After the scintillating highs and surprises of its second season, “Boardwalk Empire” returns following a passage of time, which can always be a trifle unsettling. In short order, though, the program finds its groove, with new rivals, shifting relationships and strained allegiances, all set against the intoxicating backdrop of the booze-running 1920s and wildly corrupt Harding administration. Filled with firstrate performances, jarring violence and esoteric sexual acts, the show ranks alongside “Game of Thrones” as HBO’s twin titans, with prodigious strengths that far outweigh a few lingering, far-from-fatal weaknesses.
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1922, when the story resumes, and political fixer-bootlegger Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is seeking to simplify his life by entering into an exclusive booze-supplying arrangement with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). Except this doesn’t sit well with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), an easily riled, uneducated Italian mobster, who sees personal slights behind the most innocuous of acts and phrases.
Rosetti takes some getting used to, but he’s so mercurial, so insane, as to add a sense of menace and tension to every scene involving him — a cinematic heir to Joe Pesci’s character in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” That said, he’s hardly “Boardwalk’s” only powder keg, which at times causes the show to make “The Sopranos” look like a game of beanbag.
The series also continues to be buoyed by Kelly Macdonald as Nucky’s wife, Margaret, who, in what could hardly seem a more timely sidelight, given recent political developments, takes a serious interest in promoting women’s health care through her philanthropic work. Her strained relationship with Nucky yields some of the show’s best dialogue: “It’s not my intention to pry,” she begins, to which he responds, “There’s a sentence that means its opposite.”
The weakest link remains Nelson Van Alden, the disgraced federal agent played by the normally reliable Michael Shannon, whose private struggles become a sort-of distraction from the more interesting doings, at least for now.
HBO made five episodes available, and they happily build in intensity. Despite the historical underpinnings, series creator Terence Winter and company manage to make the show consistently surprising, with a strong sense that almost no one is safe — a crucial element in this sort of setting.
Despite a load of Emmys, “Boardwalk” missed out on best drama in its first season, but simply put, the third season further confirms the show is as handsome, well cast and impeccably crafted as anything on TV.
And with due respect to Nucky, there’s a sentence that means exactly what it says.