Deconstructing the Excellent Fourth Season of ‘Boardwalk Empire’

HBO Boardwalk Empire Mask
HBO

(SEASON-WIDE SPOILERS AHEAD…)

In the cutthroat world of television, few series are the given the chance to grow into themselves and get better with time. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is a perfect example of what can happen to a show when it’s given that chance. Last Sunday night, the series ended its fourth and finest season with a finale that was one of the best hours of television I’ve seen this year.

Boardwalk Empire has always had the ingredients to pull this off, but it has often fallen short. The show has strong writing, excellent acting and directing, and name recognition: star Steve Buscemi, creator Terence Winter, and producer Martin Scorsese. It also has a very authentic feel and tone, yet the show has never had the success or acclaim of other HBO heavy-hitters like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, or the number of viewers of lighter HBO series like True Blood. In fact, it is one of the least watched HBO series, and one many critics have been mixed about (including Entertainment Weekly, who recently called the show “Bored-Walk Empire”).

When you take on the gangsters of the 1920s, mix in real life characters with fictional ones, and spread your story between Atlantic City, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C., and most recently Tampa, it can be hard for viewers to fully connect or for new viewers to jump on-board. In past seasons, the trouble was in the scope of the show. Boardwalk Empire’s world is often too big. The cast is enormous (even with all the deaths), and the storylines are sometimes disconnected from each other.

The series stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, who begins as a “half-gangster” working for the city (Atlantic City) and running a small crime ring that mostly focuses on smuggling alcohol (It’s Prohibition time). As the series progresses, Nucky gets greedy and becomes a full gangster, while things quickly spin out of control (and the body counts rises). Buscemi is a great actor, but Nucky is often the least interesting character on the show, which has perhaps also led to some of the critiques of the series. Nucky isn’t as compelling as some might expect from the central character.

To the show’s credit, the writers have made many bold decisions — but these decisions have come at a cost. The shocking deaths of main characters have been good for the story, but have often left strong and interesting characters marooned. These characters were often only connected to the central storylines through a character that now no longer exists. This was particularly an issue with Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) when the second lead of the show, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), was surprisingly killed in the season two finale. Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Aldan has also been left floating about the series sometimes with little purpose or connection to the main action. Regardless, viewers enjoy watching these characters and some, like Harrow, are fan favorites.

As a viewer, I’ve always accepted these issues and enjoyed the show for its strengths and ability to follow its storylines through in realistic and often shocking or upsetting ways. When you are dealing with the gangster world, things aren’t always going to work out — even for your favorite characters. I appreciate writers who are willing to make the right decision for the story.

In a series that is good with surprises, the real surprise this time was that Boardwalk Empire managed to pull itself together to become the show it has always wanted to be. This was the strongest season yet, which is rare for a show in its fourth year (yet not impossible, think of Dexter). It felt more cohesive than any other season and the storylines were right on point.

This season belonged to Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White and Shea Whigham’s Eli Thompson. Both actors gave Emmy-worthy performances and brought the series to a whole new level. Williams’ plays the always-about-to-boil-over Chalky with precision and Whigham could get an award for just his facial expressions this season (particularly for his scene with Agent Knox in episode eight, “The Old Ship of Zion”). These characters have been on the show since the beginning, and both have played important roles, but this season focused on these two men as they faced their biggest struggles.

Boardwalk Empire Sesaon 4 Chalky

In a smart decision, the show put a spotlight on the black characters and brought on-board Jeffery Wright as Dr. Narcisse (a Harlem intellectual slightly based on W.E.B. Du Bois and the “talented tenth” movement during the 1920s). The calm yet menacing Narcisse provided the perfect rival for the short-fused Chalky; with each episode, Narcisse pulled back another layer to reveal his true character.

