If HBO's period gangster epic Boardwalk Empire has a single truism to impart to working stiffs, it might be: It's good to be the king... well, mostly. Sure, Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson — Atlantic City treasurer, power broker and bootlegger supreme — is awash in money, power and glamour, but his day-to-day existence is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, with egos to stroke, law enforcement threats to evade and scores to settle.
The show's sophomore season, which takes place in early 1921, finds that dichotomy in full force but cleverly flips the script, opening with the tomcatting Nucky in love with Kelly Macdonald's hardscrabble immigrant, Margaret Schroeder, but facing a potentially deadly uprising among his closest business allies. "Alliances shift," Buscemi explains. "Last season his personal life was more freewheeling, but his family were the people that he worked with. Now he's on shakier ground with them, but he's closer with Margaret."
As if staying one step ahead of the law (especially Michael Shannon's zealous bordering-on-insane federal agent, Nelson Van Alden) and bloodthirsty competitors like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) weren't perilous enough, Nucky now finds himself in the conspiratorial crosshairs of his would-be mentor, the Commodore (Dabney Coleman); protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt); and even his own lawman brother, Eli (Shea Whigham).
That, says creator and executive producer Terence Winter, is the storytelling centerpiece of Season 2: "It's really a question of Nucky closing ranks and trying to defend himself against this massive attack on his world."
According to Buscemi, the uprising is driven by the insurgents' desire for "a bigger piece of the pie" but also rooted in a sense of being disrespected by an overweening, dictatorial boss, while Nucky sees it as a classic case of no good deed going unpunished. "He's a smart guy in a lot of ways," Buscemi admits, "but maybe he underestimated how people would feel about the things he's implemented, and that there would be consequences."
In the meantime, Nucky makes some new alliances of his own this season. He'll rub elbows with the Irish Republican Army, in the process recruiting Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox) to be a stand-in of sorts for the now-untrusted Jimmy. Later this season, he'll make a trip to his ancestral homeland, Ireland.
On the home front, however, all is love and loyalty and renewal. Following their circumspect courtship in Boardwalk's first season, Nucky and Margaret begin Season 2 ensconced in something close to domestic bliss. For Nucky, it's a long-desired second chance after the years-ago deaths of his first wife and infant son, while onetime servant Margaret now finds herself a respected lady of the house.
"She's a real ally for Nucky, a good person to have by his side," observes Macdonald, who says of their romance, "It wasn't like love at first sight — it was more realistic, as their love and respect started growing."
For more on Boardwalk Empire and this fall's hottest cable shows — including Dexter, The Walking Dead and Top Chef — pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, September 29!
Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!