Boardwalk Empire is a show too big for just one column! Here’s Part Two of our look back at Boardwalk Empire Season Four, before Season Five premieres this coming weekend! Be sure to check out Part One before diving into this entry! I’m a perpetual fan of the twists, turns and hard decisions that fiction requires. Boardwalk Empire is a show that focuses, mainly, on the culture around Prohibition. Most, from casual history buffs, to hardcore historians, would cite Al Capone and his exploits as some of the biggest, boldest headlines of the time. The producers of this show obviously pointed the lens in a whole different direction, partly because Capone’s rise, and fall, took place in the latter days of the Volstead Act, but also because it enriched the context of the show. Al has been given time to grow and breathe as a character, expanding outside of his pop culture figure status, and he blooms into a perfect monster in this set of ‘sodes. Per the show’s style, the Chicago theater lines up well with history, showing us the rigged elections and important developments with Jonny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) and his rival Deanie O’Bannon (Arron Shiver) that American history has documented so well. The idea to insert, sometimes budge, Van Alden into the rich history of Midwest bloodshed runs hot and cold, but it pays off in very satisfying ways toward the latter parts of the season. As per the running theme, Michael Shannon was criminally underused in Season Three, and the identity built around the creepy, fanatical Prohibition Agent bent on destroying organized crime in Atlantic City crumbled under the guise of “George Mueller” the everyday guy with a Norwegian wife. Shannon very well might be the best actor of the show, so more of him is ideal for the series’ overall success. “How Van Alden Got His Groove Back” is an apt subtitle for the subplot that runs through most of the year. In a delightful mix of big-time personalities, Al Capone (Stephen Graham) takes a shining to “Mueller”, who works as a strong-arm for the “jocular” florist O’Bannon. The interactions between the two are gold-quality, with the coked up, consistently sniffling Capone treating the repressed firecracker Van Alden like a common minion. To repeat, it’s nearly impossible to do a show about Prohibition without Chicago but it’s also impossible to refute that the trips out to the Windy City slow things down tremendously. That’s why the final scene with Eli holds much promise. Although it could be simply another eastern character joining that side of things rather than a merging of all the divisive elements. If you remember I mentioned two other major characters who were very distant from the core action. In retrospect, (which is kind of the point of this thing, right?) I thought the stories of these two people were really some of the more memorable facets of show, but man, if they weren’t digressive as hell! Both stem directly from the loss of Jimmy Darmody, as they were his primary side characters, and without that bind to the late, great James they’re just kind of floating in the middle of the Atlantic. Let’s start with the grandmother of death, Gillian Darmody. Once a C-list character, a minor antagonist, Gillian gained more prominence over the years, especially after her son Jimmy was murdered by her former pimp, Nucky Thompson. Actress Gretchen Mol‘s range helps a lot, and the way she filters sinister intentions through a sad smile is magic to behold. In Season Three she ran a successful cathouse, but after Richard Harrow shot every gangster inhabiting the place to pieces to procure young Tommy (Jimmy’s son) she lost everything in a fatal swoop. In the premiere she’s both selling her mansion and her body to get her heroin fix. We see a pitiful fall for a character that I once called the purest antagonist on a show full of them. And because we’re human, and we’re ingrained in the way of modern fiction, it’s difficult to not feel pity when we see her at her lowest. That’s the merit of the Gillian plotline, and at times it is powerful, but holy shit is it drawn out like a piece of warm saltwater taffy. When she meets a travelling businessman named Roy (Ron Livingston) the two hit it off and fall in love. She tells him (mostly) everything about her life, and he helps her get clean. The two are intimate and you’re somehow happy for a woman who has done much harm, remembering that she was sold into prostitution at the age of twelve and is, much like the rest of the cast, a product of circumstance. Someone in the writer’s room thought they were clever, which is good, because they sometimes are, but not here. Ron Livingston’s performance was so pale, so flavorless, it obvious something was going on when nearly nothing happens with the Gillian storyline during the bulk of the season. The more vanilla the Roy character appeared the more evident it was that something