Shea Whigham, Steve Buscemi Shea Whigham, Steve Buscemi

Board-Walking Dead Empire: Now there's a mash-up I'd like to see. Zombies vs. Jazz Age bootleggers. Period art, meet graphic pop art.

In terms of Sunday night buzz, the zombies have been winning lately, with the six concentrated hours of AMC's intensely compelling horror fest The Walking Dead somewhat upstaging the more languorous, layered storytelling of HBO's gorgeously engrossing Boardwalk Empire. Both will be back next fall (more or less, time-wise), and I will be eagerly awaiting their return. Especially after each wrapped their first seasons Sunday night with very powerful episodes.

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Let's start with Boardwalk, as series creator Terence Winter presents scene after scene of vivid confrontation and confession, building to a moment that eloquently states the show's overriding theme: "We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with."This is Nucky Thompson explaining himself to Margaret Schroeder, following a heart-rending monologue (

Steve Buscemi's Emmy reel) in which he describes how, as a distracted and newly elected town treasurer, he discovered his dead baby boy still being tended to by his disturbed wife days after the death. "She had completely broken with reality. Melancholia. I saw it, I knew it, the doctor said time would heal her. And I was very very busy." Days later, she fatally slashed her wrists with Nucky's razor.Nucky tells Margaret, who's driven to tears by a sense of shared loss and tragedy, that he was never happier — or more terrified — than when she and her children were in his house. And now, he says, she knows him better than anyone. Which probably isn't saying much. She remarks on the irony that Nucky thought she needed saving. "Didn't you?" "Not the way you chose." (That is, ordering her abusive husband murdered.) And on that melancholy note of reflection, she insists "there's a kindness in you" and asks him point blank: "How can you do what you do?" Which prompts the line about sin.She's not the only one wrestling with her feelings about Nucky, but by episode's end, at the Republican victory party (Harding is president, and Bader is mayor), she has reconciled and accepts champagne. So much for temperance. "Good news just isn't the same without it," she says with a smile. And a kiss. And a walk on the boardwalk to gaze out over the water as a new day dawns.The new president promises a "return to normalcy" (the episode's title) in his acceptance speech, but the status quo for Nucky isn't entirely good — though he doesn't know it yet — especially where brother Eli and surrogate son Jimmy Darmody are concerned. Eli is still smarting from the humiliation of being dumped as sheriff, and confronts his brother (unaware he's about to be reinstated) by asking him, "How do you do this stuff? Your words do actually affect people." When Nucky assures him that blood is thicker than water, Eli shoots back, "Why did it have to be my blood?" Ouch. Likewise, Jimmy is still wallowing in torment over learning Nucky pimped his mother to the Commodore at 13. "You're my hero," he snaps cynically at Nucky. "You're like a machine: clean, fast, totally devoid of any emotion. You'll use anyone, Nuck: man, woman, 13-year-old girl."Jimmy, who opens up to Angela about his war terrors in an attempt to heal his own broken family, is last seen conspiring with Eli and the bitter Commodore to take back the town. How, we're not sure. But these men have serious axes to grind — the Commodore having told his bastard son Jimmy about how Nucky left him in the dust when he served a five-year jail term for election rigging — and at least in Jimmy's case, we have a guy we know isn't afraid to wield a deadly weapon.At least Nucky doesn't have to worry about Arnold Rothstein any longer. The New York mobster, facing indictment over the World Series scandal, buries the hatchet courtesy of an impromptu peace summit brokered by Chicago intermediary Torrio (the newly mature Al Capone is on hand, and he gives Lucky Luciano a dressing-down over making childish jokes). Nucky agrees to intervene with his Chicago contacts to quash the indictment for a mere $1 million in cash. (The mass slaughter of the remaining D'Alessio gang factors in as well.) "I do hope we haven't seen the last of each other," Rothstein says. Given how terrific the steely Michael Stuhlbarg is in the role, let's hope not.But what about that wacky zealot Agent Nelson Van Alden? Having sold fellow agent Sebso's death (by baptism drowning at his own hands) as a heart attack, the disillusioned fed is about to pack it in, quoting Saint Augustine to a room of recruits, likening Atlantic City to Carthage by the Sea, as "a cauldron of unholy loves ... a city devoted to appetite, to pleasure, to the temptations that keep us from our better selves." Nelson tells his boss "there's nothing here for me," despite being offered a permanent job in Atlantic City, plus a raise and two extra agents. Back home, he tells his wife Rose he's "unhappy, unfulfilled, increasingly so" and is thinking of buying in to his Uncle Byron's feed store as a full partner. She tries to convince him he's doing God's work as a fed, and he growls back that if that's so, "let Him give me a sign." I don't think slutty Lucy's pregnancy is what he had in mind, but that's what you get for succumbing to temptation. God has spoken, which seems to indicate a longer stay in Sodom and Gomorrah by the Sea. And more chances for us to savor Michael Shannon's electrifying performance as this twisted Dick Tracy.Such a rich episode, as everyone confronts the wages of sin in their own way. President Harding's delusional mistress Nan (with whom Margaret and kids were living after her split from Nucky) may have found the ring in her slice of Halloween barnbrack cake, but Margaret isn't buying the "silly superstition" when she forks out the rag that spells destitution. Better the tarnished riches that come with being back at Uncle Nucky's side.The most unrepentant sinner of all? The Commodore's long-suffering maid, accused of poisoning her boss. (Guess it wasn't Jimmy's mom after all.) Nucky pays the woman off and sends her away (Jimmy sees this another example of Nucky's "odd sense of justice"). My favorite moment of this remarkable hour may have been when the maid is asked why she did it, and she barks, eyes blazing, "Cause. If I used a shotgun I'd a had to clean the mess up myself."Speaking of messes, the existential crisis of The Walking Dead's finale couldn't have been more explosive. It's hardly a surprise that the CDC is no safe haven, but I didn't expect the Andromeda Strain-like action climax, as the facility's computerized self-destruct mechanism awakens in most of the characters a will to continue fighting and trying to survive against what they all now know, including Rick (who briefly drops his stoic façade), to be hopeless odds.At least they get one good night out of it — food, drink, a shower — before everything goes back to apocalyptic hell. Special kudos to Noah Emmerich for his poignant performance as the resigned-to-his-fate Dr. Jenner. The last scientist standing informs us of the global nature of the pandemic — "The French were the last to bolt" — and provides a startling demonstration of how the zombie virus invades the brain like meningitis and how "the 'you part' doesn't come back," leaving "just a shell driven by mindless instinct." Only later do we realize that "Test Subject 19" is Jenner's own wife, an "Einstein" who he was forced to shoot in the head when she came back. "She could have done something about this, not me."Jenner's argument to stay put for the quick fiery exit — "the extinction of end" — is eloquent enough: "Isn't it kinder, more compassionate, to just hold your loved ones and wait for the clock to run down?" — but only the glorified extra Jacqui and the grieving Andrea decide to stay. Dale is able to change Andrea's mind, guilt-tripping her by telling her how she made him care about life again and if she stays, so does he. So off they go (except for Jacqui, who we never really knew) and they manage to escape the horrific blast, heading into the great scary treacherous unknown in their caravan.I daresay any fan of The Walking Dead isn't ready to part company just yet with these folks and their quest. So few episodes, so much splatter. But as a grisly appetizer for however many chapters will follow, I thought this first season was pretty sensational.How about you?

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