Boardwalk Empire is a show too big for just one column! Here’s Part One of our look back at Boardwalk Empire Season Four, before Season Five premieres this coming weekend! (Spoiler Free!) In Boardwalk Empire only two things are constants: the ocean and Nucky Thompson. Ubiquitous and stretching to the horizon they are forces to always consider. Generally calm and placid, they can turn on you in a flash, making your life hell or taking it away completely. They’re unstoppable, whether it be against the sandy shores or in the tireless pursuit of money and power. It’s in their natures to be domineering and central to the goings-on of all around them. There’s a reason Nucky and the Atlantic Ocean occupy so much of the opening credits scenery — they’re the only things you can truly count on in this show. Boardwalk has taken on its unpredictability as a virtue. Though it centers on the illegal transport and distribution of alcohol under Prohibition, the fourth season strayed from the core concept many times and still provided gripping entertainment. Previous season relied heavily on the politics of the 1920’s to create momentum but much of that is traded for backroom deals and hardcore gangster action. The plot is a bit easier to follow than past years and there’s more concentration on its primary strength, its slew of oddball characters. Through Nucky we’re able to explore the inner workings of a criminal syndicate, via his brother Eli we get a more nuanced look at family and duty, and by following Chalky White, key force of Atlantic City’s black community, we’re privy to the struggle of race, class and the battle for respectability. In many ways the massive cast is both the boom and the bust of Boardwalk Empire. The three characters mentioned above benefit from layered stories that are central to the main plot. There’s a lot of weight to their experiences and they’re skillfully crafted and intertwined. What damages Boardwalk are its auxiliary characters, not because they are weak, rather the opposite, they’re so dynamic in terms of composition and originality they usurp screen time from the main action. This season featured some insanely emotional pieces centered on Richard Harrow and Gillian Darmody respectively, but failed to truly glue them into the larger framework. When working with so many different threads the chances of one not succeeding increases exponentially. Season Four didn’t have any egregious writing hiccups but it failed to produce the sinister tension of the second or third years. Despite its quality, the show has struggled to find a wide audience. A lot of that has to do with its splintered nature, a bunch of wandering eccentrics united by their occupation of a decennium. The show did tone down the complexity some, or perhaps this viewer has gotten used to it. What I did notice however is the increased craftsmanship in tighter editing, cinematography, and, in particular, sound (the music choices in the show are beyond superb). That heightened quality we’ve enjoyed during the present era of television shines through brightly. The period setting probably turns some people off. My initial thoughts back in 2010 were that the show would be little more than set pieces and funny slang wrapped around a college history course. I didn’t account for a cornucopia of great characters backed by generous amounts of well-timed violence. There were some bumps and slight missteps but overall Season Four continued the show’s pattern, refining its style and making use of its excellent arsenal of actors. 4/5 Stars (Beware, Here be Spoilers!) Alright, so let me shed the more studious tone and slip into something more relaxing. I’m about to make sweet, sweet love to Season Four of Boardwalk Empire, and you’re going to watch. Unless you stop reading. Please keep reading. In my previous write-ups on Boardwalk Empire I often felt handcuffed by the quick turnaround of covering the show week to week concurrent to the show’s airing. Yeah, it makes for awesome hits but I found my blathering to be too reactionary and lacking depth for a show that features enough moving parts to confuse an expert watchmaker. In some ways Boardwalk looks and acts like a spiritual successor to HBO’s Deadwood. In that show, which followed historical fact but took plenty of creative liberties, divergent characters always stayed close to the main action because the setting was a single town in the middle of nowhere. Jumping ahead a handful of decades we find the reach is much bigger. This season marched up and down the eastern seaboard and ventures into the Midwest as well. For the most part the plot focuses on Nuck’s problems in his family, social and business matters, but there are some straying plotlines that either enriched the show or burdened it, often both. When we left Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) last year he had won the war for Atlantic City by orchestrating the murder of Gyp Rosetti (in an Emmy-winning performance by Bobby Cannavale) , the thin-skinned Italian prone to bouts of extreme brutality. At the beginning of the fourth season the main character is still reeling from the death of his girlfriend Billie (Meg Chambers Steedle) and the departure of his runaway wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), and he has self-imposed