One of the defining characteristics that separates Boardwalk Empire from all its prestige cable brethren is its scope. It’s not a show about the personal, and in fact its personal relationships often feel simplistic or padded or just don’t work. What it has instead is scope, to an extent that’s borderline absurd at this point. Atlantic City is the show’s center, but it spends plenty of time in New York and Chicago, and right now Richard Harrow is off in the boonies—and previously we’ve had action in Philadelphia and Ireland and many places in between. While Mad Men wants its characters to function as metaphors for what occurred during the ‘60s, turning its stories into synecdoches and enveloping its world with symbolism, Boardwalk Empire does just the opposite. With a cast containing senators and celebrities, Boardwalk Empire wishes to simply describe its era, more fascinated with the overarching machinery of crime than it is with realistic psychology.
That being said, rarely am I happy when the show enters yet another city and adds it to the frequently obtuse crime rings of the northeast. For all of “Acres of Diamonds,” Nucky Thompson is down in Florida to consider a bootlegging deal. The specifics of the deal aren’t particularly interesting, or important, except that he finds that he’s being swindled by his contact Bill McCoy, who, following his problems with Gyp Rosetti, is down on his luck. Nucky ultimately agrees to the deal, but not before McCoy has fought and killed the man he was setting it all up with.
In revealing Nucky’s mindstate, “Acres” does plenty. We learn about his relationship with his children, his loneliness, the difficulty he has in deciding between business and friends. But the deal itself, like many in the past, is something we know and care little about, so the stakes aren’t very compelling. And while McCoy has been around Boardwalk since its first episode, he’s also barely a character, making the trip down south a non-starter. Whether or not Nucky makes the deal, we the audience couldn’t care less, which is what makes the journey itself such a boring interval. There are essentially no stakes for Nucky, and Boardwalk’s desire to always leave its audience in the dark does nothing to help. Certainly this deal will have large ramifications in the future, but for now it’s an annoyance. It’s yet one more city and cast of characters for us to follow, and given that we have four already, the epic nature of Boardwalk Empire is stretched to its breaking point. The only show that’s able to do this sort of thing well is Game of Thrones, but it has the advantage of being based on books meticulously plotted for years. In comparison, Boardwalk always feels murky and confused, and its storylines are often only interesting in conclusion rather than setup.
Much stronger, for instance, were all the maneuverings around Atlantic City itself because the people and actions seem to matter, with Dr. Narcisse returning to the Onyx nominally to drop off a new singer, though really to attempt at inciting Dunn Purnsley against his boss. Wright’s machinations are so obvious that it can be a bit annoying, and his “mysterious” motivations are more schtick than characteristic, but at least he provides conflict in a season otherwise largely bereft of it—without Narcisse, there’s not much of a season at this point. Dunn renounces his boss, but at this moment, at least, what exactly that means is unclear, so it’s just more foreshadowing in a season that’s so far little else.
Two other stories dip into Atlantic City—one being Gillian growing closer to her new sugar daddy Roy Phillips, the Piggly Wiggly man—but there’s nothing here that wasn’t straight by-the-numbers. More interesting was Willie Thompson’s search for liquor, which drags him back to the warehouse Mickey runs. At the moment it’s just setting up his place in his college’s social structure, but more important is the way it sets up how he can easily wreck things for his family. Willie is a child, and both he and the audience are uncertain at this point what he’s willing to do, not to mention how far he’d be willing to go in order to join the mysterious bootleggers who work with his family.
And finally, Richard Harrow’s story lurched forward, too, with the man who hired him as an assassin coming after him for not finishing the job. Richard’s life is saved by his sister, and…that’s about it. Neither his sister, nor his journey back home, have been very interesting so far, and “Acres” does nothing to add to this, but I’ll hope that this is just a small speed bump and he returns to the rest of the show before long.
That’s some very diffuse action, and yes, with so many settings it creates an epic feel. But with so few of these stories particularly compelling, it’s hard to care too much about the scope. Eventually they will come together in an explosion, as they always do on Boardwalk, but setting up the pieces tends to be pretty uninteresting, and you can always feel the hands of the writers interfering. Nucky changing his decision didn’t feel like a natural choice; it felt like something the writing staff needed him to do. There were moments that were enjoyable—I particularly appreciated the heroin deal between Dr. Narcisse and Arnold Rothstein—but they came infrequently. As the show continues without any clear conflict, Boardwalk Empire has hit its mid-season doldrums very early this year, and we can only hope that means we leave them behind equally soon.