*Contains spoilers for this and previous seasons.*
It’s easy for a show even with this quality of writing and superb production values to become stale by the time a 4th season rolls around. There’s no doubt that the first and second season of Boardwalk Empire showing the rise and fall of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) were the highlight of the show and likely will not be topped. The 3rd while enjoyable suffered primarily from the void left by Jimmy’s story being awkwardly filled by angry Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) as the new big bad guy to threaten Nucky’s entire empire. Who is neatly wrapped up and dealt with by the end. Things were at this point in danger of becoming formulaic.
Fortunately the 4th has picked up the slack considerably and seems self aware of the issues the show could easily suffer and has utterly remedied them creating a compelling and broad ranging narrative that has kept the series constantly engaging. The show has succeeded in this by vastly broadening the focus of the show. While it certainly still deals heavily on the life and dealings of Nucky Thompson played with a great deal of gravitas by Steve Buscemi it’s spread out its historical tendrils to illuminate multiple other characters. Al Capone ( Stephen Graham) and the events leading up to his further rise to power are all intertwined with both his brothers Frank ( Morgan Spector) and Ralph ( Domenick Lombardozzi) as well as our favourite masochistic god fearing ex-Agent Nelson Van Aldan. ( Michael Shannon) Capone has been played brilliantly throughout by Graham, contrasting his scenes of ultra violence with that of the care and tenderness he shows to his son and family.
This season is no exception with the agony he faces over the death of his brother and the brutal revenge that follows. Meanwhile Van Aldan who starts the show working for the Irish gangster ‘flower seller’ O’Banion (Arron Shiver) but slowly becomes integrated into Capone’s group. Van Aldan is hugely powerful looking man that allows himself to be bullied but always has that look of being close to snapping point and damn when he does is it something to behold. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch that this ex-agent on the run from the law happens to get in deep with one of the most famous bootleggers ever but the sequence of events leading up to it are handled well. The show manages to combine historical fact with fiction almost as well as famous works such as I Claudius or the Bible ( so brave) achieve and in doing so creates the unique feeling of watching a through the looking glass into the past.
Speaking of agents it’s refreshing to find one in the form of agent James “Jim” Tolliver (Brian Geraghty ) who poses as “Warren Knox” and at first with his baby face and Tim nice but dim act seems another harmless pawn. Until he goes utterly, batshit brutal in his attempts to prove an organised crime conspiracy between multiple states at the increasing mockery of his fellow FBI agents. This includes his superior J. Edgar Hoover ( Eric Ladin) who simultaneously mocks him while taking credit for his good ideas which creates a wonderful psychopathic twitch in the young officer. The pressure he puts on Nucky’s poor manservant Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) and his brother Eli Thompson( Shea Whigham) in order to get to the man himself is grim and that leads to heart wrenching moments.
He’s yet another character whose very morally grey but surprisingly well rounded as a result. He’s a law officer doing the right thing in trying to apprehend a large ring of dangerous and violent criminals but his own often violent or even murderous methods and his creepy yet petulant demeanor of a bullied schoolboy about to snap and machine gun his classmates makes him hard to stomach when he’s on screen.
Nucky has gone underground this season in both his screen time and his character’s role. Finally deciding that he can’t be both the public, smiling happy face and a ruthless, murdering gangster he opts for the later and hides away in his club dealing in secret with other affiliates. His main dealings this series move him to Florida and further liquer and land deals. Specifically he ends up in the bootlegging business with plucky Tampa bar owner Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) which inevitably leads to a romantic relationship, as romantic as beating the stuffing out of each other then fucking drunk in a bar gets. In contrast to any of his previous flames in that she’s strong, independent and don’t need no man. Which Nucky finds both perplexing, arousing and likely refreshing in their own measure due to his usual role as part babysitter part lecherous old man to a slew of beautiful young women.
The main threats to Nucky have tended to be slowly brooding and building up without his knowledge, such as agent Agent Tolliver’s espionage of his organisation and case against him. When I stop to think about it probably the only failing of this series is the complete lack of focus on Nucky as the title character. However this is more of a strength as he’s been such a rich focus for so long that his story threads were slowly drying up. A focus, as this season has done, on supposed side characters has in turn strengthened the title character in giving him some breathing room to both subtly grow and for us to anticipate further more lengthy story threads involving him.
