Forget zombies and monsters. Humans are the real killing machines this weekend, as two of TV's bloodiest shows sign off Sunday night, in direct competition — followed immediately by repeats, so you can watch one and then the other, and then good luck trying to get to sleep.
AMC's relentlessly intense and horrifying The Walking Dead (Sunday, 9/8c) wraps the first half of this punishingly brutal season, with eight more episodes to come starting in February, while HBO's Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, 9/8c) brings its uneven third season to a frenzied close, with a fourth year already green-lighted (presumably to return, as it always has, in the fall).
The Walking Dead midseason finale, ominously titled "Made to Suffer" and written by comics and series co-creator Robert Kirkman, promises a showdown between the people of Woodbury, led by the deceptively folksy but privately tormented Governor (an impressive David Morrissey), and the rescue party from the prison, led by tragic hero Sheriff Rick (Emmy-worthy Andrew Lincoln). Our rooting interests are clouded by knowing more than either side does about what's at stake. Rick's crew is determined to save the captured Glenn and Maggie (Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan) from a fate possibly worse than death — and seriously, if anything dire ever happens to this young couple, that might be the last straw for me — but they have no idea that their former ally Andrea (Laurie Holden) is within, bonding and even sleeping with the enemy. Also seeming to be headed for an unexpected collision: backwoods brothers Daryl (Norman Reedus), Rick's most valued warrior, and Merle (Michael Rooker), the Governor's sadistic Captain Hook of a No. 2.
How this all plays out I wouldn't tell you even if I could, but the tension building up to this encounter couldn't be higher, which has been the case all season. The Walking Dead is TV at its most gripping and, yes, gruesome, a shattering and thrilling survival epic rendered on an intimate and personal scale, which only makes the graphic twists that much more stomach-churning and heartbreaking when they happen. (RIP, Lori.)
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I only wish Boardwalk Empire worked for me on such a visceral and emotional level. For all the gore and carnage on display in a volatile season finale with such a high body count you might mistake it at times for a better-dressed Band of Brothers, I find this to be a relatively bloodless affair, in part because it's so hard to find anyone in this Prohibition-era Atlantic City with a compelling heart or soul. (Boardwalk Empire has a habit of offing its more appealing cast members, like Michael Pitt's brooding Jimmy Darmody last season, and most recently, Charlie Cox as the dashingly romantic Owen Sleater.)
I suppose we're meant to empathize with the show's protagonist Nucky Thompson (the twitchy Steve Buscemi) as he finds himself increasingly alone with his back to the wall: first losing his kewpie-doll showgirl mistress in a boardwalk bombing that was meant for him, a catastrophe that costs him the support of many of his crony backers as the war escalates between him and the psychotic Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) from New York. But Nucky is the coldest of fishes, and as the seasons and corpses pile up, I find I could care less what happens to him. This season's attempt to humanize him, by creating an even worse monster in Rosetti, makes for the phoniest kind of drama. (I felt much the same way throughout the second season of Sons of Anarchy, when they introduced neo-Nazi gang-rapers to make the bikers seem almost wholesome by comparison.)
Cannavale certainly commits to playing this over-the-top cartoon mobster, a hair-trigger thug who enjoys inflicting pain almost as much as he enjoys receiving it in the bedroom. (As befits an HBO series, the sex is often as baroque as the violence.) And if you're the sort who often despaired of those stretches of The Sopranos where too few got whacked, this episode will be your idea of heaven. HBO is touting a new rendition of the standard "I Ain't Got Nobody" by Patti Smith on the soundtrack, but the real music being made this week is the percussion of a tommy-gun's rat-a-tat-tat — among many other firearms exploding on city streets, outlying woodlands and in the plush confines of Gillian's Pleasure Palace, where the orgy du jour is more of a bloodbath.
Unlike the inert first half of the season, these last few weeks of Boardwalk Empire have never been boring. And as always, the show is beautifully, creatively photographed, as artful in its mayhem (especially where the soulful masked sniper Richard Harrow, played by Jack Huston, is involved) as it is clumsy in dealing with now-extraneous characters like Nucky's wronged spouse Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) or, most ludicrously, disgraced fed Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), whose continued presence in this narrative is, to be charitable, forced.
It's giving away nothing to say that the final reel of Sunday's episode has an elegiac power that could have made it a quite satisfying series finale. But American TV, even on HBO, doesn't often roll that way. I fear they're going to milk this until it feels like it lasted as long as Prohibition itself (14 years). Even with a climax this rousing and eventful, there's very little incentive for me to return to this battered boardwalk.
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