It started off as a business arrangement for entertainment at the club Chalky now runs, but quickly turned into a battle for control. Narcisse sees all of Chalky’s weaknesses and plays him for much of the season. This includes getting Chalky’s right-hand man Purnsley (Eric LeRay Harvey) to go behind his back and sell heroin to the black community in Atlantic City (weakening them). Chalky is actually rather slow to catch on to what is happening, and when he does, he’s left with few options.

Chalky’s biggest weakness comes in the form of the Jazz singer Daughter (Margot Bingham), who Narcisse uses to distract Chalky. In true HBO fashion, Daughter and Narcisse have a sick and twisted back-story, which provides yet another layer to the action (her mother was a prostitute that he killed). She distracts Chalky not only from his business, but also his family. Chalky’s family has always been a presence in the show, but his relationship with them is strained. He never seems to know quite how to be “the family man.” Lucky for Chalky, Daughter truly falls for him and foils the Doctor’s plan by killing Purnsely, who gets sent to kill Chalky. For a show that has become known for its slow-pace, this season kicked it up a gear. All of this happened well before the finale.

Daughter brought an interesting female role to a rather male-dominated season. The show’s previous female lead Kelly Macdonald got only about 20 minutes of screen time in the entire season, which was another smart writing decision. Macdonald’s Margaret has mostly run her course as a character and left Atlantic City at the end of season three. Leaving her nearly out of season four gave room for other characters to take on a more significant role. I suspect she will return in a bigger way next season.

The Chalky vs. Narcisse storyline was refreshing in a lot of ways because it showcased historical issues within the African-American community during this time period, which is something the show hasn’t explored that much. Often in historical shows or films, the tension or focus is on racism (white against black) as if that is the only story to tell. In this season, the central battle was between two black characters with very different lives and experiences (an intellectual and a man from the streets). We already know from previous seasons that Chalky can’t read, so the divide between these men is a wide one. It is also historically important. During this time period, there was a debate within the black community about how to progress and fight for true equality. Many important organizations and movements within the black community started during these years.

The other main storyline this season involved Eli (Nucky’s brother) being blackmailed by the FBI Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty). In another smart move that helped tie this season together, the show began exploring the FBI take over by Hoover and the beginning of their investigation into organized crime in the United States.

Eli has always been a sympathetic character. He plays second fiddle to his brother Nucky and has fallen on hard times before (like when his plan to kill Nucky backfired and he was forced to take the fall and go to jail). Like Chalky, he is also a family man (a big Catholic family). It is his family that he prides himself on and holds over his brother (who is single and childless). This is what made the inclusion of Eli’s son Willie (Ben Rosenfield) such a perfect move for the show.

Early in the season, Willie accidently kills a classmate (a prank gone bad) while away at college. Instead of calling his father, he calls his Uncle Nucky, who comes and “fixes things.” The fix includes selling out Willie’s college roommate who helped him. This sets into motion a series of events that causes Agent Knox to find out about the cover-up and use it to convince Eli to turn over his partners. If Eli sets up a meeting with people from New York, Atlantic City, and Tampa (proving there is organized crime across state-lines), Knox will let Willie stay out of jail. Like Narcisse finds Chalky’s weakness, Knox finds Eli’s. Both men are put into situations with few ways out.

Going into Sunday’s finale, I knew certain characters were in danger including Chalky, Narcisse (guest stars are often in grave danger come episode 12, “Farewell Daddy Blues”), Eli, and Agent Knox, but to the surprise of most, three of those four lived for yet another season.

In a perfectly choreographed fight, Eli bested Knox and found himself on the run, which also provided an interesting tie-in to the action in Chicago (which I haven’t mentioned). This season’s last shot of Eli was him arriving in Chicago and getting picked up by Van Alden. I can’t wait to see where that story goes. I’d like Al Capone (played perfectly by Stephen Graham) to get more focus next season.

