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TELEVSION REVIEW

Building to a breakthrough

‘Boardwalk Empire’ hits stride by season’s end

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 3, 2010

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Watching “Boardwalk Empire’’ has been like watching a posed group photo from the 1920s come to life. Across the first season, warmth and color have bled into a black-and-white image of generic faces in cloche hats and fedoras. And now, as the HBO series reaches its season finale at 9 p.m. on Sunday — which is the 77th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition — the show is truly on fire. The flat, antique myth of gangster life portrayed in the overproduced series premiere has given way to a more unpredictable world of fierce human appetites and perversity.

It has been such a pleasure to see this show break through its period veneer. Many of the “Boardwalk Empire’’ characters who seemed stock early on, from the feisty Irish lass, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), to the showgirl with a heart of gold, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), have grown far more idiosyncratic and complex. Series creator Terence Winter has brought us into intimacy with these people, so we can see their inconsistencies and motivations. When we learned Gillian was poisoning Jimmy’s father, the Commodore (played with crusty spirit by Dabney Coleman), she became a more compelling character with an epic, twisted, “Sopranos’’-esque mission. Likewise, when the moralistic Margaret allowed herself to become a kept woman; suddenly, she was an appealing enigma.

But the most vital and riveting character has turned out to be Jimmy Darmody, played with great muted passion by Michael Pitt. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson continues to preside over the series with his shifty eyes, his I-can-fix-anything cool, and his comic relationship with his assistant, Eddie. But the character of Jimmy, who began the season as a familiar mob up-and-comer, is now a fascinating and dominating presence. His eyes are cold and hot simultaneously, his thought processes at once obvious and hidden. He’s a killer, but then his loyalty to his disfigured veteran friend, Richard Harrow, is touching, as was his tenderness toward his late Chicago girlfriend, Pearl, who was cut across her face.

Together, Jimmy and Nucky are a fitting pair, both so controlled and interior. They are ironic counterpoints to the tenor of their moment and of the show, as they’re surrounded by sloppy drinking and explosive crooks like the young Al Capone. They’re so similar, I keep thinking Nucky will turn out to be Jimmy’s father, or even his half-brother — since Nucky is more like Jimmy than the men we’re told are Nucky’s brother and father. Both Nucky and Jimmy may be products of the Commodore, the three of them all having the kind of restraint and self-protective instinct to stay in power.

While the characters and story line in “Boardwalk Empire’’ have taken off, and transcended all the precise period detail, the show continues to look amazing. I love the camerawork, which throws everything off-kilter a bit. The camera often looks up at the characters, turning them into larger-than-life figures; or it spies down on them from a bird’s-eye-view, as if they are nothing but cogs in a wheel. We get close-ups, many of them of faces in mirrors, and we get far shots of the Commodore in bed, holding forth from his royal-looking room.

I’ve also admired the way “Boardwalk Empire’’ has kept themes of human appetite in play all season, through the character of IRS Agent Van Alden. The more alcohol is suppressed by Prohibition, the show seems to suggest, the more dangerous it becomes — which is what some now contend about pot. Played with steely self-loathing by Michael Shannon, Van Alden is trying to deny his human cravings in order to be pure before God and country, and the result is violent. His repression leads him to an alcoholic bout of sex with Nucky’s ex, and, in an unforgettable scene last week, the murder of his partner, Agent Sebso, in the guise of a baptism. The contradictions of Van Alden are rich, just as they are in real life, when a politician like Eliot Spitzer comes out against prostitution but then hires prostitutes. The Van Alden character is a little schematic, but Shannon and the writers pull it off.

“Boardwalk Empire’’ hasn’t reached the heights of “Mad Men,’’ another TV period drama that has explored the power of cultural repression. But by last week’s episode, the series had finally shown enough promise and momentum to merit comparison. “Boardwalk Empire’’ took a full season, but it got there.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Dabney Coleman, Gretchen Mol, Kelly Macdonald

On: HBO

Time: Sunday, 9-10