Arguably the closest we have to a ‘villain’ amongst villains is Valentin Narcisse. (Jeffrey Wright) His public appearance is that of a respectable doctor at the forefront of the growing black power movement. He’s however also a ruthless gangster, affiliated with Owney Madden and running organised crime in Harlem especially within the growing heroin trade. Hence much like Nucky he’s playing at being both a gangster and a public figure and struggling at it. His clash initially begins with attempting to muscle into Chalky White’s territory in Atlantic City. Commenting on him that ““I saw a servant pretending to be a king.” It seems in the world of Boardwalk only one black guy is allowed to be in business at a time, which is a pretty accurate reflection of the racism of the time. Which is a better excuse than the Walking Dead has at least.
His ploys involve strategic placement of gorgeous women to distract poor Chalky alongside bribery of men in power around him who he thinks he can trust. Events escalate to horrible violence eventually as is to be expected with gangsters doing gangster shit. Nucky’s hand is eventually forced and he becomes involved in the violence and scheming in order to put an end to the racial tension. However it’s refreshing in that the main threat of this season aims himself at a side character rather than at the main character and is the reason. While Nucky certainly has his issues throughout the season he isn’t as directly and obviously threatened as he has been in the past seasons by the likes of Darmondy, Eli and Gyp Rosetti. We also see a much more softer and vulnerable side of Chalky’s character in his relationship with severely psychologically damaged Harlem singer Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) who are both in their own way kindred lost souls.
Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) becomes one of the most tragic figure of the series in a series that feels like a series of tragedies. Jimmy Darmody’s rather obvious incest and patricide linking him to the Greek tragic figure Oedipus not being subtle in the slightest. Jack Huston brings a far more subtle tragedy to Harrow, despite him being in comparatively few scenes and saying comparatively little in them his what we see has incredible power and poignancy. I found myself sitting in a waiting room and having my thoughts drift to him and his fate and a legitimate sadness grip me that I’d seemed to have been withholding from my own denial. His ultimate dream is of a family. One he has had since he remarked to witnessing Jimmy in the bosom of his own family “What’s it like to have everything? ” But again there’s that moral grey because despite how sympathetic he is and despite most of the audience rooting for him he’s still a cold blooded hired killer . Yet he’s understandable in how he’s brought to those killings as a product of his own environment and in the warmth he shows to those good in his life.
The Wire managed to show how generally good people can be brought low to corruption, gang violence and murder due to the constraints of their circumstance. Harrow’s character becomes the perfect 1930’s example of this phenomena. As a man who has been taught to kill on the battlegrounds of the Somme and suffered greatly for it violence is what he knows. Opportunities for him would have been few and far between.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.phpng murder and his disfigurement being something of revulsion rather than understanding for people. Not to mention the lack of help for the psychological damage he’s suffered. Hence a violent and short life was perhaps inevitable for him.
He spends this season drifting , finally finding some peace at his sisters home until his violent past catches up to him. Then he pursues a relationship with Julia Sagorsky (Wreids Scmidt) and aids in her court case against Gillian Darmody ( Gretchen Mol) over the custody of her grandson Tommy Darmody (Brady and Connor Noon) son of Jimmy who he previously saved from a gangster run whorehouse on the brink of violence.
Gillian is herself a damaged by her own brutal circumstances of being forced into prostitution and pregnancy at the tender age of 12 and we see her horrendous spiral into heroin abuse and eventual calamity as all her lies and secrets begin to unravel and bury her in a tide of misery. Both characters, intertwined in horrendous circumstances leading to horrendous circumstances never have the fairy tale ending they dream of. Both desiring for a stable family. The theme of family pervades this series. Gillians desire for one to patch away her broken past. Richard’s desire for much the same reason. Eli’s failure to grasp onto his family. Chalky’s apathy with his family life that throws him into the arms of another. Nucky’s complete lack of a family and isolation from this. The bond Al Capone shares with his family. Van Alden’s attempt to provide for his child and housemaid stepmother. There’s just something about the inevitability of human misery pervading a show that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.
This series has and has been one of the most enjoyable for me since the opening season. It’s included a chaotic mix of interlacing plots, characters and emotions that’s left it gripping till the end. An ending which uncharacteristically didn’t tie everything up neatly but left big gaping bullet holes to deal with in subsequent seasons. The show has already solidified itself as a classic but if it can keep this quality up even for one more season it will easily surpass that of its rivals if it hasn’t done so already.