Steve Buscemi as Nucky in "Boardwalk Empire." (HBO )
"Every day in every way I am getting better and better." - Nelson Van Alden
What's that, "Boardwalk Empire" without its tragic hero, Jimmy Darmody? What's next, an aviatrix (or "lady flyer" if you prefer) navigating across the continent?
As the third season of "Boardwalk" soldiers on sans Jimmy, everyone else in Atlantic City and beyond seems to be aspiring to be a better "them" in 1923. Well, almost everyone (looking at you, Al Capone).
For as long as Jimmy was around, he always reminded Nucky Thompson that he couldn't be "half a gangster." Even though he's resigned his political post and is now a self-proclaimed philanthropist, Nucky seems to have taken Jimmy's parting advice to heart. He's carrying a pistol at all times, tough-talking liquor thieves, ordering murders and keeping a new mistress.
As Harry Daugherty, portrayed by character actor hall-of-famer Chris McDonald observes, "you're a gangster, plain and simple."
Simplifying Nucky as merely a gangster might not do him justice though, and the same holds true for the show itself. While it is ever another dense chapter of a visual novel, "Resolutions" opens with a scene that could have been lifted straight from another Scorsese project.
Gyp Rosetti, a new heavy for this season, makes it clear from his highway tire iron-beating that he is about as terrifying as he looks. Bobby Cannavale plays Rosetti so menacingly that handing his highway victim's little dog (rechristened as "Scruffy") to Margaret Thompson read as a horrifying act of aggression.
With minutes to spare in 1922, George Mueller (aka former agent Nelson Van Alden) manages to lose the door-to-door sales contest at his new gig, but still takes home the award for Most Depressing Existence Ever.
The mislead with Van Alden peddling irons at a house with bathtub gin was brilliant, though it's apparent that Van Alden is truly trying to live honorably and make a new life for himself, complete with a new self-affirmation mantra. It all makes "Death of a Salesman" seem cheery and upbeat by comparison.
Of course, Van Alden's flight from justice at the end of season two led him to the outskirts of Chicago, which gives us reason to stick with the Windy City now that Jimmy and his ties there are gone. Then again, the show could've just kept dedicating 10 minutes every week to the adventures of young Al Capone and nobody would complain too much, as Stephen Graham is brilliant as the future crime lord.
Van Alden's chance run-in with Capone sets up a great storyline for the former g-man to find a new war to fight without all that pesky due process.
Speaking of wars, we find the battle-scarred Richard Harrow once again without a country. A concern going into this season for many fans was what could be done with such a great character without Jimmy or Angela to drive his actions? The obvious answers are of course, avenge their deaths (check) and try not to let their son become another Oedipal disaster (jury's still out).
As far as comedy goes in a show like "Boardwalk," it doesn't get much better than Harrow cleaning up at the duck shooting booth at the carnival.
Maybe ironically, or perhaps intentionally, Sunday's premiere took place on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which Manny Horowitz and his wife still keep sacred. Manny too wants a new life in 1923: his own booze operation and to celebrate the goyim new year with his wife.
What he gets instead is a new hat and a shotgun shell in the face from Harrow, which either a) closes the business of avenging Angela's death or b) starts the process of avenging Jimmy's, depending on who you think Harrow feels he owes the most to. Manny will be missed but not mourned, because even on a show full of cold-blooded murderers he stood out as a lunatic.
Emboldened by female aviator Carrie Duncan's historic attempt at transcontinental flight, Margaret is out for reform once again, this time making prenatal healthcare her platform issue. We're not sure of the fallout at first, but it's clear by the middle of the Thompson's New Year's party that her signing over Nucky's enormous land holdings to the church has driven their relationship into a mere facade.
And how about that Egyptian-themed soiree? Having Eddie Cantor play your party seems to be the 1920s equivalent of hiring Wayne Brady, no? No doubt the irony of the celebrating pharaohs' opulence was not lost on the studious (and Jewish) Arnold Rothstein, or on Nucky Himself.
Even as Nucky announces his exclusive deal with Rothstein, he still has people sizing up his tomb. As Rosetti deftly quips at Nucky after the Egyptian song-and-dance number, "look, another mummy!"
"Resolutions" set the table for what looks to be a more rough-and-tumble season of "Boardwalk Empire." Plenty of questions still remain, particularly around Owen Sleater and whether he'll see an expanded role, what Chalky and Eli (neither of whom we saw in the premiere) are up to, and whether Micky Doyle's laugh can be converted into a ringtone.
Oh, the little matter of what happens to political connections when Harding dies in office (not a spoiler if you took 6th grade social studies) and whether they'll be another all-out booze war in Atlantic City. Little stuff like that.
Old habits die hard, especially when we foolishly resolve to change them on January 1st. Happy New Year, "Boardwalk." We missed you.