"It's lonely at the top," they say, and Season 3 of HBO's just-renewed, Emmy-winning hit Boardwalk Empire has become a veritable tutorial on that hallowed adage. Never the most slap-happy of protagonists, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the bootlegging kingpin of the show's 1920s Atlantic City, has been paying dearly for a couple of jaw-dropping twists in last year's finale: his ruthless execution of surrogate son and right-hand man Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and the spiteful decision of his do-gooding wife, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), to sign over their invaluable parcel of shoreline real estate to the Catholic Church.
The upshot? Nucky finds himself way out of his comfort zone, having given up his post as the town's all-powerful treasurer. He's pushed toward a more ruthless brand of gangsterdom on one hand and a more visible surface respectability as a philanthropist on the other.
"Nucky is in an odd place right now," says Buscemi. "He's no longer a politician, which is something he truly loved doing. I don't think he ever really imagined himself to be a gangster, but if this is what it takes to retain the position he so much enjoys, he's willing to go there."
But at a price to his domestic life, his business and maybe his sanity, as his execution of Jimmy — the comeuppance to the latter's conspiring against him — has been haunting him through nightmares and hallucinations. Says Buscemi, recalling the fateful pulling of the trigger, "Even though he told Jimmy that he can live with it, you can't control your unconscious, so it comes out in other ways."
On top of all that, the booze biz is getting more complicated. The Senate investigation that's probing Nucky's indispensable enabler in D.C., attorney general Harry Daugherty (Christopher McDonald), could snare him as well. That threat will find Nucky traveling to the nation's capital in the October 21 episode, "Ging Gang Goolie."
Meanwhile, demand for hooch starts to outstrip supply. "People who'd stockpiled booze at the beginning of Prohibition have started to run out and rely more on bootleggers," explains exec producer Terence Winter, sitting in the Harlem brownstone that serves as HQ for Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky's budding heroin trade. "Hence the profit went up, the competition went up, and the business became more violent."
It's against that backdrop that Nucky met a new nemesis, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), a hotheaded up-and-comer from New York via Sicily who takes over the seaside town of Tabor Heights, the only gas stop for Nucky's trucks between Atlantic City and Gotham. "Anything can set him off," Cannavale says of his alter ego. "He takes offense to the slightest thing." No kidding: In this season's first scene, he bludgeoned a roadside Good Samaritan to death for the sin of assuming he was familiar with the uses of 3-in-One Oil!
As for his would-be Jersey supplier, Cannavale explains: "Gyp doesn't have a lot of respect for Nucky. He thinks of him as a fancy-pants who's got one foot in politics and one foot in this thing of theirs." Their conflict will deepen later this season, Cannavale promises, after Gyp gets his boss, New York capo di tutti capi Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), in on the action. "This becomes a full-bore assault on Nucky and his people," Cannavale says. "Then we get Chalky [Michael K. Williams], Rothstein [Michael Stuhlbarg] and Luciano [Vincent Piazza] involved, and it turns into a real s--t show."
Things are also pretty crappy at the Thompson household, as Margaret's betrayal has caused an estrangement from Nucky. The couple still need each other to accomplish their divergent goals, but Margaret holds the cards, as she knows where the bodies are buried — literally. "They stick together for the sake of public appearances, but they may as well be divorced," Winter notes. That leaves Nucky living at the Ritz Carlton and Margaret immersing herself in a women's-health education project. "Margaret is searching for a way to take back her own life," Winter says, "and as the season progresses, you'll see her coming into her own more, and it will affect her relationship with Nucky."
"It's certainly been very, very damaged," Buscemi says of the marriage, "but deep down, Nucky still has real feelings for Margaret." He's been trying to channel his emotions toward flapper songstress Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle), but it's not the love match he'd hoped for. "That seems to be his only joy now," Buscemi says. Yet, he adds, "It's partly a distraction, which maybe he's convinced himself is real."
Which might elicit some sympathy for our (anti)hero, but probably not, now that he's a serial adulterer and a cold-blooded murderer. Buscemi is counting on the show's brain trust for redemption. "I have all the confidence in the world there will always be something about Nucky the audience can relate to and want to keep watching." But Winter admits Nucky's pushing his luck this season: "If he kills a puppy, that'll be crossing a line. I'm only half-kidding."
Boardwalk Empire airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.