As the emperor of Boardwalk Empire sinks deeper into depravity, we wonder whether viewer empathy for Steve Buscemi's character can endure his blossoming evil in the show's new season.
In scriptwriting class, there's a dictum that a good story is one where, figuratively, you chase your hero up a tree and proceed to throw stones at them. In the new season of Boardwalk Empire, they've got Enoch "Nucky" Thompson getting a nosebleed up a towering sequoia, so to speak - and they're hurling flaming boulders at him.
Not that he was a choirboy before, but Steve Buscemi's masterful portrayal of the Roaring Twenties bootlegger and gangster has taken such a sharp swerve into darkness this third season that even diehard viewers are gasping.
Let's do a quick recap of why it's not so good to be Nucky these days: Nucky keeps losing big bucks in shipments of Canadian Club to the greed and thievery of his competitors - and to the sheer stupidity of his underlings who refuse to follow simple instructions such as: "Take the backroads." Last week's slaughter of a dozen or so of his finest and the heist of their cargo put him in a right-rank mood.
Whereas once Nucky was almost a Godfather-style character who helped folks around Atlantic City and would rescue, appreciate and even marry an intelligent, strong-minded widow, such as his wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) - he's now grown so indifferent as to brazenly lie to her about going out of town. And then be caught by her, red-handed, in the local dress shop buying pricey threads for his new showgirl/flapper honey pie Billie (Meg Chambers Steedle).
Despite nightmares and moments of what appear to be guilt over his point-blank execution of his one-time protégé Jimmy Darmody, Nucky thinks nothing of kindly offering a cigarette and then plugging a teenage boy in the back of the skull. This clever youngster had outwitted everyone to steal Nucky's shipment; he could have been turned to become an asset to Nucky's floundering crew.
In fact, Nucky seems to derive particular pleasure as of late in letting someone get their hopes up that he's going to let them go - and then blowing their brains out - as he did with the hapless liquor thief he cornered in his warehouse.
The worst thing about being Nucky these days is that his gun-for-hire botched the hit on the ape-crazy Sicilian with the short fuse - Gyp Rosetti (played by Bobby Cannevale) - which means Nucky's ignited a no-holds-barred war with a New York hood who's now howling for his blood. Is it any wonder cranky Nucky can't sleep a wink?
In fact, the Big Apple-actor Cannevale is fast becoming the man to watch on Boardwalk Empire as Gyp's feud with Nucky turns molten.
Cannevale acts the part with a freaky and psychotic élan, stealing entire scenes from Buscemi. If you thought Stephen Graham (as the young Al Capone) is chilling, Cannevale's Rosetti makes Graham's Capone look like a dimwit newspaper boy collecting chump change.
To achieve Gyp's intensity, "I just don't go to sleep. I just don't sleep the night before" a big brutal scene, says Cannevale, now starring on Broadway with Al Pacino in a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. "Every single scene that I get to do is exciting. I just never dreamt I could have this crazy a part. It's really a crazy role."
He adds: "I'm always nervous before I work with Steve because he's one of my heroes. Every time I work with Steve, I do a few breaths in my room before I come out, because I've got to be [cool] when I'm with him. I gotta treat him like garbage. That takes more preparation than beating and killing random people."
In the weeks to come, expect some strange alliances and heart-break, as Gyp schemes to eliminate Nucky from the business equation.
Boardwalk Empire is broadcast at 11pm on Mondays on OSN First HD.