tragic was about to go down. It comes to a head in the last two episodes. Roy proposes to Gillian, and after scraping and clawing to better herself so the court will grant her custody of grandson she finally lets go when she realizes his new life might indeed be better for the both of them. Just as she reaches that point of previously unobtainable happiness Roy goes and accidently murders a business rival. Wrought with guilt he expresses to Gillian his need to report the crime, and with the happy life she thought so close slipping into the shit she confesses to Roy she once murdered a man too (Roger, a doppelganger of her son), and that it is possible to do bad things, feel terrible about it, and not have to sit in prison to be remorseful. It’s then that Roy reveals his crime was staged and he’s a Pinkerton agent hired by the estate’s lawyer to jettison Gillian from the property. It’s an absurd moment, which isn’t exactly uncommon on the show, but the logical leap is hard to accept. Gillian admits the crime in her own house and somehow as soon as she does it three or four other Pinkertons appear from almost nowhere to confirm the confession and arrest her. There are pieces of a great idea in the Roy/Gillian relationship but the conclusion is a bit far-fetched. While history has documented that the Pinkerton Detective Agency did some really wacky and creative things to catch their targets this is a little hard to accept. Gillian is quickly tried for the murder of Roger and in an attempt to get her rightly convicted Richard requests Nucky reveal the burial site of Jimmy’s body so the court can prove that Roger was in fact a decoy corpse and not Gillian’s son. Formerly one of the most powerful women in Atlantic City is now in jail, alone, betrayed and hurting. It’s very unclear what the future holds for her but somehow I’m more interested than ever in the character. Gillian’s story is likely the most detached from the rest of the show as she interacts with no other core characters. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) on the other hand weaves in and out of other character’s stories, but it’s pretty arbitrary as it merely feels like the creators needed to find ways to keep him relevant. It shouldn’t be much a of surprise then that the final shot of the season is Richard lying dead on the beach. In many ways Richard is the emotional center of the show, which alone makes him a simply fascinating character. An unrepentant killer of men, Richard is a product of the savage world around him. A horrific war injury that robbed him of half his face has isolated him from humanity, but at the same time the obvious mental health issues allow him to function fabulously as a hitman and enforcer for organized crime. The first third of the season sends Richard to his family home in Wisconsin where the only person remaining is his estranged, pregnant, recently widowed twin sister. Richard takes some time with Emma (Katherine Waterston) to find his roots again but moseys his way back to Atlantic City where his kind-of girlfriend, Julia Sarkosky (Wrenn Schmidt), daughter of fellow veteran (albeit of the Philippine-American War) Paul Sarkosky (Mark Borkowski), fights against Gillian for custody of Tommy Darmody. As far as plot events not much happens with Richard but there is enough emotional weight and tautness from Jack Huston that it’s always a joy to have the masked weirdo on the screen. Richard deals with a different type of struggle this year, working to keep his makeshift family together, even in the face of relentless death. When Paul reveals his drinking habit has led to kidney failure it’s apparent that Julia will be alone with Tommy in the very near future. After a little waltz around the subject Julia essentially proposes to Richard and the two marry in the ninth episode “Marriage and Hunting”. They make plans to join Emma in Wisconsin to live their life in relative peace. This is the main impetus behind Richard requesting Nucky reveal the location of Jimmy’s body, to keep his new family together without worry of Gillian’s unending wraith, and in turn it results in his undoing. To return the favor Richard agrees to use his sharpshooting skills to kill Dr. Narcisse when he meets with Chalky at the Onyx Club. As you already know: that assassination goes south when Maybelle dies instead, and it also results in Richard receiving a mortal wound himself. The final scenes of the show that proceed that final shot of Richard dead on the beach are among the best in the show’s airing. We see a dream-like sequence with Richard returning to Wisconsin, his entire family waiting for him on the porch of his childhood home. It’s a somber end for one of the show’s best characters, a microcosm of one of its greatest strengths — its off-center approach to characters and the ability to bend the narrative in unforeseen ways. Richard Harrow proved that a historical drama