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Television Review

HBO’s ‘Empire’ continues to grow in its second season

Michael Pitt plays wounded WWI vet Jimmy Darmody in “Boardwalk Empire.’’ Michael Pitt plays wounded WWI vet Jimmy Darmody in “Boardwalk Empire.’’ (Craig Blankenhorn)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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When it started out, “Boardwalk Empire’’ was a stiff period piece, inhibited by the costuming and perfect set design. By the end of season one, enough raw emotional material had broken through the surface to make the show a very worthwhile addition to HBO’s slate. And now, with season two, the drama has fully come to life, with moments of savagery, hypocrisy, and bittersweet loyalty that make it a must-see show. The first six new episodes are spellbinding, as they pick up the story of Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, his decreasing number of friends, and his increasing number of enemies in the thick of Prohibition.

It’s the perfect example of a show that needed to find itself, to feel its way to greatness. Some shows come out of the box ready; others, such as “Six Feet Under,’’ make a few mistakes and adjust a few characters first. “Boardwalk Empire,’’ which returns Sunday night at 9, is now confidently digging further into the family ties that were established last year and expanding all of the characters. Last season, one or two sudden twists - Agent Nelson Van Aldren’s murder of his colleague, for example - were too jarring. This season, the flow is remarkable, with every action fitting naturally into the larger pattern.

Michael Pitt is one of the show’s strengths, as the emotionally wounded WWI vet Jimmy Darmody. He gets a juicy plotline this season, as the bond between him and his father, the bizarre Commodore (Dabney Coleman), turns into an axis of power against Nucky. We also see more of Jimmy’s relationship with his showgirl mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), which has a creepy air of incest about it as she sits cleaning his nails and condescending to his wife. Gillian almost giddily understands that she is in a potent position, as the woman behind the men who are working to take over Atlantic City.

Show creator Terence Winter and his writers are clearly aiming to explore the women more thoroughly on “Boardwalk Empire’’ this season, to give them much needed dimension. While Gillian positions herself, so does Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), Nucky’s lover. Like Carmela on “The Sopranos’’ and Skyler on “Breaking Bad,’’ she is beginning to own her situation, to enjoy the fruits of her attachment to a powerful criminal. Her connections to her servants grow complex as she rises higher in Nucky’s esteem, and Macdonald does a great job of portraying her discomfort and confusion.

The season also goes further into the home lives of bootlegger Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Van Aldren (Michael Shannon), who is still torn between his religious wife and Nucky’s pouty ex, Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). All of the characters have more detail this season, as the show’s broad canvas grows more and more transporting and revelatory.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Paz de la Huerta, Michael Kenneth Williams, Dabney Coleman, Jack Huston, Gretchen Mol

On: HBO

Time: Sunday, 9-10 p.m.