first season was a tight, well-produced drama, whereas I thought the second season wavered just a little when it came to tautness. While still very good, it seemed to lose its way as it focused more on a few ancillary characters that seemed to take away from the main storylines. This time around we get to know a lot more about Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the man with half a face, but his character-specific scenes never really resonated with me. I wanted to know what was going on with Nucky and the rest, and didn't care much about Harrow's personal story (that could be just me though). The show seemed spread a little thin trying to cover every subplot, giving more and more screen time to secondary characters. Where I thought this didn't hurt was focusing on the likes of Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and my personal favorite new character Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). I love seeing how the show portrays these real-life gangsters and how wise guys like Lansky and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) steadily rose in the underworld to become some of history's most famous mobsters.
As always, one of the best parts of 'Boardwalk Empire' is Michael Shannon's performance as Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden. Shannon is one of the best American actors working right now, and he brings everything he has to the part. His character, perhaps more than the rest of them, is going through a huge transformation, although his motivations are impossible to nail down. Sure he's still a god fearing man, but even temptation overcomes the strongest believers. Watching his struggle in season two and how he juggles his life in Atlantic City with his life back home with his wife is tricky, complex, and satisfying.
Season two tackles something that season one never really did. In season one Nucky seemed invincible, like nothing could touch him. A few episodes into the second season and he's hanging onto his power by hs fingernails. It's a very interesting change of pace watching this once seemingly impervious man have his power pulled from beneath him.
LIke I said, I do think season two wanders a bit, covering side characters that I have less investment in, but the quality of the show is still there. The characters are still deeply rich and their journeys can be emotionally satisfying (like Margaret embracing her new life and becoming a powerful woman) or frustratingly maddening (like Jimmy being torn between two father figures not knowing exactly who he should pick). The second season is great television. 'Boardwalk Empire' is definitely one of the best looking shows out there, but it's genuinely personal stories and characters are what make it so appealing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
It looks like packaging new TV seasons with DVD/Digital Copy discs is going to be HBO's new thing (they did the same thing with 'Strike Back'). Along with the large cardboard foldout containing all five of season two's 50GB Blu-ray Discs there is also two double-sided DVDs in a small folder containing Digital Copies of the season's episodes along with an authorization code. The inclusion of these other discs makes the whole set, which is all held together by a slick outer slipcase, a tad bit thicker than the first season, which didn't have any DVD discs. Inside the foldout you'll find swanky artwork along with episode lists and brief descriptions of each episode. This is a Region A release.
Was there any doubt that HBO would provide the demo-quality goods again? Season one featured a stellar visual presentation and season two is no different. This show has some of the most beautiful visuals in all of television. The striking period sets of a 1920s Atlantic City boardwalk are crisply done. No expense was spared on the show's attention to detail, and believe me high definition captures every detail there is to be had.
Fine detail is always recognizable here. Textures, everything from the lady-like lace of Margaret's fine dresses to Nucky's finely tailored pin-striped suits, appear as tangible things. Like you could reach out and run your fingers across them. Faces are replete with details like scars, age-lines, facial hair, small pores, bruises, and shiny tears (of which there are many). With this type of fine detail it's easy to focus on the subtle performances by many of the actors in the show. The way they purse their lips, watching the tears well up in their blood-shot eyes, everything has a lifelike quality to it. Edges have a crispness to them. Contrast is perfectly balanced.
Colors are bright and bold. Whenever Nucky and his entourage wander into their favorite restaurant on the boardwalk our eyes are greeted with all manner of colors. The women's colorful dresses – pinks, greens, blues, and purples – shine under the lights while the dark suits of the men are all very well defined. Speaking of darker colors, blacks here are as deep and inky as they can get. They never appear flat or tinged with grey. As such the dark blacks provide ample shadows that are never crushing. I didn't notice any technical anomalies that should worry anyone. Aliasing, shimmering, and banding are all kept away. This is another flawless HBO presentation. Just sit back and enjoy.
Like the first season, the second season's audio prowess is, in a word, fantastic. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a full-bodied work of art. Sure, the show is quite talkative, but it still has its action-inspired moments where it shines. Most of all though, the show's audio mix provides a lifelike, genuine feel that engulfs anyone watching it.
The rear speakers are always alive with ambient commotion. Restaurants are humming with patron chatter, speakeasies are boisterous places where men hoot and holler, and even a burlesque party in Nucky's suite that leads to a bunch of men laughing and women giggling as the rear speakers pick up every ambient sound with perfect pitch and detail. When Nucky gives a speech on Memorial Day his voice, projected by a microphone, can be heard echoing throughout the sound stage.
The show features a lot or 20s music and it's really given a chance to shine. What's great is the way the mix handles music played from an old-time record player compared to music that takes over the soundtrack usually during the show's many character montages. The record music is light, with very little bass, and comes from the front speakers only. The soundtrack music fills each channel and adds much more low-end sound. Its small details like these that make this a great soundtrack. On top of that dialogue is always clear, even when people whisper. You won't be disappointed with this demo-quality track.
Half of the season's 12 episodes have commentaries. The first episode, "21," features a commentary from producer/writer Terence Winter, director/writer/executive producer Tim Van Patten, and actor Michael K. Williams (Chalky White). Episode five, "Gimcrack & Bunkum," has a commentary featuring co-executive producer Howard Koder and actor Jack Huston (Richard Harrow). The seventh episode entitled "Peg of Old" has Korder, co-producer/writer Steve Kornacki, director Allen Coulter, and actor Charlie Cox (Owen Sleater), commentating. The eighth episode, "Two Boats and a Lifeguard" features a commentary by Winter, Van Patten, and actor Steve Buscemi (Nucky Thompson). Episode 11, "Under God's Power She Flourishes" has Korder, Coulter, and actress Gretchen Mol (Gillian Darmody). Finally, the season finale, "To the Lost" has Winter and Van Patten rounding out the commentaries.
Personally, I like the commentaries best when Terence Winter is involved. He usually takes over the conversation but he offers a lot of interesting historical tidbits that I find fascinating. He talks about historical things, like the guides where Jesus wouldn't go in Atlantic City, as being real satirical guides that they had back then. He discusses the perks of doing a second season, how you get to play around with more characters and delve deeper into their lives. He discusses shooting the show, the locations, and even the period music that they use. I really liked most of these commentaries, just because they're so factual and informational. Not only do they cover a lot of how the show was created and shot, but also the historical aspects down to the smallest details.
I liked season one just a little bit more, but season two does introduce a ton of new interesting twists. Watching Nucky really struggle to regain his power is fascinating simply because he seemed so invulnerable in the first season. The backdoor political bargaining is amped up and provides for some great face-to-face scenes as characters do much more backstabbing than actual stabbing. This is a great show with a wonderful presentation in both the audio and visual departments. 'Boardwalk Empire: Season Two' comes highly recommended.