For those who haven't been playing along -- and we admittedly caught up after the fact -- HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire" centers on the gangsters and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who ran Atlantic City during Prohibition in the early 1920s (one of the clever elements of the show is how it almost acts as a prequel to the celebrity American Gangster era of the late '20s and '30s which included folks like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky; all of whom appear on the show as budding mobsters before they were kingpins).
In Season 1 we were introduced to Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi in an unlikely leading role that many thought he was miscast in, but has since grown into), the Atlantic City treasurer who's pulling most of the city’s purse strings. More conniving and smart than violent and reckless like most of his contemporaries, Nucky’s got control of the booze still flowing into the city, the cops under his thumb, led by his brother Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), the negroes (as led by Chalky White played by Michael Kenneth Williams) and various politicians on the local, state and federal level (Christopher McDonald, Robert Clohessy, and William Hill). His main adversary was the cunning, Jewish mobster/businessman/gambler Arnold Rothstein (played with wonderfully coiled menace by Michael Stuhlbarg).
But shady businessman are always (and constantly) making deals with the devils, so by Season 2, Nucky and Rothstein had come to a mutually benefitting and understanding truce. Yet, frustrated by Nucky’s scheming ways, getting too big for their britches and craving a bigger piece of the pie, the true conflicts of season 2 were all the ambitious underlings. As Nucky said in the key line of season 2, episode 8 to Rothstein and Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Chicago’s mob boss, "the pups have grown fangs, gentleman."
Thanks to the colluding influence of his manipulative mother (Gretchen Mol) and estranged father (Dabney Coleman, also Nucky's mentor and predecessor), Nucky's own ward James "Jimmy" Darmody (a brooding Michael Pitt in probably his finest role to date) and his pals organized their own coup d'etat that included Eli Thompson, Rothstein's low-level foot soldiers ("Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky) and low-level wannabe gangster Chicago's Al Capone (Stephen Graham). And as the Bureau of Prohibition and the Assistant U.S. Attorney hovered (represented by Michael Shannon and Julianne Nicholson), investigating Nucky for various criminal charges (election fraud and murder, culminating in very public indictments and trials), the underlings struck when he was on the ropes politically, putting a stranglehold on the booze and convincing the local politicians that Nucky was now a liability and they should jump ship. They posited the young Darmody, the heir of the Commodore (Coleman), should run the city in Nucky's place. As this coalition grew stronger in power, it looked like Nucky would not only lose it all, but potentially face the electric chair.
But Darmody had made his bed with his grand betrayal (something it seems that he knew in his final moments) and Nucky used him to help turn the tide of his conviction (by having Darmody kill key witnesses) and then murdered him as payback. Like “Game Of Thrones,” this killing of a major character was a deep shock to audiences whose sympathies lay with the conflicted and handsome young lead. And like Walter White in "Breaking Bad," the scheming Nucky Thompson, who usually would rather extort or barter with a man before killing him, became even more ruthless, corrupt and soulless. Having narrowly escaped jail or death and betrayed by almost everyone around him, Nucky was in no mood for forgiveness or compassion and had to convey that those who double crossed him would do so at their own peril; even family.