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Chicago mobsters loom larger in new ‘Boardwalk Empire’ season

BOARDWALK EMPIRE episode 25 (seas3 episode 1): Steve Buscemi. HBO.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE episode 25 (season 3, episode 1): Steve Buscemi. HBO.

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SEASON 3 ★★★★

8 to 9 p.m.
Sundays on HBO

Updated: October 15, 2012 9:53AM

‘Boardwalk Empire” is set in Atlantic City, N.J., but the Windy City is where a good deal of this season’s action unfolds.

Chicago and some of its notorious sons play a bigger role than ever in HBO’s superb Prohibition-era drama about Atlantic City bootlegger and political fixer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). Nominated for a dozen Emmys, “Boardwalk” kicks off season three Sunday with one of its best episodes yet.

In last season’s game-changer of a finale, creator and executive producer Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”) dropped a big hint that he’d be paying more attention to Chicago when he sent disgraced East Coast federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) on the lam.

“Welcome to Cicero,” Van Alden’s new landlady tells him as he forks over two months’ worth of rent.

“That was a little wink to the audience, to the students of mob history who knew the significance of Van Alden’s having ended up in Cicero … a huge hub of activity for Al Capone,” Winter said. “It certainly was foreshadowing what might come later.”

Capone (Stephen Graham) and other Chicago bad guys have been a part of the series from the get-go. This season, which takes place in 1923 as Chicago’s infamous beer wars are heating up, the up-and-coming Capone will encounter a new nemesis in Dean O’Banion.

Like many of the characters in “Boardwalk,” which weaves a riveting tapestry of fact and fiction, O’Banion was a real-life mobster. Played wonderfully by Arron Shiver, he was an Irish-American thug with a green thumb; he owned a flower shop across from Holy Name Cathedral. O’Banion is credited with bringing the Tommy gun — a k a the Chicago typewriter — to the city’s streets.

“He’s just a really colorful rival for Capone,” Winter said. “He was one of those stars that burned very brightly for a brief period of time and was hugely important in Capone’s development.”

Another North Side mobster, O’Banion’s pal Hymie Weiss, enters the fray later in the 12-episode season.

While several key stories take place in Chicago, the filming did not.

“It’s all Brooklyn for Chicago,” Winter said. “It’s just prohibitively expensive to go pretty much anywhere outside of a 50-mile radius of where we are. But through the magic of visual effects, you will see the Chicago Stockyards circa 1923.”

Last season’s explosive finale culminated with Nucky pulling the trigger on surrogate son Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) for conspiring against him. (For an excellent refresher, check out the 14-minute “Distilling Season 2” video on the premium cable channel’s website,

It’s a risky move killing off one of a series’ most beloved characters, but Winter said the outcome was inevitable from the show’s start.

“When Jimmy says [to Nucky in the pilot], ‘You can’t be half a gangster anymore,’ I knew that Nucky would one day cross that line and become a full gangster by pulling the trigger himself on the very person who gave him this advice,” Winter said.

The new season starts roughly 16 months later on New Year’s Eve, as the Roaring ’20s are picking up steam.

“We’ve internally been describing season three as the night before the morning after,” Winter said. “It’s sort of a wake-up call for Nucky, how the world is changing and he’d better focus and get a hold on things before they get too out of hand.”

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