persons of established wealth and power. Boardwalk presents Atlantic City as a kind of frontier society in which violent confrontations are part of the ordinary course of life and Nucky Johnson really is the hard-boiled hero — if more lachrymose than most — for whom violence is a test of honour and integrity.
By the end of its second season I was excited again. The series was always a quality production, superbly acted, and the re-creation of Atlantic City breathtakingly realised, but I had finally become attached to the people who walked those streets, haunted by their lives on the other side of the law. And then in the final episode of the season, Winter and his writers raised the stakes and it became impossible to be lethargic about Boardwalk Empire.
Season two ended dramatically in a way seldom seen in TV history, when Nucky Thompson killed Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), the drama’s other central character, who in many ways was like his son. (Actually, it’s the second time recently an acclaimed HBO drama has killed off a main character, after Game of Thrones shocked the fans with Ned Stark’s beheading in its first season.)
Winter was able to wrap up many storylines set up from way back in the pilot episode. Then Jimmy told Nucky, ‘‘ The world is changing with Prohibition and you can’t be a halfgangster any more.’’ In one moment of violence we saw him evolve into the full gangster after that long, and at times fatiguing, story arc. It’s one of TV’s great scenes, staged in the drenching rain. ‘‘ This is the only way we could have ended it, isn’t it?’’ Jimmy tells Nucky before the latter pulls the trigger of his revolver. As the rain pours over Jimmy, the agitated Nucky has the last word, before firing one more bullet. ‘‘ You don’t know me, James,’’ he hisses. ‘‘ You never did. I am not seeking forgiveness.’’
As the first episode of this third season unfolds, his agitation is only just concealed beneath that poker face. His marriage to Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) is increasingly a sham as she looks to control the Thompson endowment at St Theresa’s Hospital — to his displeasure. And Nucky is facing unexpected competition from a psychopathic killer called Gyp Rosetti (new cast member Bobby Cannavale) — the season starts with him brutally murdering a motorist who stops to help his men change a tire on a lonely coastal road. In New York, the compelling, deeply upsetting Al Capone (Stephen Graham), rankled by Irish mobster Dean O’Banion (Arron Shiver), is looking for some kind of retribution for slights about his deaf son.
And this week the touchy Rosetti looks to build a new strategic bulkhead in the town called Tabor Heights, halfway between New York and Atlantic City, in a brazen effort to siphon off Nucky’s booze business.
Once seemingly invulnerable, Nucky now seems to be gripped by an intensifying paranoia. It’s not that kind of clinical paranoia where you think ‘‘ they’’ are out to get you; rather the whole of what sociologists call ‘‘ the surround’’ oozes menace for Nucky Johnson.
As the third season continues this week, you are left uncomfortably uncertain of what you feel, and with whom you sympathise. We are in for a dark and exciting exploration of guilt and consequence in a world where guilt and innocence are problematic. There’s no doubt Scorsese and Winter will present us with unlimited combinations, permutations and transformations. This has become a great piece of TV crime fiction with echoes not only of Scorsese but also Poe, Dickens and Dostoevsky. SPEAKING of cult shows, you need to check out The Bridge, the latest Scandinavian crime series following The Killing, a gripping 10-part drama also from Denmark. It’s the third episode this week but you’ll pick up the back story quickly: a neat graphic summary appears before each episode gets under way. It began with a body discovered on the exact border between Denmark and Sweden. What at first looked like one murder turned out to be two, the bodies brutally severed at the waist and expertly joined together. The upper torso of a high-profile Swedish politician was coupled with the lower body of a Danish prostitute.
Enter two police officers, one from each country: the scruffy, world-weary Danish inspector Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) and the young, intriguing, emotionally removed icy blonde, Swedish inspector Saga Noren (Sofia Helin).
Last week the murderer, dubbed the ‘‘ bridge killer’’, made his presence known and disclosed the purpose behind the dismemberments. The bodies on the bridge were just the beginning, their purpose to draw attention to five problems in society.
In this week’s episode he draws attention to the growing number of destitute people falling through society’s cracks. A homeless man is kidnapped and the only thing stopping the murderer from killing him is a large sum of money from four landlords.
Such a great plot and the style of production, already dubbed ‘‘ Nordic super-noir’’, creates a series that’s aesthetically pleasing to watch, even if the crimes are heinous.
As you watch, too, you can’t help but think about how it is that the radicalism of the politics behind Scandinavian fiction has found such a huge international audience. Henning Mankell, who really started this so-called ‘‘ Scandinavian invasion’’ with the hugely popular Inspector Wallander novels, originally subtitled the series ‘‘ Novels about Swedish Anxiety’’. Now that uneasiness with the world is as popular as flatpack furniture. DAVID Chase’s great gangster saga The Sopranos has returned, delivered in what new pay-TV channel SoHo is calling a ‘‘ box set’’ presentation, with episodes of the HBO series running from its beginnings in early 1999 right through to the famous last episode, which aired on June 10, 2007, in the US. SoHo is broadcasting the series on Sunday nights in groups of five episodes, this week being numbers eight to 12.
Anybody who invested empathy in this dark, dramatic and often mystifying show knows it represents the turning point when TV shows became better than classy mainstream movies. For me, the experience was like reading a great novel about the human condition, a novel that becomes more intimate and compelling with every page, even if occasional chapters are missing because you have missed episodes.
In some ways it’s richer the second time around. I love its byzantine plotting, psychological intricacies and the way Chase takes risks, asking questions instead of providing answers. And I especially love the bad jokes, the retrograde humour, the pratfalls, the way Chase is brave enough sometimes to go for the gags rather than the story. When the show was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, its creator chose to screen it with a Laurel and Hardy movie, Saps at Sea.
While there are moments of horrible violence, the emphasis is on the periods before and after, when personality is tested and revealed, what John Steinbeck called ‘‘ the little era of rest when time stops to examine itself’’. There’s no better way to spend a Saturday night, in my book.