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HBO's Boardwalk Empire doubles down on Nucky's evil ways while wife Margaret sees her light

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) put on a show at his 1922 New Year's Eve party. HBO photo

Nucky Thompson is breaking bad, too.

Before firing a second kill shot into the head of onetime protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in the Season 2 finale of Boardwalk Empire, he said unequivocally, "I am not seeking forgiveness."

And as its third season launches Sunday, Sept. 16th (8 p.m. central on HBO), the tagline on a packet of review DVDs is "You Can't Be Half A Gangster."

Through the course of Boardwalk Empire's first five Season 3 episodes, Nucky (Steve Buscemi) does at least one considerably worse thing than he did to Jimmy, a badly shaken WW1 vet who had been in on a plot to kill him. The very dimly lit Episode 4 (Oct. 7th), a sizable chunk of it set in a storm cellar, brings that particular mortal sin into sharp focus.

The man who used to be the money-grabbing, rum-running boss politician of Atlantic City is now a full-blown mobster who coldly does some of his own killing rather than leave it all to underlings. But although Buscemi remains firmly in charge of this lead role, he's not the most interesting principal anymore.

That pendulum swings to his wife of convenience, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whom he married last season to prevent her from testifying against him. Nucky was being measured for prison stripes until everything suddenly started falling into place for him. She was the last piece of the puzzle.

Macdonald is consistently tremendous in this role. And on New Year's Eve, 1922, a year-and-a-half after their marriage, she has both put Nucky in his place while being newly determined to find hers. The vehicle is St. Theresa's Hospital, to whom she signed away a valuable land grant that Nucky intended to use for transporting purposes.

A pediatric wing is now named after the Thompsons, much to Nucky's distaste. But Margaret has plans to bring the facility into a brave new world of pre-natal care for pregnant women. This is much to the mortification of a taskmaster nun who still recoils at use of the word "vagina," let alone "pregnant."

Newly willful, Margaret has a crisp way with words that make this character soar. And she'll use them when necessary, whether on an obstinate doctor or her lying husband, whose latest mistress is a young actress/singer named Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle).

A vivid new fictional gangster is also throwing his weight around while holdovers Al Capone Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein (Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza, Michael Stuhlbarg) continue to thrust and parry with Nucky.

Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) is a profane, amoral hard-knocks Italian who likes his sex rough and his violence rougher. In his view, Nucky is nothing more than a "breadstick in a bow tie" with a condescending attitude. Cannavale (Nurse Jackie) creates a thoroughly chilling new adversary who wants everything for himself and nothing for others.

The absence of Pitt's deceased Jimmy Darmody leaves a void. But his old ad hoc hit man, WWI sniper Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), is back for more and more interesting than ever.

His plastic Phantom of the Opera-esque half-mask remains in place. But beneath it all, Harrow is no monster. He's Boardwalk Empire's most poignant supporting character, a gentle-hearted survivor who is best at the trade he perfected in the war. "63," he answers immediately when Nucky asks, "How many people have you killed?" But faithful viewers of this series know this is something that shouldn't be held against him -- either in wartime or its civilian aftermath.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), former rigid stalker of federal lawbreakers, is on the lam in Peoria under the assumed name of George Mueller. The self-flaggelating Bible reader veered from the straight and narrow by drowning a crooked fellow agent and impregnating Nucky's earlier mistress. He now has a baby daughter, a live-in nanny lover and a dead-end job as a salesman for Faraday Electric Iron Company.

Shannon plays this role with a clenched-up conviction that at times is laughable. Put two bolts in his head and he could easily pass for Frankenstein's monster, with a laugh so painfully forced that it must take a full work force of interior miniatures to expel it from him. Still, he is very slowly heading on a path into evil doer-dom. And it might get quite interesting if he ever fully buys in.

Mobsters still come and go in sometimes confusing fashion. A good deal of the action occurs in the dark during these initial five episodes, whether it's under cover of night, a dimly lit speakeasy -- or that aforementioned storm cellar. This doesn't particularly help when trying to sort out all the bad guys. Even many of those once bright outdoor boardwalk scenes are now overcast. Perhaps executive producers Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter -- who in reality does most of the work -- are intent on symbolically darkening Nucky's descent. If so, lighten up at least a bit.

Boardwalk Empire nonetheless remains a big plus on the Sunday prime-time scene -- even if Showtime's twin Sunday punches of Homeland and Dexter will be sounding their own thunder claps when they return on Sept. 30th. This is still the role of Buscemi's lifetime, the likes of which this otherwise lifelong supporting actor may never see again.

It's not his fault that Kelly Macdonald is so very good as his no longer docile wife. Her scenes are more savory, her budding activism a force for good while Nucky laments to his mistress, "I want everything to run all by itself."

But the killings, shipments and cash flows are getting messier by the hour, it seems. Meanwhile, in her own measured way, Margaret is talking just as tough as he does. Because she can.