When Boardwalk Empire debuted last year on HBO, one of the knocks against it was that there wasn't enough story to fill up those multi-million-dollar feature-film-worthy sets. Okay, the naysayer argument went, you built Prohibition-era Atlantic City, now what are you going to do with it? And there were the inevitable negative comparisons with departed HBO-drama masterpieces: The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos.
The zigzagging overlapping stories and multiple characterizations did take a while to settle down, and so did the tone. When loony federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) interrupts a riverside baptism ceremony and drowns one of his confederates (a potential snitch) in full view of a horrified congregation of African-Americans, you might have admired the audacity of the scene, but you might also have wondered if the show was going to go full-on goth-grotesque. Nonetheless, in one scene after another, Boardwalk Empire — and an estimable cast — remained compelling.
Dispel any remaining doubts. The new season (which begins this Sunday at 9 pm on HBO) unfolds with a new leisurely, cinematic grandeur. The camera still lingers lovingly on sumptuous period details — a linen-covered breakfast table where the world's most powerful gambler eases his troubled stomach with apple bread, the low-angled view of a tycoon's crimson, mahogany, and gilt living room, the men's three-piece plaid suits in deep browns and greens.
Except that now, with the multitude of characters long-established, the stories are taking their time. A scene might develop in several segments over the course of a single episode — whether it's the artist wife of an aspiring gangster taking an afternoon to draw one of his cronies, or an African-American bootlegger kingpin spending the night in jail.
What's more, the language has become more particular — not the Shakespearean lilt of Deadwood, but a rhetorical music all its own. As in the best drama, characters aren't identified so much by what they say as by how they say it. "Sound elimination is the basis of good health," Arnold Rothstein (a deliciously sly Michael Stuhlbarg) explains to his wife about his choice of breakfast food. In fact, diet-as-metaphor seems to be key to AR's world view. Of his willingness to placate incorrigible mob boss Joe Masseria, Rothstein recounts his recent meeting with the old fuck: "We were served a native dish of tripe, which I cannot abide. But I ate it anyway. Some things, Charlie, you just have to swallow." Such philosophizing only enhances the slow-boil tension and convulsive spasms of graphic violence.
Of course, the intra- and inter-ethnic rivalries, are part of what keeps Boardwalk Empire humming — Italians, Jews, Irish, African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan make a visit, and so does Sinn Fein.
And what of the stories' threads from last season? Jimmy (Michael Pitt) has turned on Atlantic City boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) to realign with his biological father, the Commodore (Dabney Coleman). The noose is tightening on our Nuck, and you have to wonder how he's going to get out of it. Nucky's saintly if shrewd companion, the widow Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), appears ready to turn to the dark side. And African-American gang boss Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) finds himself as humiliated as a "field nigger." All well and good — language, stories, and characterizations are now of a piece with the décor.
And never underestimate Chalky — after seeing that extended jailhouse scene (in which he suffers the insults of another black inmate), you'll never hear the opening lines of David Copperfield the same way again. Does that make the new season of Boardwalk Empire Dickensian? Maybe. But it's definitely epic.