exile from public life, choosing to kick back and let the booze money roll in unfettered. He’s traded the buzzing, boardwalk-centric Ritz-Carlton in for the vacant Albatross Hotel, a faded building sitting alone on an empty beach. The war with Gyp had some casualties, but it also built relationships. In his time of greatest need Nucky found a strengthened friendship with Chalky White (Michael K. Williams). The nature of their bond is tethered with dollar bills, but in the world where backstabbing and false camaraderie are common practices it’s a testament to both Nuck and Chalk that they will step outside of their far different social realms to assist each other. Their relationship is lovely on-camera, a tiled power dynamic where both parties greatly respect and admire each other but still acknowledge their vast distance. Nucky sees Chalky as equal as possible, and Chalky appreciates the wider berth. When Chalky lent him some firepower to hold of Rosetti Nucky arranged it so Mr. White would be the head man at the newly renovated social club at the heart of the boardwalk. The Onyx Club is where much of the central action happens this year and it’s there that Nucky meets and makes peace with the New York contingent of Joe Maseria (Ivo Nandi) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the premiere “New York Sour”. That title portrays the disposition of the Big Apple gangsters who are peeved about Gyp’s death, but ultimately turn a blind eye when presented with a huge case of cash. Nucky expresses his want for a peaceful retirement but he quickly learns a calm life is a near impossibility for crime lord. Nucky once said “You can’t be half a gangster.” On the surface that’s a poke in vein of “Be tough or die,” but another way it applies is that you can’t chose the life of a hoodlum and not face the consequences. Nuck’s vocation requires the acquaintance of volatile people and unpredictable death and this manifests when Nucky is pulled into a murder cover-up directly after making peace with the New York bosses. Chalk’s number two, the nefarious Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), murders Dickie Pastor (Jeremy Bobb), a white talent agent with New York connections, and it’s the big spark that lights the long fuse. Nucky is a great character but it’s almost like he’s merely the tree that holds the limbs of the other storyline’s upright. The strongest branch belongs to Albert “Chalky” White, an appropriate designation because fans have decried his diminished role over the last two seasons. The writer’s responded by really funneling much of the story through the Atlantic City’s new hotspot and its proprietor. The murder of Dickie Pastor begets the arrival of an immediately imposing antagonist, Dr Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). A Trinidadian immigrant hailing from Harlem, the subdued Narcisse is a dangerously intelligent opponent for both Chalk and later Nucky, a parasitic worm who inches his way into the inner workings of Atlantic City through manipulation and a facade of public service. He immediately stakes a claim in the Onyx Club by becoming the main source of talent, and introduces a young star named Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) to the mix. Chalky falls for Daughter hard, unaware of her warped relationship with Dr. Narcisse, the man who killed her prostitute mother. Chalky is put through it this season as he grapples with the immense pressure to hold onto his mini-empire built inside Nucky’s and later abandoning his family for passion and war. While his actual daughter, Maybelle (Christina Jackson), prepares for marriage she doesn’t want, Chalky is too wrapped in the arm of another Daughter to notice. Meanwhile Narcisse turns Dunn Pernsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), the expert instigator, into a primo heroin dealer and mole in Chalky’s operation. The betrayal leads to Dunn’s death, an intense, savage battle between himself and Chalky, a climax of violence is an overtly violent show. Narcisse strongly believes in the betterment of “Libyans” through education and culture. A fictional protégée of real-life Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey the good doctor puts on the front of progress but actively works to push drugs onto the same community he claims to serve. He makes a fascinating contrast to Chalky, the black man who rose himself to the upper class through thuggery. Narcisse is a bit of dark mirror image, a “nigga with a dictionary” as Chalky puts it, an ironic comment since Chalky can’t read. In many ways they’re the same man, just one has a better varnish. Toward the latter part of the year we get a bit of Chalky White’s origin story when he and Daughter must flee Jersey for Maryland, specifically Havre De Grace, also the name of the penultimate episode. The name literally translates to “Haven of Grace” and is home to Chalky’s former mentor Oscar (Louis Gossett Jr.). It’s an interesting peer backward for White as we unsurprisingly discover he was once a tumultuous hothead, needing the cool, guiding hand of Oscar to build him into something great. A gorgeous thing about this show is that it doesn’t give a fuck about what’s “fair.” Ever since they killed off the second lead, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), at