Last season on “Boardwalk Empire,” creator Terence Winter pulled a fast one on viewers by (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen season 2) knocking off one of the show’s central characters. Although untimely death does seem to be a cable requisite at this point — you must do in a central character before audiences expect it, at an unconventional point in the series’ overall narrative.
Actually, Jimmy Darmody, who was killed by his unforgiving father figure, Nucky Thompson, wasn’t just a central character. He was one of the show’s most fascinating and least stereotyped characters. While too many of the guys on HBO’s Prohibition drama, which returns Sunday at 9 p.m., are textbook gangsters, dumbos with guns and fedoras, Jimmy was different. He was a smart, introverted World War I veteran who was arrogant yet vulnerable. Deeply scarred by his incestuous mother, he was a cauldron of Freudian torment inside his cool demeanor. Actor Michael Pitt, who never got the Emmy acknowledgement he deserved, gave Jimmy an early Marlon Brando vibe that could be riveting.
With Jimmy’s juicy story line gone, I’ve been anxious about whether Winter and his writers could keep the momentum going. Jimmy seemed to represent the future of the story — the young man who was ignoring the rules made by Nucky and the other elders, the son pushing away the father in his growing hunger for more power. He was the show’s long game. Can “Boardwalk Empire” thrive and maintain tension without the next generation hovering nearby? It’s like thinking of “The Sopranos” without Christopher after season 2.
Based on the first five new episodes, I’d say “Boardwalk Empire” does recover, mostly if not completely, but only after a period of creeping aimlessness. Initially, the absence of Jimmy unmoors the show, which picks up on Sunday a little more than a year after last season. There’s still plenty of the predictable booze running, gangster turf battles, and decadent partying, with some added spark from Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who continues to ease her conscience by filtering Nucky’s money into charitable works. But the action — much of it, as always, violent — feels disparate. At certain moments, such as when we follow former IRS agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) into his humiliating new life as a door-to-door salesman, the show unintentionally bears some of the randomness of “Treme.” You don’t feel an arc building behind the episodes, only gnawing questions about where, if anywhere, all the plots are heading together.
But if you hang in there, you will be rewarded by some eventual dovetailing of story lines. And anyway, hanging in there is very easy on a show with such dazzling production values, which turn the 1920s into a darkly lit dream, and such knockout performances. Steve Buscemi continues to be an unexpectedly compelling lead as Nucky, a guy you want to root for against all reason and evidence. This season, Nucky’s guilt about killing Jimmy seems to have deposited even more ice in his already cold veins. You keep expecting him to soften, especially since he’s having trouble sleeping, but he remains a pale, unfeeling, vampiric creep who doesn’t know how to engender loyalty.
Stephen Graham is captivating as Al Capone, whose temper is as frightening as his affection for his deaf son is touching. The more we see of him this season, the more we want to see of him. Jack Huston is haunting as the half-faced Richard Harrow, who, along with Michael Kenneth Williams’s Chalky White, deserves more screen time than he gets. I wish that Winter would explore each of these curious men more, rather than dropping their threads for entire episodes at a time. Harrow, in particular, has the potential to yield more emotional complexity than usual now that his brother in arms, Jimmy, and his crush, Jimmy’s wife, Angela, are both gone.
Winter has brought in Bobby Cannavale this season, as Gyp Rosetti, a New York gangster from Sicily who is extremely prickly. Cannavale, with his dark eyes and thick brow, is perfect as a menacing Joe Pesci type who explodes in anger if someone looks at him wrong. He and Nucky do not click — he calls Nucky a “breadstick in a bow tie” — and I’m expecting that grudge to lead to fireworks later on.
Yes, Cannavale brings focus to the sometimes blurry turf-war drama on the show, but he doesn’t fill the dramatic gap left by Jimmy. He seems destined to move elsewhere before too long, probably six feet under. A more permanent fix is in order, a more stubborn thorn in the rose that’s so often pinned like a medal onto Nucky’s chest.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew