‘Empire’ Expands Its Territories

“Things are changing in Atlantic City,” says Jimmy (Michael Pitt) to New York gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). Indeed they are, and we viewers are in for a treat. The second season of “Boardwalk Empire” is only three episodes in, but what we’ve seen so far indicates that the series is escalating beyond proportion.

The first season of “Boardwalk Empire” premiered last year on HBO, and audiences eagerly and quickly took the bait. Created by “The Sopranos” writer Terence Winter and produced by the likes of Martin Scorsese, this Prohibition-era period drama series met high acclaim and won numerous awards.

However, some –– including this critic –– believed that the show often moved very slowly and barely met its full potential. This time around, the second season is a drastic improvement over the first. Now that the characters have been comfortably established, the story breathlessly surges forward.

Atlantic City Treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is starting to feel a noose tightening around his neck. His money-generating bootlegging empire has begun to experience setbacks, as Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), the unofficial leader of the black community, and Chicago crime boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) have withdrawn themselves from his trade for racial and business reasons, respectively.

To make matters worse, Nucky is losing friends and making more enemies. His former protege Jimmy, in addition to brother and sheriff Eli (Shea Whigham) have allied with his former mentor Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman). The Commodore, Jimmy’s biological father, plans to take the city back from Nucky and instate Jimmy at the head, and Jimmy himself is starting to get comfortable with these new opportunities.

Nucky’s “friends” are more than willing to change sides as long as there’s the promise of more money and power, and Nucky learns this the hard way when he is arrested by the State’s Attorney for election fraud due to a tip-off from men in his political inner circle, though he is later bailed out.

However, Nucky isn’t the type to go down easily, and he –– with the backing of his mistress Margaret Schroder (Kelly Macdonald) –– vows to strike back, as he declares to Jimmy and The Commodore, “I will ruin you.” The war for Atlantic City has begun.

What makes “Boardwalk Empire” a must-watch is its complex story and the way it patiently yet compellingly unravels. Relationships appear to be the main motif of the series; if one wishes to move up the ladder, he can’t do so unless he has someone else’s backing. To watch these characters form, develop or even destroy these relationships is an utterly fascinating viewing experience.

Though “Boardwalk Empire” frequently shuttles back and forth from Atlantic City, Chicago and New York City, the cuts between locations are never jarring. The show richly develops the characters that we follow in each city, and considering the fact that what one character does in one city affects another character in another city, we know we’re in for something absorbing and special every time we switch locations.

Like the show’s first season, the second season has kicked off with a glorious bang. However, what sets it apart from its predecessor is this constant escalation in drama and presence of action in each episode. With such captivating storylines that are assisted by a plethora of scenes from a shootout between black bootleggers and the KKK to throats being slashed, the second season shows no signs of slowing down.

Now that Nucky has shown the Commodore and company that he’ll fight back, it’ll be enthralling to see what exactly he’ll do to retain his power. His relationship with the Chicago mob is essentially over, and those in New York seem to be won over by Jimmy. Who will he turn to in order to make sure that his bootlegging network and political reputation stays alive?

It’s clear that the Commodore has grand plans for his son, so to see Jimmy rise in the political ranks will be quite intriguing. Will the people of Atlantic City give this former henchman a chance to lead their city?

Featuring an ensemble cast, “Boardwalk Empire” boasts excellent performances all around. Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt have been terrific so far, but the ones who have stolen the limelight are Kelly Macdonald and Michael K. Williams, who capitalized on their expanded screen time and storylines. Hopefully other great characters like Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and the half-face marksman Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) will receive such opportunities as well.

With a compelling story that hopefully won’t lose steam and a spellbinding cast, the second season of “Boardwalk Empire” may be the best unadulterated show that television has to offer.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5