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Reviewed by Will Harris
hen HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" made its debut in September 2010, the most consistent praise received by the series was that it looked fantastic. This is because executive producers Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese went out of their way to reproduce Prohibition-era Atlantic City in excruciating detail. Not everyone fell in love with the series as a whole, however, some because it chose to move at a snail's pace with its story development, others because the characters seemed inherently unlikeable, and, inevitably, a certain percentage simply didn't like all the sex and violence, which was considerable.
There's not a great deal that can be done about the characters and their sex and violence – in addition to the era in which the series takes place, it is, after all, from one of the men who brought you "The Sopranos," so you're kind of stuck with those aspects – but it can at least be said that the second season of "Boardwalk Empire" begins to move a bit faster, consistently paying off storylines throughout its twelve episodes. Indeed, the majority of those who did enjoy the first season of the show were doubtlessly giddy throughout Season 2, watching various moments from Season 1 come back to haunt the characters.
When "Boardwalk Empire" began, the key character was Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a decidedly corrupt Atlantic City politician who was attempting to build an bootlegging empire while America was in the throes of Prohibition. Over the course of Season 1, however, Nucky's various battles and political wrangling found the power structure of the city shifting considerably. Although effectively raised by Nucky, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) broke away and teamed up with his heretofore-estranged father The Commodore (Dabney Coleman) in an effort to steal some of Nucky's thunder. All the while, revenue agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) was attempting to take down the offenders, losing more than a bit of his sanity in the process, killing his partner by season's end while managing to impregnate Nucky's former lover, Lucy Danzinger (Paz de la Huerta). Meanwhile, Nucky's current romantic interest, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), was left struggling to accept a life for her family that goes against a lifetime of Irish-Catholic beliefs.
In Season 2, there is, as one would expect, considerable growth amongst the characters, with many of them forced to deal with the repercussions of their past actions. Nucky's betrayal of his brother comes back to haunt him when Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) joins forces with Jimmy and the Commodore, while the Commodore has a stroke, putting Jimmy in a position of power that he's in no way prepared to handle, making him realize that maybe he should've stuck with Nucky to begin with. Van Alden's efforts to have his cake and eat it too fail miserably, leaving him with a baby with Lucy, who quickly abandons both of them, and divorce papers from his wife. Although Jimmy's wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), spent much of Season 1 uncertain about whether she wanted to stay with him or not, she seems to have found a middle ground by having occasional lesbian flings, but by the end of Season 2…uh, never mind, that'd be a pretty big spoiler if you haven't watch yet, so we won't get into that. Suffice it to say that the season's greatest new character addition is a butcher named Manny Horvitz, played by the always dependable William Forsythe, and his introduction ultimately leads to the departure of several major players in the series, some indirectly and some very, very directly, indeed.
Some series fall into a sophomore slump with their second season, but "Boardwalk Empire" transformed from an okay show into one of the most gripping hours of television on the dial. It's going to be interesting to see how things progress, given that the cast is shy a few members all of a sudden, but the way Season 2 ends, you can likely count on just about all of the series' viewers coming back for Season 3.
Special Features: Like many of HBO's sets, the second season of "Boardwalk Empire" is filled to the rim with bonus material. There are six audio commentaries spread through the twelve episodes, with cast and crew contributions from Winter, Buscemi, Huston, Williams, and others, along with the promo spot constructed by Winter for the second season. In addition, there's a 15-minute recap of Season 1 for anyone just joining the story, introductions to the season's new characters and other changes to the show since its debut, and "The Money Decade," a featurette providing a better historical perspective of what the 1920s were like, among others. Exclusive to the Blu-ray, meanwhile, are an interactive guide to living in 1921 and a featurette on the process of construction the season's penultimate episode.