It took me two and a half seasons to really click with Terence Winters’ “Boardwalk Empire,” the HBO Prohibition drama returning for its fourth season this Sunday, September 8th at 9pm — or maybe for the show to click with itself. It was Richard Harrow that did it, the veteran played by Jack Huston who covers the maimed half of his face with a mask painted so that he looks like a rough approximation of the whole man he was before the war. Harrow is merely the most poetic of the many larger-than-life characters played by excellent character actors the show has proven a ridiculous haven for. The Michaels alone — Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Williams — are tremendous, and then there’s Stephen Graham as the explosive Al Capone, Paul Sparks as the enjoyable weaselly Mickey Doyle, Vincent Piazza and Anatol Yusef as up-and-comers Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and on and on and on, including Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson himself.
And then there are the outsized antagonists who’ve arisen each season after the initial one — first the dead-inside Jimmy (Michael Pitt), then the fiery Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale, always on the edge of tipping into parody). Jeffrey Wright glides in this year as the next big bad gangster, Dr. Valentin Narcisse, and Wright rolls every syllable of the sophisticated and powerful Harlem boss’ dialogue around in his mouth like it’s a bite of filet mignon. They’re all tremendous fun to watch, but they threaten to make the show feel like it’s just a platform for talented actors to dress up in period costumes and attempt to out-flourish each other against a backdrop of self-conscious dourness. Dourness isn’t the same thing as importance, but the two are often treated as interchangeable.
But Harrow has no interest in showing off, in battling for the top spot in Atlantic City or flaunting his capacity for brutality, though he has one that rivals his more overtly savage cohorts. Harrow is a genuine character who is genuinely lost, looking at the normal life he thought he’d return to from the outside, sure that it is no longer available to him because of his wounds and what he’s done. Huston plays the character with a stillness that transmits the character’s feelings through a sense of physical tension — through what’s visibly being held back. The camera tends to capture Harrow from the side of the mask to allow its blankness to convey what people on screen see of him while underlining our own understanding of the man’s tragedy and tenderness underneath.
The painfully sweet courtship Harrow had last season with Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt), a stilted, lovely and doomed thing in which they spent the day at the boardwalk with Jimmy’s orphaned son Tommy like a real family, was what finally drew me in. It felt like the first volley of sustained and compelling emotion the show has managed. “Boardwalk Empire” has so much to admire from afar — the aforementioned performances, the direction (Tim Van Patten helms the season four opener “New York Sour”), the gorgeous and lavish period set and details — but in viewing it can seem leaden, like a house so overstuffed with beautiful things there’s no space to move. The series has the scope of “The Wire,” with its multitude of characters spanning New Jersey, New York and Chicago, but unlike “The Wire” it’s not about anything beyond its power struggles, and it’s actually been a more enjoyable series as it’s settled into that fact. The second half of last season freed Nucky to do what he does best, to maneuver and battle things out with the different forces at play in the area, and had Harrow’s eventually intersecting storyline to carry the weight of the more personal drama as he sacrificed his own happiness for Tommy, whom he loves above all else.
Nucky, as played by Buscemi at his most cadaverous, is a much more interesting gangster-as-chess-player than he is a figure of domestic drama or symbol of the warped American Dream or whatever, and while she’s still in the credits, Kelly Macdonald’s absence as Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret in the early episodes of the new season is a relief. After a first season that used her as our entry into Nucky’s Atlantic City realm, the show’s been increasingly uncertain of what to do with Margaret, and the stories in which she’s fretted about how to extricate herself and her children from the life she landed them in, and sought to set up a women’s health clinic with the hospital, have felt like wheel-spinning. “Boardwalk Empire” is so unrepentantly macho that season four actually plays better without the presence of its major female character than with her dangling at a loss for things to do — Nucky has a more heartfelt relationship with his stuffily loyal German valet Eddie (Anthony Laciura), and it gets more time in the spotlight this round, as Nucky sets up a bachelor pad for himself at the Albatross Hotel.
“Boardwalk Empire” exists in a curtailed world still staggering from World War I and in the grips of a fevered underground economy fueled by the demand for recently illegal liquor, and the series makes more sense as one in which domestic life is difficult to fit in than one that pretends it’s as interested in making nice with the church as it in documenting illicit dealings. Harrow thankfully remains in the forefront of this new season, still looking for a home for himself while remaining unwilling or unable to put away his gun now that he’s taken it up again, and though his story takes him even further afield in a series already scattered over too many locales, it’s a welcome balance to Nucky’s efforts to restore his dealings with New York now that he’s returned himself to power. Having stumbled across a figure of real instead of rote pathos, the show does well to keep him in the spotlight while allowing the gangsters to go about with their wars.
It’s no accident that the series’ lone remaining female lead for the time being is Gretchen Mol’s Gillian Darmody, another underworld representative, who’s rattling around in her empty former cat-house with a new drug habit and a desperate desire to reclaim Tommy to assuage her own loneliness. Gillian’s been one of the show’s more loathsome characters, but her decline has made her more sympathetic and a more natural part of the series, as she attempts to sell an outsized mansion no one wants while speaking of cotillions and ermine muffs, the dream of a fairy tale life she’s never had bumping up against a reality of addiction and prostitution. Like many of the other characters, she longs for a stable, comfortable home that’s more about an abstract ideal in her head than one based on what she could actually achieve and be suited for, though the arrival of a genteel businessman played by Ron Livingston offers a flicker of hope in a life fast headed to destruction.
The best way to enjoy “Boardwalk Empire” is as it seems to have finally learned to enjoy itself, as a testosterone-fueled epic of warring gangs in a short window in which booze was illegal and, therefore, very good business. It’s a dark brew, but separated from the heavy grimness of purpose that marked its first two seasons, it’s headier stuff that embraces its own bloody criminality. It’s got a new beat to dance to thanks to the introduction of Chalky’s (Williams) new club, with its whites-only patrons and black entertainment, and an intriguing introduction of a character played by Brian Geraghty about whom I won’t say more except that the role puts the actor’s innocuous wholesomeness to good use. Gloominess has become synonymous with dramatic heft in quality TV, to a tiresome extent, but “Boardwalk Empire” is better taken as something more surface-level and less stodgy, a violent game that has a set period in history in which to take place.