End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 1

27 Nov

Nuckie and Narcisse

Boardwalk Empire may never quite rise to the status of truly great show in the annals with the Mad Mens and Sopranos and Breaking Bads of the world, but this fourth season was  a a movie in the right direction, very good season of television, in the tier just below great. The fourth season was a distinct rebound from the so-so third season, back to the heights of the second, which was previously (and still may be – I’d have to think on it more) the best season of Boardwalk Empire.

The third season of Boardwalk was sharply focused but was stifled by a concentration on a villain who, while gleefully diabolical, was uninteresting and one-dimensional. Bobby Cannvale did all he could with his psychotic gangster Gyp Rosetti, and it made from some breathtaking and brilliantly violent individual scenes that jumped from the screen. In terms of narrative arc, however, his irrational antagonism left the entire arc around with the season was built often lacking.

Season four on the other hand, managed impressively the very difficult task of knowing when to pull plots apart and when to push plots together, keeping the season focused enough to mostly not feel disparate while finding time to focus more on non-Nuckie characters than ever before. Additionally, season four found antagonists that if not entirely as rich in character as they could be, were more layered than Rosetti, who may have started out simply as a wronged businessman, but by the end was a nut hell-bent solely on Nuckie’s destruction.

Season four also is by far the least seasonally-oriented season of Boardwalk. While the finale had some huge, series-changing moments, major questions and plotlines remain in the air in ways that felt far less settled than after each of the show’s previous three seasons. The two biggest arcs of the year, Nuckie’s and Chalky’s were left somewhat unfulfilled, and Eli, whose death would have been a classic seasonal wrap up, lives and moves on to Chicago for now. There’s nothing wrong with leaving plot strands open ended for next season, and in fact, it can have many benefits, but it does make it harder to evaluate the season in a vacuum.

I’m now going to roll through each of the major arcs and make some comments.

Chalky’s arc was very strong. There was one major issue I had, which was his relationship to Daughter. I never found Daughter’s character compelling or charistmatic, and that meant I never was quote on board with Chalky’s infatuation with her. It could be explained simply as a mid-life crisis with a younger woman, and that’s fine, but the show made it out to be more than that. That said, Chalky’s battle with Narcisse was largely compelling. Chalky faced a problem which Nuckie has in the past, having his leadership challenged, and struggled to maintain supremacy in a world that was changing faster than he was ready for it. On top of this, he doesn’t know who his allies are in his community or outside it, and must go it alone until he can figure out how his real friends are. Chalky made many mistakes along the way, but came out of his battle with Narcisse easier to root for in some ways, and harder in others, a more complicated character. His daughter getting caught in accidental cross-fire aimed at Narcisse was brutal luck which should have a debilitating effect on Chalky going forward.

My one other complaint is that I think there was an interesting potential dichotomy set up for Narcisse; his support and fight for his race, while at the same time participating in organized crime, and particularly drugs which harm the community. There could have been a way to really explore Narcisse as a character with an internal battle between these sides, but instead Narcisse was pretty much just an antagonist who was kind of a blowhard rather than having any working principles.

The Chicago plot lacked the gravitas of the other arcs. Boardwalk Empire is always filmed with care, and the cinematography and film-making is beautiful as always, even when the writing and characters can’t match it. Watching Al Capone’s rise, through the eyes largely, of Nelson van Alden ne George Mueller ne Nelson van Alden was absolutely entertaining at times but felt more like a way to stage a version of an interesting episode in history rather than necessarily fit in with the other segments of the show. It was fun to watch the sociopath Capone move up the ladder in his local organized crime family, but it didn’t really have the same emotional or character weight of some of the other arcs. I think Michael Shannon is a great actor and any depth I get from Van Alden I credit to him, because Van Alden has always been one of my least favorite characters on the show. I’ve always felt Van Alden was just a little bit too odd, and particularly that his transition from uber anal prohibition agent to unhinged salesman to gangland enforcer never quite worked. Still, if I allow myself to try to disregard the history from before this season, Van Alden, in this season alone strangely often plays the role of the viewer seeing the abilities and the weaknesses of Capone, the most well-known and infamous real character on the show.

Richard Harrow’s death makes sense in a lot of ways. He’s a fan favorite so his death would carry an emotional impact that many of the characters’ potential deaths couldn’t hope to match. Harrow was also kind of out of plot. While everyone wanted more Harrow, it seemed clear a couple of episodes into this season that the writers didn’t exactly know what to do with him.  He appeared in extended segments in early episodes and then featured in less and less screen time as this season went on. His plot slowed down to a crawl to make sure it didn’t outpace what the writers could actually figure out to do with him. In the last episodes, a period of stasis arrived. Richard got control of Jimmy’s kid and was with the girl he loved, and Nuckie had given him a job, but it’s still not clear what it was or why. There seemed to be two obvious options for what to do with Richard: either let him go off an be happy and largely off the show at least temporarily (with the caveat he could show back up at anytime if the writers could think of a reason) or kill him off tragically. As (BREAKING BAD SPOILER) Breaking Bad fans know, letting your wife know everything is all wrapped up for the best and you’ll be home is all but a death warrant.(SPOILER OVER). The final scene was a poignant but fairly inevitable death for an excellent character. Richard Harrow couldn’t just get away and live a happy life, certainly not after leaving so many bodies in his wake, even if it was often done with the best of intentions. This isn’t that type of show. There are tradeoffs in life, and some good can’t necessarily outdo a lot of bad. Still, the final scene of the season was beautiful and no character deserved to go out in that memorable way more than Harrow.

2 Responses to “End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 1”


  1. End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 2 | Television, the Drug of the Nation - December 4, 2013

    […] My thoughts on the recently ended fourth season of Boardwalk Empire ended up reaching an unseemly length, so I decided to slice them in two. The first part is here. […]

  2. Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 28-25 | Television, the Drug of the Nation - February 6, 2014

    […] spoke about this most recent season of Boardwalk Empire at length, which you can read here and then here if so interested. Basically, I think the fourth season was a big step up from the […]

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