doesn’t need to weigh itself in burdensome realism to be good. On the same note, the death is heartbreaking but crucial. The load of carrying fan-favorite characters harms the show in small ways, taking concentration from core action to venture into meandering subplots that, at least this year, had little to do with the drama surrounding Nucky. Wrap-up Awards (Where I arbitrarily make up categories to highlight the best parts of Season 4) Best Character: Warren Knox/Jim Tolliver In a show full of good ones there is a particular character that seized my attention every time he was on screen, commanding the scenes with a nearly inexplicable fierceness that makes you cringe in worry for the protagonists of the show. The allure of Jim Tolliver is that he doesn’t look like the bad guy, he works for justice and promotes the law, but his extreme methods, and the veracity put forth in his mission is legitimately frightening. Part of the character’s gimmick is his baby-faced appearance, seemingly another inert policeman in a show filled with ineffectual and/or dirty cops. We quickly find out the man is adeptly cunning and ruthless, an unstoppable locomotive heading right for organized crime. He looks twelve but he’ll strike you in the chops like a grizzled veteran. I found the scripted nuances of Tolliver to be perfectly portrayed by actor Brian Geraghty. In a quiet moment alone with Eli he professes his affection for the godfather of fictional detectives, Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupine, a figure he admired in his youth. Much like his spiritual predecessor former Agent Van Alden, his view of law enforcement is pretty slanted. The main fuel behind his lust for Nucky Thompson’s ruin derives mainly from peer/rival J. Edgar Hoover and late in the season we see Jim hanging out at a speakeasy, fuming after a humiliating workplace experience over a cocktail. He’s an angry, passionate man and dies because of it. That factors in a lot into my appreciation of the character. His presence loomed large and he appeared in all but two episodes. Given that this one a single-season supernova for Jim Tolliver I feel compelled to highlight him as the best of Season 4. Honorable Mention: Dr. Valentine Narcisse. You knew from the minute he appeared that he was going to rock the house. Smooth and dangerous Narcisse proved to be a tricky threat in that he consistently surprised in his reach and power, collimating in a surprising alliance with the bigoted and distrustful Joe Maseria. The 1920’s are a transitional time for the black community and the good doctor represents a key component of the population dedicated to cultural autonomy and the rise of an entire creed of people. However, he also fits in neatly into one of the core philosophies of the show, the idea that those with power reach the summit through cruel and underhanded means. In that regard education and prestige don’t matter, only the ruthless advance in this game. Best Actor: Michael Kenneth Williams The people love Chalky, and for them there was a lot to love in Season Four. The Onyx Club featured as a main setting this year and thus many plot elements ran through the kingpin of New Jersey’s black community. Of focus was Chalk’s affair with Daughter Maitland and his violent tussle with Dr. Narcisse, and through that we got to see a lot of Michael Kenneth Williams do his thing. Chalky is a gruff and weathered, a badass who has little patience for ineptitude or disrespect. He’s the black sheep amongst the wolves of the boardwalk. Williams shows us the softer Chalky, his heart melted and ripped out through the course of twelve episodes. Chalky is a limited man, not just by a station dictated by race but by education his stunted knowledge of the refined world. He’s not much a thinker, he’s more of a man of action, an angry man who directs his rage as fuel for upward trajectory. Williams had a lot to work with and used the opportunity well. Chalky White works through quiet, repressed anger and that came across thoroughly. Honorable Mention: Jeffrey Wright I just wrote about Dr. Narcisse above but it’s important to double up on that and give credit to Jeffrey Wright who brought spectacular presence to every scene he appeared in. Narcisse had dealings with some of the most major characters the show offered, and I’m guessing that had much to do with Wright’s ability in playing a chillingly unpredictable antagonist. Unlike Tolliver this guy survived the year, and I’m sure there is more great stuff coming for this special character. Best Episode: #12 “Farewell Daddy Blues” It’s pretty easy to pick a finale as any show’s best episode. By nature they’re fulfilling and finite, a series of payoffs on the slow-forming narrative of television. The Season Four finale not only wrapped up a lot of really good plotlines, it also managed to swirl together an entire batch of characters in a satisfying way. “Farewell