Two weeks ago, Boardwalk Empire ended in the middle of a conversation.
It was one of the last episodes of the fourth season of the HBO show set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. The city’s mob boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), sporting his typical grimace and his increasingly typical pistol, had just told his brother Eli that the Atlantic City mayor had turned on him.
But what surprised Eli more than the armed men guarding his brother’s coastal complex and more than Nucky’s edge (because, honestly, when is he not flustered?), was the fact that Eli’s son, Willie, was also in the room. The son Eli had betrayed Nucky to protect, the son who was supposed to finish college and fly straight, had landed right where Eli didn’t want him to be — working for Nucky, becoming a crook, after Eli snitched to the FBI to bring Nucky down.
“Pop,” Willie said, “Isn’t it what we do?”
The camera began a slow, elegant zoom out and Eli, looking shocked and broken, in a way few can do better than Shea Whigham, responded, “Alright. Let’s get it sorted out.”
Next week, the show surprised me. Not by picking up where this conversation left off, but by reverting back to the same formula it’s been nursing since it began.
Since season one ended, Boardwalk Empire has been an entertaining show that feels like it could be much better than it is. At first, I thought this was because it borrowed so obviously from other shows its staff had come from — The Sopranos most notably. Lately, however, it’s dawned on me that the show Boardwalk most frequently borrows from is itself. Meyer Lansky talks his way out of an execution in season one, then again in season four. Al Capone gets angry and hurts people. Arnold Rothstein says quippy things about money.
More generally, a season begins with Nucky facing an unreasonable, relentlessly ruthless adversary, eventually finds himself totally cornered, then outwits that adversary, kills them, and surprises everyone in the show but no one in the audience.
It’s Dexter all over again, but with better acting, better production value, and cooler clothes.
Dexter, the Miami-based show about a serial killer (Michael C. Hall), recently sputtered to an end of its eight-season run. The show started out remarkable, with a darkly funny and fully fleshed-out protagonist and, more importantly, a compelling season-long narrative. Over the course of the season, the title character, who, at least when the show began, only killed other serial killers, tried to track one down and kill him while keeping those closest to him safe and, more importantly, unaware of his murdering ways.
Season two introduced another character with ulterior motives, who died at the season’s end.
Same thing in season three.
Four seasons later, it’s safe to say that anyone who was still watching Dexter was doing so out of a habit they wished they could break.
Now, Boardwalk Empire is already better than Dexter in major ways. The acting is consistently phenomenal. As opposed to Dexter, where any attempt to focus on the side players was always a disaster, story lines in Boardwalk involving the supporting players like Al Capone or Nelson Van Alden are typically more interesting than the main one with Nucky.
But the arcs of each season since the first have been annoyingly similar. In Boardwalk, first Nucky faced Arnold Rothstein, then Jimmy, then Gyp Rosetti, and now Dr. Valentin Narcisse. If Nucky Thompson and Dexter Morgan found themselves talking to each other, one of the few things they’d be able to bond about is the tendency for impatient men to stampede into their lives, mess a lot of shit up, and then die.
Todd VanDerWerff over at The A.V. Club says that Boardwalk Empire is refining itself. In his thoughtful piece, he acknowledges that this season’s structure is a repetition of the last, but better. “It’s improved upon what was already a good template,” he writes.
I agree, this season is better. Jeffrey Wright’s villain is more subtle than Bobby Cannavale’s angry, Joe Pesci knock-off was. But watching writers repeat a plot to get it right feels less satisfying than watching something less predictable. It’s also kind of frustrating to see these characters make the same mistakes. Nucky continues to be hard-headed and a little too heartless. A show like The Sopranos worked as a showcase for how hard it is for people to change because of how realistically those people were depicted. When I was frustrated with The Sopranos I was frustrated with people for being human. But Boardwalk isn’t about people, really. It’s a show that seems to have found itself excelling at showmanship and floundering when it comes to character.
Which brings me back to Eli, Nucky, and Willie. Were this show willing to reach outside its comfort zone, it might have started the next episode in the same conversation, with Eli admitting that he was informing to the FBI to save his son from going to jail. I honestly don’t know what would have happened next.
And that could have been pretty great.