The final season of the criminally underrated HBO original series Boardwalk Empire is set to premiere on September 7th. In preparation for the show’s final hurrah, I’ve taken it upon myself to binge rewatch the entire series on blu-ray.
This is my first of four season reviews before I tackle episode reviews for the series’ swan song. You can find all of my Boardwalk Empire related posts by clicking this link.
Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire follows Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the Treasurer of Atlantic County and boss of Atlantic City. When Prohibition goes into effect in 1920, Nucky graduates from racketeering to bootlegging with his protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). It’s a jump that comes with its struggles as he tangles with New York crime boss Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chicago’s Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) and a severe Prohibition Agent named Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
Boardwalk Empire came to my attention while slogging through season 3 of True Blood (a show that just aired its series finale on Sunday). I eventually abandoned True Blood but not until after my DVR caught promos for Boardwalk Empire. As I am a fan of American history that also likes engrossing drama, gratuitous nudity and graphic violence, I immediately knew this show was right up my alley.
From the Martin Scorsese directed pilot episode, I was hooked. The episode, titled “Boardwalk Empire”, plays out like an abbreviated Scorsese gangster movie. The set design is gorgeous as HBO clearly threw a ton of money into the project to create a massive boardwalk set. The actors are all on point as well and, not to mention, perfectly cast. Overall, it’s one of the most engaging and intimidating pilots I’ve seen.
I say it’s intimidating because the amount of information and plot within that first episode is astounding. From the opening scene, Boardwalk is a crime drama that demands your attention and (luckily for the viewer) it takes it upon itself to grab it. The tone and aesthetic of the pilot is carried throughout the rest of the season perfectly. It’s a testament to Boardwalk’s skilled production staff that episodes following the pilot didn’t feel like filmmakers emulating Scorsese (if that’s even possible).
The show has a unique tone and atmosphere that’s bigger than any one creative mind behind the scenes. The story weaves itself through multiple storylines and locations in a way that would make it easy to seem convoluted. The finished product, however, is an engaging and bloody look at the early days of organized crime.
One of my favorite aspects of Boardwalk Empire is the way the show deals with historical figures and events. Boardwalk is as much a depiction of the 20s lifestyle as it is about crime. Historical events become interwoven into the plot seamlessly. The show could have easily been a gangster series with a 1920s backdrop, but the history is a part of the show and that’s something I appreciate greatly.
Season 1’s plot takes several interesting turns before settling into a finale that caps the storylines well. The viewer is left with a taste of what’s to come in season 2 but like the series itself, it’s a slow burn tease. The finale doesn’t reinvent the show, nor does it need to. Boardwalk Empire’s freshman season gives viewers what it promises. Gangsters, violence and history.
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