the end of Season Two this show has proven it doesn’t subscribe to conventionality. This bold approach continues when Chalky returns to Atlantic City to settle the score with Narcisse. In a horrific mishap Chalky watches his daughter murdered in front of him after she steps in the path of a bullet intended for Narcisse, a huge penalty for his hubris of choosing lust over family responsibility. For the first time we see true panic from him, and it’s one of the saddest moments of a show that’s pretty melancholy overall. In the aftermath, Dr. Narcisse lands in jail, with an offer from the FBI, currently run by future Prez J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin), to spy on Marcus Garvey. Chalky is last shown back in Havre De Grace, separated from Daughter, and mourning a daughter. It’s likely the two men will see each other again. Though, with this show all bets are off. So yeah, a big chunk of this season goes to the Chalk-Man, which, as I wrote, is almost nearly fan service if it wasn’t so logical. The writers do manage to pull Nucky into Chalky’s storyline very well, showing the strains of their friendship, both because of the race, and thus their stations, but also because they’re stubborn jackasses with insatiable appetites for money and revenge. Nucky’s initial focus in Season Four is peacefully expanding his reach and revenue. The taste for more swings him down to Tampa Bay, a fairly foreign place for someone used to working in the metropolis of the Northeast. Bill McCoy (Pearce Bunting), the first character ever seen in the show, convinces Nucky to throw in on the rum trade with the island nations of the Caribbean. After a series of hiccups the deal does bear fruit through a surprising collaboration with Myer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). Then again it’s not surprising at all because the real life Lansky built a large part of his illegal gambling syndicate in that area. Admittedly, the trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line is really digressive and fails to boost the storyline in significant ways, just ask “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza). The real harvest of the Tampa subplot is too hook Nucky up with a different type of challenge. The bullishly smooth southerner Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) waltzes into the scene as an unsuspecting tavern owner, but soon wins Nucky’s heart, and control of the Florida end of the rum runner operation. Like a great deal of HBO and other premium cable endeavors, the sex in this show is never in short supply, but I can’t remember one with the specific energy of Nucky and Sally’s first encounter. In the midst of a thunderstorm the two exchange punches and slaps, fulfilling the aggressive and sexual legacy of the show in a single scene. In Tampa, where the rain falls constantly, perhaps this demonstration of passion is commentary on the persistently gloomy days of the alcohol smuggling business and the dark, carnal joys that exist within chaotic atmospheres. The chief protagonist’s love life has been a driving force since episode one, Season One. In the Season Four premiere we see Nucky has distanced himself from emotional connection and just has fun with whatever fine, young flapper interested enough to sit on his lap. Sally pushes against Nucky’s norm; she’s a gal to call him out on his shit — and in a way she’s Margaret 2.0. The Irishwoman, undisputed female lead of past years, doesn’t show up until the midpoint of the season. I was astonished by her role this year, showing up in “The North Star” in unannounced fashion. After being so close to the violence of last year, including catching a glimpse of her lover’s (Owen Slater, played by Charlie Cox) corpse, she refuses to entangle her life in death and lavish blood money. We discover she lives meagerly as secretary in a New York stockbroker’s office, but her previous life catches up to her when she crosses paths with Arnold Rothstein, who offers her money and lodging in exchange for insider tips. Margret’s journey is a peculiar one, though the show does seem to let her dance occasionally with darkness. At season’s end she justifies her lawbreaking by owning her misdeeds as her own and not wrapped in a tragic life due to the crimes of others. Mrs. Thompson /Rohan/ Schroeder went from one of the strongest roles on the show to a phantom of herself. A black mark on the season, for sure. Additionally, Rothstein, a typically menacing and dangerous character is cut down to a stump this year through a serious of terrible bets and gambles. After losing a huge sum to Nucky over a poker game he coerces Margaret to aid him and presents her with a new home in the finale. Of course, much like Lanksy’s storyline this is most likely precursor to the accuracy of actual history. Rothstein’s demise in 1928 was reportedly tied to huge unpaid debts, and what happens to him falls right in line with that fate. Continuing down the Problems of Nucky trail, one of the biggest sources of this season’s chaos derives from new instrument of the law Jim Tolliver, also known as Prohibition Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty). Since the downfall of Nelson Van Alden (who we’ll get to in several moments) the show has lacked a strong, credible