Boardwalk Empire Season 4 Review: A Straight Classic, No Chaser
HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has been accused of being a little too disparate in its exploration of prohibition in Atlantic City, but with the fourth season proves that to be a moot point. This is about more than one event in time and one person. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky is just an anchor, and the show is not a character study sticking to him alone. The landscape of 20s America is ripe with individual tales worth telling, and themes worth exploring.
The stories born from the premise are varied and populated by compelling characters that collide with one another in spectacular fashion. All in an era not seen often, if at all in the manner we get it here. Following The Wire’s legacy, Boardwalk Empire feels like a mammoth novel painted to life on screen with the brilliant writing team led by creator Terence Winter, and directed by TV luminaries spearheaded by Tim Van Patten.
Season four picks up in the aftermath of Nucky’s war with New York, having established an uneasy peace with Masseria (Ivo Nandi) and Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), he sets his sights on a bootlegging opportunity in Florida where we meet the spunky bar owner Sally (played by Patricia Arquette). It’s a nice change of scenery, though doesn’t become an integral focus for the season in as much as it sets the seeds for conflict brewing elsewhere.
A conflict which arrives in the form of a new FBI character, agent Knox played by Brian Geraghty. Ambitious, dangerous, a man you love to hate, Knox gets his hooks into Nucky’s closest men. First his right hand man Eddie, and then his brother Eli. Spurred on by a rivalry with his boss who happens to be a certain J. Edgar Hoover (played by Eric Ladin), his arc leads to an utterly vicious climax between Eli that had me literally shaking. Partly due to the nerve-racking direction and editing, but also because of Shea Whigham, one of the great underrated actors peppering this show. You really can’t stand to see any harm come to anyone interesting, and characters like Eli, Richard Harrow and Chalky White are what keep me returning every episode.
How unfortunate then that key players are indeed dispatched or brutalised in this season’s incredible finale, which was filmed in a way that defies the TV format, directed with cinematic flourish. Amongst the memorable scenes of frantic and tense mayhem were beautiful imagery, none more so than Jack Huston’s special sequence in the latter half which gave me goosebumps. We are in a golden age of serialised TV, and Boardwalk Empire continues to spoil us with quality. Sure, naysayers may complain that this show doesn’t do anything that period-set films like Goodfellas haven’t done, but come on. Who doesn’t want to watch a show that’s mentioned in the same sentence as Goodfellas!
Dark though the finale may be, the possibilities for next season are exciting. If you know your history, then things are about to get interesting in Chicago. It’s a testament to the writers’ skill that they can juggle Philly, Chicago and Florida this season and not lose our focus. Everyone has their time to shine, from the hilariously intense Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) whose darkly humorous escapades in Chicago escalate due to his close proximity to a coke-addled Capone (Stephen Graham), to Michael K. Williams’ Chalky, who faces off against another brilliant antagonist in the form of Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a drug-peddling leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Skulking around like a strange cross between an elaborate Disney villain and bloodthirsty vampire of the night, Wright is as memorable as he is creepy, his silky Trinidad accent at odds with his devilish eyes and goatee, the battle between him and Chalky lit up the screen this season, and like Knox’s climax also had me trembling with anxiety in the finale. The aftermath of their battle will have far-reaching consequences into the next season.
Four seasons in, Boardwalk Empire continues to be crammed with fantastic scenes and characters, and though at times it feels like it’s about nothing & everything, this season has proven to be the best yet. The fat has been trimmed away; core characters that are compelling take centre stage. Even Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) who has been a sticking point for fans of the show, had minimal time spent on her, and yet her status this season was very interesting and will have viewers clamouring to know more about where her path will lead, being that its in close proximity to an uncharacteristically desperate Rothstein.
Another character, who began to feel like they were outstaying their welcome but turned out to have an engrossing journey, was Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) who struggled in the wake of drug addiction to wrestle back Tommy from Harrow (Jack Huston) and his girlfriend Julia. We spend enough time with her this season to actually feel sympathy for her depressing plight, and this is despite all the awful things she’s done previously.
This is the power of long-form storytelling. Like almost every other character, her climax is devastating this year, but so earned. The writers decide to subvert all expectations, but it feels organic to the story. There are no twists that come out of nowhere; every plot line culminates in inevitability.
Boardwalk Empire has had its ups and downs as its struggled to define its premise amid disparate characters and plot strands, and each season proves to be rewarding for viewers who have stuck with it. No matter how often the show has felt meandering, it’s never been boring, thanks to the characters and stories being told. I’d like to give a shout out in particular to the character actors who don’t get enough mention as veterans like Huston and Shannon, but are so brilliant in their roles they seem lived in like comfortable clothing. Anatol Yusef (Lansky), Vincent Piazza (Lucky), Erik LaRay Harvey (Purnsley), and of course Shea Whigham, seriously give this guy awards, what he does with his character is not as easy as it looks.
The fourth season has been a masterclass in every facet of production, from writing, directing to acting, it’s simply essential TV and thankfully there is more to come. Bring on the Great Depression!