“Boardwalk Empire” on Fire

The show, heading for an explosive third season finale Sunday, rises to new heights as characters fall to new moral lows.

Last season's finale of "Boardwalk Empire" raised – or lowered, depending on your perspective – the bar on ruthlessness and depravity when mob boss Nucky Thompson coldly gunned down his treacherous, yet penitent surrogate son, Jimmy Darmody.

Killing off the show’s co-star threatened to consign the HBO drama about Prohibition-era Atlantic City to an early grave after two excellent seasons. But the ending set the stage and tone for the strongest stretch yet for "Boardwalk," which heads for a potentially explosive season finale Sunday.

The shocking Darmody killing offered just a bitter, bloody taste of what’s been served up this season: the destruction of patched together, delusion-driven semblances of family amid rising bloodshed and new moral lows.

Bootlegger Nucky's violent life cost him his Kewpie doll-faced showgirl mistress, Billie Kent, who was killed in a Boardwalk blast meant for him. His mistress-turned-wife, Margaret, fled with her children after plans to start a new life with her secret lover – Nucky's main henchman Owen – ended with his corpse delivered in a crate.

Jimmy's mother, Gillian, a cross between Medea and Ophelia, bedded – and killed – a look-a-like of her son in a scheme to save her brothel. Jimmy's hitman best pal, Richard Harrow, who lost half his face and a piece of his soul in the Great War, finds love and tries to build a family with Jimmy's orphaned son, only to be foiled by the manipulative Gillian. Chalky White, who runs rackets on the African American side of town, risks all to protect Nucky – including dragging his future son-in-law, a straight-arrow medical student, into mob dealings.

Perhaps greatest fall besets former G-Man Nelson Van Alden, who goes from a self-flagellating holy roller fed bent on bringing down Nucky to a murderous, smalltime bootlegger on the run with his illegitimate infant and the cunning, devoted nanny posing as his wife.

The trigger for much of the turmoil is Bobby Cannavale's rogue mobster Gyp Rosetti, who quickly displaced Steve Buscemi's Nucky as TV's scariest sociopath since Tony Soprano. At least tormented Tony turned introspective. Rosetti is a conscience-free maniac. It’s like a watching a weekly TV version of Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito character from "Goodfellas": Rosetti’s misreading of social cues fuels vicious, nightmare-inducing killings (including a haunting game of beach golf, involving a man buried up to his head in the sand, Gyp and a shovel).

Now he’s hunting Nucky, who has devolved from a smooth operator with allies that included fictional renderings of real-life figures like gangster Arnold Rothstein, entertainer Eddie Cantor and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to a near-friendless trapped rat. Rosetti is taking over Gillian’s brothel. She cruelly pushed Harrow, her hired muscle, out the door, leaving him armed and desperate. Chalky White is one misstep away from death. The strongest chance for stopping Rosetti from taking over Nucky’s Atlantic City, as we saw at end of the latest episode – perhaps the best in the show's run – rests in the arrival of Al Capone.

All these characters with nothing to lose leave viewers with everything to gain by watching. Check out a preview below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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