Chalky and Narcisse’s standoff resulted in the biggest surprise of the season: the death of Harrow, who in many ways has always been the heart of the show. He’s one of the most tragic characters on the series, and, as a viewer, you are always on his side. He’s first introduced in season one as a WWI vet who is missing half his face (He wears a half mask, which isn’t as Phantom of the Opera as it sounds). He fought along side Jimmy, but when Jimmy is killed in season two, Harrow is left on his own. His storyline has often been disconnected from the greater story, but has been one of the strong points of the series. The real tragedy of his character is that he desperately wants to be free of a life of killing (whether that is in war or as a hired hitman), but things keep getting in the way — a central theme of the show.

Early on in the series, Harrow was often shown putting together a scrapbook in which he would take clippings from newspapers or magazines and paste together a family for himself. As the series continued, his chance at a family became a reality. He met a nice girl, and he bonded greatly with Jimmy’s son Tommy. This season we saw Harrow finally willing to embrace and fight for this family. This required getting custody of Tommy from Jimmy’s mother Gillian (who was seen last season raising Tommy in a brothel).

Throughout the season, we have seen courtroom scenes of the custody battle. All of this was brought to a surprising head in episode 11, “Havre de Grace,” when Gillian got arrested for the young man she killed last season (which she claimed was the body of her son, but was really a young man visiting from Indiana). She was arrested by this season’s other guest star, Ron Livingston, who posed as a businessman interested in marrying her but was actually a detective trying to get a confession out of her. I’m going to be honest: I didn’t see that coming at all.

Gillian’s storyline provides the last tie-in to what leads to Harrow’s death and what makes this season so perfectly intertwined. In the finale, Gillian is facing murder charges but claims no one can prove that the young man who died was not her son — because his body was never found. Harrow wants to see Gillian put away and knows that Nucky killed Jimmy. He gets Nucky to provide an anonymous tip giving up the location of Jimmy’s body. To pay Nucky back for this favor, he agrees to take out Narcisse (once again being pulled back into killing).

Chalky and Narcisse meet in the club to come to some agree (arranged by Nucky), as Harrow waits in the balcony with a gun. In the course of the conversation, Narcisse reveals that he has Chalky’s daughter. He calls her out just as Harrow is getting ready to pull the trigger. Harrow’s a little shaking. He refocuses, aims, and shoots just as Chalky’s daughter comes into the frame. She’s shot in the head and killed right before Chalky’s eyes. This causes a lot of commotion and gunfire, which is increased by a sudden raid by FBI agents looking for Eli in the murder of Knox (everything coming together) In the chaos, Harrow is shot. He escapes, but dies on the beach imagining meeting up with his now real family. The tragedy comes full circle.

Boardwalk Empire is about how every action has a consequence. In season four, this idea was executed perfectly. Each storyline met up and connected or interfered with another in surprising and beautifully sad ways. I also appreciate how the show never forgets its history. Jimmy’s been dead for two seasons, yet he still played a role in what happened. Not all consequences are immediate.

The action of this season led not to the death of Chalky or Narcisse or Eli, but to the deaths of two people who weren’t really directly involved (Harrow and Chalky’s daughter). For a show that has killed a lot of gangsters, it was a smart move to have the main causalities of the season to be two of the more innocent characters.

In one of Gillian’s last scenes, she is being escorted out of the courtroom and she screams, “Why does a man get to do anything he wants?” In some ways, she has a point. Of all the characters to be arrested for murder, she has the smallest body count to her name, but in many ways, this finale was about the cost that all of these characters must pay for their choices. Gillian must go to jail. Chalky must face the death of his daughter that was really a result of letting his guard down. Narcisse was last shown in prison where Hoover forces him into being a government spy. He’s not dead, but he’s broken and now is under the white man’s control. Eli made a decision to save his family that backfired, and he’s now on the run with no family. And our main character, Nucky, is in the center of it all. More a witness this season than an actor. In fact, Nucky is seen at the end of the season wanting out. Out of the whole thing? We don’t know. But like Harrow, can he ever really be free until he’s paid with his life? Has anyone, male or female, gotten away with anything?

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