Published Nov 01, 2013Freed from the persistent "war vet with daddy issues" plotline of Jimmy Darmondy (Michael Pitt) and the exasperating descent into sin of Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), HBO's hyper-glossy, roaring '20s gangster drama, Boardwalk Empire, finally becomes half as engaging as it is impeccably dressed.
With those cement shoe storylines tied up (at least temporarily, in Van Alden's case), time is made available to concentrate on more compelling characters like gentle monster Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), kingpin of the African American community Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and the beautiful, dangerously manipulative Gillian Darmondy (Gretchen Mol, looking as ageless as Mary Louis Parker). But the primary concern, as always, is with Nucky Thompon's (Steve Buscemi) struggle to maintain control of Atlantic City and keep his unit out of other women long enough to be a decent father and husband.
The new threat to his authority comes from a vicious Italian upstart by the name of Gyp Rosetti (a perfectly cast Bobby Cannavale), who's trying to muscle in on Nucky's territory, while the latest risk to his marital fidelity comes from a lovely young actress (Meg Chambers Steedle) that catches his eye. Rather than get bent out of shape about this indiscretion, Nucky's wife, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), finds a little romance of her own, with Irish strong arm Owen Slater (Charlie Cox). As is par for the course for this show, there are a plethora of characters and subplots to juggle, but unlike previous seasons, all of the threads (with the exception of Van Alden's wheel-spinning new life as a door-to-door salesman) are adeptly designed to tie into the season's blood-soaked climax.
To explain every last conceivable historical detail associated with the production of this meticulously constructed romanticizing of the high-rolling outlaw life, the set is rammed to the gills with special features, most of them research-oriented. Episodes one-through-12 come enabled with "Boardwalk Chronicles": a viewing mode that inserts factoids of three different designations into a drop down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. "Characters" and "Location" are just text, while "Newsreels" is a series of 24 historical featurettes, all extremely detailed, which can be found grouped together in a separate menu on the entire disc of bonus features included with the season's 13 episodes.
Other than that largely superfluous viewing mode, each disc of episodes comes with at least one commentary track. Creator Terence Winter kicks things off with episode one, accompanied by Buscemi, Harrow and director Tim Van Patten. It's a lively discussion, which is more than can be said of the talk between writer/executive producer Harold Korder, Michael Stuhlberg (a series standout as Arnold Rothstein), Bobby Cannavale and Stephen DeRosa (Nucky's loyal assistant Eddie); they're not the chattiest lot, even when discussing autoerotic asphyxiation.
Anytime director Alan Coulter is involved, however, things get more informative. He leads commentaries for episode seven, with Korder, Shea Whigham (Eli Thompson) and Gretchen Mol, and episode 11 with Buscemi, Korder again, and Michael K. Williams. Winter's commentary for pivotal episode "The Pony" is among the most fascinating, thanks in part to the involvement of Michael Shannon, Charlie Cox and Meg Chambers Steedle, despite being largely observational, but he sounds out of steam by the commentary for the season's penultimate episode.
In addition to the archive of tangential "Newsreels," the bonus disc includes a text- and photo-based historical background on the reality behind the fictionalization by city, region and player in "American Empires." "Director's Chair" is the crown jewel of these features, with Van Patten, Coulter and Winter discussing the process of bringing key scenes from the page to the screen in great detail. Again, Coulter is especially adept at explaining his process. "Scorsese on Season Three" feels very rehearsed and superficial, with the legendary director and producer commenting on the importance of aesthetic, praising each principle actor in turn, and little else.
A brief, clip-heavy introduction to the season's new characters is equally unnecessary. If the best season yet of this ponderous series isn't enough, those intrigued by the history behind the show will have plenty to chew over, thanks to the extensive bonus content. (Warner)