Shows that exist on a single premise—how long can one man’s reign last—can only live on so far. Even Walter White’s saga from chemist to crystal meth kingpin is coming to a close in a few short weeks. But Walt’s rise and transformation from cancer patient to monster was never linear and began as a quiet secret. This path was never supposed to be in the cards for Walter. Fate intervened, it happened and we waited from season to season just how deep he would go and how far his soul would be corrupted. And then he became Heisenberg and there was no turning back. HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” has an entirely different premise built on greed and power with men who started out being greedy and power-hungry. Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is the mobster kingpin of Atlantic City. And to its credit (and to its detriment at times), the Terence Winter-created show has always been more about character than it has plot. But the central narrative and linear progression of each season so far has been a fairly simple and familiar one: you will make a run for Nucky’s dominion this time? Which in some ways has always made the show, its various characters, subplots and sub-intrigues aside, somewhat one note.
In season one, it was establishing Nucky’s power and those who were eying the prize (The Commodore, his envious brother). Season two saw a coup by Nucky’s right hand man Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and it ended with a bullet in the kid’s head. Season three brought along the mercurial Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) gunning for a slice of the Atlantic City pie and he ended up chop liver too (meanwhile, like Season 2, it’s most interesting character Owen Sleater was killed off). But, given the show has an array of colorful adversaries—Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), to name a few—why must the show keep introducing new antagonists to knock Nucky off his perch rather than employing some of the already-burning friction between various mob bosses is frustrating.
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And so, if the season 4 trailer is any indication, Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) will be the newest thorns in Nucky’s side this season. Will the season move slowly and languidly once again only to explode in a firecracker burst in the last three episodes? If the season opener “New York Sour” is any indication, you’re going to have to be patient once more.
In the wake of the Gyp Rossetti war, “Boardwalk Empire” sleepily comes back to life again. Nucky meets with New York crime boss Joe Masseria and makes him a peace offering and for the meantime, much to the disdain of folks like Arnold Rothstein is seems to work. All the other story lines of the season aren’t particularly exciting though it does seems like the seeds are being sown. In Chicago, Al Capone (Stephen Graham), who helped Nucky fight back Rossetti last season seems to be getting too big for his britches, but his transformation into full blown ruthless gangster is still slow-going. He’s joined this season by his two brothers Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire”) and Frank (Morgan Spector) so it’s possible they may try and finally overthrow the getting-old Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), but with this show, who’s to say?
Trailer have suggested Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), who now runs the Onyx Club on the Boardwalk, joining forces with his fellow African-American Dr. Valentin Narcisse, but Narcisse doesn’t even appear in this episode. The only hints we get at trouble is when Chalky’s impulsive right-hand man Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) kills a showbiz client which makes for a murder and mess that Chalky and Nucky have to clean up.
The most interesting storyline is probably that of Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol). After the shootout massacre at her bordello the Artemis Club, she’s lost custody of her grandson Tommy (Brady Noon) and has to fight for him against Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt)—Richard Harrow’s (Jack Huston) girlfriend and the woman who took care of a bloodied and in-shock Tommy who somehow managed to come out alive from the ambush (thanks to Richard mostly). As for Richard, he’s gone and seemingly has turned vigilante. But there is one purpose to his trip: finding his sister. As for Gillian, the normally fetching Gretchen Mol isn’t looking too well and it turns out the emotional toll of being separated from Tommy has made her turn to heroin. Meanwhile she’s looking for a buyer for the Artemis Club and while she may not have found the right man in Roy Phillips (Livingston), she at least appears to have found a friend. But Phillips intentions in town are unclear, but we assume they will slowly unfold.
As per usual, “Boardwalk Empire” could use a kick-in the ass for the first half of the season. Hell, even the The Hollywood Reporter posed the question tonight, “Why Isn’t ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Compelling Even When It’s Really Good?” And it’s a valid one. “Boardwalk Empire” has a load of talented actors and writers, but them scribes sure like to take their time. We’d ask aloud if the ‘Boardwalk’ staff are ever going to change their dynamic—or even consider shifting the reach for power-play paradigm with every season—but we wouldn’t count on it.
Bits And Pieces:
-Completely absent so far is Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald), who the mobster was unable to make amends with at the end of last season. Normally, you’d think she’s simply out of the picture, but she’s too important to the narrative, so you know she’ll pop up eventually.
– Also awol is disgraced FBI agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) living under the assumed name of George Mueller and his wife Sigrid (Christiane Seidel). But while his story’s interesting, a lawman living in hiding who’s recently turned to being muscle for Al Capone’s adversaries, it inches forward so slowly there’s hardly ever any momentum to it.
– Conveniently, while Arnold Rothstein looked like he was headed to federal court and major indictments last season thanks to Nucky’s sly chess moves, it’s implied that somehow, that’s all in the past for the canny Jewish gambler and businessman.