police element (which is probably a nod to how things worked back in that era) and the duplicitous FBI Agent fills the need admirably. Working under Edgar J Hoover, Tolliver infiltrates Nucky’s inner operations as a baby-faced rookie “prohi” by first murdering his corrupt partner and feigning complicity to the whole illegal trade of alcohol thing. Tolliver’s storyline breaks into two main parts, the first focusing on longtime background character Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura). The trusted butler of the Thompson estate demands more responsibility in the crime game and after some fuss is granted courier status by Nucky. It’s a simple job, run items to and fro, collect cash, distribute orders, etc., but Eddie quickly find himself under the watchful eye of Tolliver. After an extended meet up with Ralph Capone (Domenick Lombardozzi) the agent plucks Eddie from civilian life and interrogates the poor old man like he’s a hardened felon. Kessler is a notably interesting, almost exclusive, figure on Boardwalk in that he’s been in a ton of episodes yet has received little depth in terms of character. I’ll remind you that this show is all about multidimensional characters. Previously, the German immigrant simply scattered around in the background, the only quirk was his quiet acknowledgement of the world around him. That is until Tolliver gets his hands on him. It’s exposed that Kessler left his native Germany in shame and disgrace, and that he has two grown sons who consider him disowned. When Tolliver presses Eddie with deportation the long time confidante of Nucky spills the beans on his role in the operation. The concentration on Eddie is a neat little treat for fans, but it sours on us quickly as we see him dismantled right before our eyes. After release, Eddie sulks back to Nucky’s beachfront hotel and in one of the most beautiful, engaging scenes of the year he goes through his normal housekeeping duties, pens a note to his children and promptly jumps from a bedroom window. Death surrounds the Thompson name. Even when he doesn’t actively cause it Nucky has a hand in it. Eddie offs himself because he knows his demise is inevitable anyway. With him out of the picture Tolliver loses his only lead into cracking the biggest crime empire in the country’s history. See, the agent has this crazy theory that the criminal heads of Atlantic City, New York, Chicago and other major cities are working together in an organized network. Despite a movement from Washington to investigate this claim Hoover refuses to believe such a crazy premise, and Tolliver is adamant, obsessive even, to prove himself the wiser. The second half of the Knox/Tolliver plotline pulls in another background character who is granted copious amount of screen time. Willie Thompson, Nucky’s nephew and eldest son of Eli, pattered around in the background in previous years and is pushed to the forefront, a brash choice considering the already heavy character load. In fact, Will’s story had such credence that the part was re-cast, with Ben Rosenfield doing a fine job playing a member of the Thompson clan. Willie carries an inherent darkness; though not a bad person he’s capable of being a jerk like his father and power hungry like his uncle. Attending Temple University he develops an aloofness from the student body, in particular a rich loud-mouth who pokes young Willie the wrong way. Planning to humiliate him, Will and a friend poison the kid but it goes haywire when the intended prank spins into a murder investigation. Will is able to evade charges through the influence of his uncle but it results in his absorption into the family trade, a move done behind Eli’s back for sanctity of Will’s hide. Agent Tolliver becomes aware of Will’s crime and blackmails Eli (Shea Whigham) into informant status. Eli, who if you remember has majorly betrayed his brother before, reluctantly accepts the task to keep his son out of jail. Gaston Means (Stephen Root), a beautiful example of the show’s wealth of characters it has no time for, informs Nucky he has a rat in his network, and it doesn’t take long before he’s pointing a gun at his brother’s head. Of course Will wanders into the Albatross just at that moment and Nucky must pull the reigns back and wrestle his anger. Nucky’s discovery also means Tolliver’s loss as the agent sets up that a huge sting predicated on bad info from an ill-informed Eli. Tolliver, like a force of nature, tracks down Eli, and confronts him in his home, and it gets messy quickly as the two grapple to the death in Eli’s living room. Eli is triumphant, he brutally murders a FBI agent to save his son and in the last minutes of the season we see him in Chicago, Illinois, standing alone while waiting for a ride from one-time adversary, and unlikely ally Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). I haven’t mention Van Alden, the Capone Brothers and Chicago much, have I? That’s purposeful, because they’re on the goddamn island. [To Be Continued…] See larger image Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fourth Season (BD) [Blu-ray] New From: $25.98 USD In Stock All Binge... No Purge: Boardwalk Empire S04 Part One4.0Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... 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