Daddy Blues”, also the name of the song Daughter sings during the closing montage, sponsors three major deaths, Maybelle, Tolliver and Richard’s and changed the future of many other major characters. All the players get their due in the finale. Many, like Gillian, Richard and Chalky are dealt huge losses, others like Al Capone receive great bounties. The finale moved the pieces around in ways that were both expected and very unexpected, and makes for a perfect appetizer to Season 5 Honorable Mention: #4 “All In” Picking a standout episode is a little bit hard when you binge watch. It’s easier to follow the overarching storylines but harder to view the season in segments. Looking back I remember finding “All In” to be a solid episode where a series of surprises lead to many of the results in “Farewell Daddy Blues.” A lingering shot of Henry, Willie Thompson’s college rival, stone cold dead on the bathroom floor, bloody foam dripping from his mouth, ranks as one of the best visuals of the season. In that moment Willie’s presence made a lot more sense and in the end his incorporation into the show’s mainline succeeded. Nucky’s poker game with Rothstein is a big scene that’s executed well. Poker has long served as a way to pit two characters against each other in a battle of wits and wills, and in “All In” Nuck severely outmaneuvers his one-time peer. The scene also demonstrates his major fallacy: non-stop, calculated greed that enriches through the detriment of others. The centerpiece to the episode is a wonderfully scripted/acted/edited adventure featuring Van Alden, Al Capone and Frank Capone. In a fit of nostalgia the brothers decide to take up the neighborhood collection route and drag Van Alden/Mueller with them. The nervous energy and tight dramatic squeeze of the sequence is punctuated by great humor. Basically, it’s the most perfect scene for Michael Shannon to operate in. Best Moment: Dunn Purnsley’s murder of Dickie Pastor – Argh. This show specializes in huge tonal swings and penchant for regularly dispatching characters with little warning. A lot of moments stuck with me but my mind keeps jumping back to a violent, ugly scene from “New York Sour.” Dunn Purnsley is a callous asshole, an instigator and career lowlife. He’s in no way a sympathetic character, and that’s what makes his murder of talent agent Dickie Pastor such an emotionally engaging scene. Pastor’s promiscuous wife Alma baits Dunn into a tryst, a sex scene so full of awkward, hateful negative energy that it’s doomed to ruin from the start. Dickie Pastor catches the duo in the act, but instead of instantly retaliating he forces them to continue under gunpoint. Dunn lashes out, breaks a bottle and savagely stabs Dickie in the neck. The Onxy Club is built by Nucky and Chalky on a kingdom of booze, and it’s fitting a broken booze container eventually brings it down. Every action, from the thrashing sex, to the cutting words and the multiple stabs of jagged glass put this in contention for the most off-putting and savage scene in the show’s history. Honorable Mention: So many. Eddie’s suicide; Van Alden’s “Say my name” moment; Nucky nearly ending his brother’s life; Tolliver’s double-cross on his prohli partner; Richard’s death. Best Quote: “In the Philippines, there was this girl, she couldn’t have been more than thirteen. She was walking down the road, forest on the other side, I mean you could have seen more than ten feet in. I see her, around the shoulder, she looked like… a little monkey crossed with a mouse. ‘Where you going, miss?’ ‘To my village.’ ‘I need to see some identification.’ I had to, you understand me? Those orders came straight from the top. She said, ‘I am who I am, who else could I be?’ I am who I am… I put a bullet through her face.” -Paul Sagorsky after he discovers he has cirrhosis in “The North Star.” Honorable Mention: “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.” -Arnold Rothstein in “New York Sour” Final Thoughts: That last sentence is ol’ AR paraphrasing Blaise Pascal, and it accurately sums up what this season was all about. Although he’s most likely one of the most comfortable men in the country in terms of wealth, clout and status Nucky Thompson cannot stop his tireless pursuit of bigger and better things. The hedonistic treadmill is a recorded phenomenon, but I even find myself amazed at how humans never seem happy, even when they’re blessed with an abundance of amenities, even when they scrape from poverty to great heights, destined to continue climbing the ladder ad infinitum. A very good season and absolutely on par with the rest. The show has its fallacies but its quality is surpassed by very few. See larger image Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fourth Season (BD) [Blu-ray] New From: $28.49 USD In Stock All Binge... No Purge: Boardwalk Empire S04 Part Two4.0Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.