Boardwalk Empire, the flagship series of Sky Atlantic, returns for a second series this weekend, boasting a clutch of awards but also some critical opprobrium. The show's creator, Terence Winter, remains understandably sanguine. "You can drive yourself insane reading reviews whether people like the show or hate it," he says. "We've had everything from the highest praise to people just trashing the show but we've also had an embarrassment of awards, which bears out what we're doing."
Winter feels that perceived problems were in part caused by the difference between the show he is creating and that which audiences expected to see. "I think when you see a poster and it says directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Terence Winter of The Sopranos then you expect a certain type of show, you automatically think gangsters," he says. "And that's reasonable but the story we're telling here isn't just a gangster's tale. To me violence is meaningless if it's simply killing for killing's sake. If you're not interested in human emotions and dynamics between people then maybe Boardwalk Empire is not your type of show. It's not aspiring to be a slam-bang action fest."
Yet there are issues surround the show's depiction of female characters, who last season came in only two sizes: Madonna or Whore. Winter remains bullish about suggestions that his women come a poor second – "I'm not interested in writing an alternate reality just to make people feel comfortable... in rewriting history to suggest these women had a power that they didn't," he says – but the problem isn't so one of power or the lack of it so much as it is of screen time or even reaction shots.
When the show's most problematic character, former showgirl Lucy Danziger (played by Paz de la Huerta), is on screen we are rarely allowed to know how she feels. Instead our reactions to her are entirely filtered through the male gaze, whether that of Nucky or the repressed Federal Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). It's arguable that this issue is partially due to de la Huerta's opaque performance but it's also the case that while we have no idea how Lucy feels about being pregnant, we're well aware of Van Alden's on-going battle to square that pregnancy with his conscience.
It's a criticism with which Kelly Macdonald, who plays the widowed Margaret Schroeder, partially agrees. "I get the concerns about the treatment of women," she says. "I think it's a very boysie show... but there is more for the female characters this year, last year was more about the men, it wasn't good or bad, it's just what it was. This year there's more of a concentration on the family, we see more of the character's personal lives."
Winter agrees that this season will have more of a family focus. "We get a chance to broaden and go deeper into our female characters lives, it's a function of where the stories are taking us," he says." We learn more about Margaret's background, spend time with Lucy... We have a new character called Esther Randolph played by Julianne Nicholson who is based on a real historical figure, a woman who was the assistant attorney general during the 1920s. When we get to these women's stories then I'll be writing them to the best of my ability."
Putting his money where his mouth is, the second season opens with a well-paced and funny episode where in addition to dropping in on Nucky's attempts at domestic bliss with Margaret and Van Alden's idiosyncratic efforts to entertain his wife, we see Gretchen Mol's sweetly poisonous Gillian working her charms on the gruff Commodore Kaestner and her son Jimmy while subtly terrorising her daughter-in-law. It's a great, layered performance from Mol, and one that suggests Winter may have written a younger, more deadly Livia Soprano, all false charm and subtle manipulation.
'Boardwalk Empire' is on Saturday at 9pm on Sky AtlanticReuse content