TV review: Boardwalk Empire

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

The last couple of episodes of "Boardwalk Empire" this season will likely have a powerful climax, and something cast member Michael Shannon told me recently on a conference call pretty much confirmed it.

"I'll tell you, man, the last two episodes of this season are nuts," Shannon said. "A lot of crazy stuff happens; they basically took the card table and flipped it over."

It isn't a revelation that showrunner Terence Winter dovetails a season's worth of swirling tensions masterfully, but the level of excitement in Shannon's voice was paramount.

Being a fictionalized version of the past with characters right out of the annals of gangster lore, "Boardwalk" will always be somewhat restricted, and occasionally predictable, in its storytelling. Al Capone and Lucky Luciano aren't going to be gunned down before their rise to power.

That's why Winter's most successful stories are the ones that focus on the characters who aren't based on historical figures: Shannon's Agent Van Alden, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald).

Even though this is ostensibly the story of real-life Atlantic City corruptor and bootlegger Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, portrayed as Nucky Thompson by Steve Buscemi, our loyalties lie with Van Alden, Margaret and Jimmy, and they're often tested.

After his fall from grace, Van Alden is resurrected by the birth of his daughter as well as his new boss, Assistant Attorney General Esther Randolph, who seems hell-bent on bringing down Nucky.

"Van Alden could really use someone to inspire him and maybe instruct him somehow. More than anything he's just lost," Shannon said.

Van Alden gives his file on Nucky to Randolph, bringing him back into the fray of this criminal world.

But the law isn't Nucky's only threat. Jimmy has accepted violence as a requisite, even going so far as to offer a foreboding, "Doesn't make a difference if you're right or wrong. You just need to make a decision," before his hit man fires on Nucky.

Now, obviously Nucky can't die, but Jimmy could. I don't foresee it, but this season has been so good at putting these two in dire situations that any outcome is possible.

Sunday's episode lays more groundwork, with Nucky having an epiphany about his future. This results in Nucky's brother Eli informing Jimmy that Nucky is smarter and more dangerous than him. Jimmy's response indicates Nucky may only be the former.

"Boardwalk Empire"

9 p.m. on HBO

4 stars