Season Two of Boardwalk Empire has ended with Enoch “Nucky” Thompson back on top again and his rivals are no longer a threat.
While Arnold Rothstein was as smart as he appears on the show, the writers are doing a disservice to Johnny Torrio. Nicknamed the Fox because of his sharp mind, he is portrayed simply as a moderately intelligent gangster, not the man who convinced all of the major gangs in Chicago to accept clearly-marked territories, since it was cheaper than pointless turf battles.
The cast is uniformly excellent but there have been several standouts this season. After a career of roles as gruff, tactless yet intelligent men, Dabney Coleman gave the performance of a lifetime. Coleman could play a devious schemer in his sleep but shifting from a man of authority to a defenceless invalid took courage for a seventy-nine-year-old man. Gretchen Mol as Gillian, Jimmy Doherty’s mother, routinely creeps me out but she is undoubtedly the most complex character on the show. Aside from her disturbingly twisted relationship with her son, the mixture of desire to take her place in the commodore’s mansion and hatred towards him for raping her as an adolescent came out in the open in an extreme and memorable fashion. William Forsythe as Manny Horvitz literally owns every scene he is in, once again proving that HBO, Showcase and Starz offer actors who had never stood out in movies the space they need to create real characters.
Although the previous season showed that women had won the vote, life did not change overnight. Women still faced numerous limitations, and the show reflects that situation. Most of the female characters seem tired of the social constraints. Jimmy’s wife Angela craves sexual freedom, Margaret Schroeder constantly struggles with the true cost of her luxurious lifestyle and her dependence on a man to provide for her children, and Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s former mistress, wants to pursue her career. Even Gillian wants equality, and is barely able to conceal resentment that she has to leave the room whenever her son is negotiating with other hoodlums.
The series continues to paint a richly detailed picture of the time, including the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier boxing match, which was watched by a record crowd of 91,000 people on July 2, 1921 and was the first national radio broadcast. Although it has been forgotten in the wake of AIDs, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, polio epidemics ravaged the United States and Europe during the first half of the 20th century. Wealth offered no protection, and children were usually the victims. Race relations were explored in more detail during this season, showing that the comfortable world that white men had been accustomed to before WWI was under threat on many fronts.
Much of the cast is gone, which will make the next season interesting. Hopefully, the writers will focus more on the world outside Atlantic City, especially since the main conflict within the city has been resolved. A key part of this season’s plot was the need of the various gangs to forge alliances and connections with gangs in other cities to ensure alternative sources of liquor. The National Commission did not come into existence until 1929, but the series is presenting the evolution of small-time ethnic-based gangs squabbling within a single city into larger criminal organizations with national reach. At the same time, the younger gangsters, especially Lucky Luciano, are clearly chafing at the stable yet confining leadership of the more tradition-minded gangsters. There are signs that the next season will explore these problems in greater depth.
In the end, the show continues to improve each season, balancing the fine line between an entertaining soap opera set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and a chronicle of bootlegging and the rapid social changes that made the 1920s such a turbulent period in American history.