Warning: There be spoilers.
I’m going to massively contradict myself here in the next paragraph, but bear with me, I'll clear things up.
The third season premiere of Boardwalk Empire was a good episode (not great, just good), but I didn’t enjoy it one bit. There’s really no problem with it, but the problem with it (I told you I’d contradict myself) is something that seems to afflict much of fiction theses days: sacrificing entertainment value for artistic integrity.
Yeah, that statement is not likely to get me invited to the cool kids’ parties, but you know what? Screw the cool kids. I’m getting tired of smelling like clove cigarettes all the time.
A little context: Boardwalk Empire is a historical drama about the liquor trade in Atlantic City during Prohibition. In last season’s finale, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) --Treasurer of Atlantic County, bootlegger, and protagonist -- after being betrayed by most of his closest associates for the control of the town’s booze trade, is able to find a way to turn things in his favor and take back the reins of the criminal underworld. One of the betrayers was his surrogate son of sorts, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), whom Nucky had raised since birth, perhaps out of a sense of guilt since he was the one who pimped Jimmy’s mother when she was just thirteen out to Commodore Louis Kastner, and she got knocked up as a consequence. At the end of that episode, Nucky shoots Jimmy in the head.
The writers spent a good deal of time building Jimmy before that happened, turning him into perhaps the most relatable character of the show. He was pretty evil, yes, and manipulative too, even though he was mostly coached into that by his major bitch of a mother. But he also had a troubled mind and internal conflicts, especially in relation to his wife, who feared him and often ran away for some lesbian sex to blow off steam, and his young son, with whom he shared a close bond. He was, we come to understand, in his heart of hearts, a good man caught up in an evil situation derailing out of control. He was also very good with a knife.
In the penultimate episode of season two, his wife and her lesbian lover get shot by a dirty scumbag who may be the most hateful character in the whole series.
After being so emotionally invested in that character, I was hoping Jimmy would strike down like the hammer of God on absolutely everyone. I was expecting him to clean up the whole goddamn town in order to catch the murderer and kick his wrinkly fat ass all the way to the hereafter.
The final episode started looking good when Jimmy decides to start settling his scores by killing some klansmen who shot up a local black gangster’s still. He then goes on to make amends with Nucky by killing one of his main enemies. Then Nucky shoots him in the head while the murderer of his wife watches with an infuriating grin on his face. What???
That action didn’t so much tip the moral scale of the series as it plopped a big-ass anvil on it from a ten-story building, because Nucky was also up to that point being revealed as somewhat sympathetic and remorseful despite his usual coldness and ruthlessness. Now, he was turning out to be just another evil a-hole after all; the series’ only character we could actually cheer for was killed in the worst possible situation; and almost every other character left is completely disgusting, loathsome and way beyond redemption.
The direction the series is taking reminds me of a British painter called Jenny Saville (don’t look her up if you’re squeamish). Her technique is flawless, every brush stroke is spontaneous yet precise, her style is hyperrealist and yet totally unique, her colors are perfectly chosen and her compositions are perfectly arranged. The only caveat: Her subjects are disgusting. Gory scenes of death and injury, morbidly obese and sick people, and even the more “normal” ones still look like someone’s face has been worked over with a two-by-four. The lowest of the low. When I pointed that out to my classmates and teachers in art school they scoffed at me like I was a buck-toothed redneck wearing a dunce-cap and clogging on top of a bale of hay while doing an extensive spoon solo to the Foggy Mountain Boys playing “Cumberland Gap” from a gramophone. Well, sorry for being human, but I’ll take my chitlins and corn liquor over your pretentious haute-cuisine any day.
And that’s how the last two episodes (the second season finale and the third season premiere) have been: Beautifully written, superbly acted, lavishly directed, but completely joyless. It’s like watching a reality show about Omar Al-Bashir.
I won’t likely be watching the rest of the season, because seeing those mean bastards walking around all happy and fulfilled while doing all sorts of injustice to their fellows is more than my liver can take, but if you have the stomach for it, go ahead. It’s not very entertaining, but you can at least appreciate all the artistry and crap.