End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 2

29 Nov

Nuckie in Florida 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.

Gillian’s plotline was one of the triumphs of the season. It was, unlike many of the other plots,largely self-contained within this season, and dealt with her trying to put her life back together and ultimately gain custody of Tommy, Jimmy’s orphaned son. My one reservation about her story was that it felt a little ludicrous to have this ridiculously long con run on her successful by a private detective solely for a confession to killing someone no one seems to really even care that much about. Still, if I’m willing to buy that, it was compelling, Gillian has always been one of my favorite side characters and Gretchen Mol manages to play her in a way that it’s hard not feel sympathetic for her by the end of the season even after all the terrible things she’s done.  She’s so tragically broken from the way she was abused as a girl that her warped sense of relative morality has made her at times successful, twisted, and oblivious. Ron Livington’s character had a limited role, nursing Gillian back to health only to break her later but he ultimately appreciated by the end of the season, as we did, the strength of Gillian’s character and her abilities, in spite of the endless immoral and criminal acts we know she committed.

Nuckie trod largely on familiar territory which makes it difficult for his plotlines to feel new or exciting. This is largely because the character is stuck in a status quo where he can’t get too big for his britches outside of Atlantic City, but can’t lose all his power either, unless the show is willing to make a much more radical change that I’m giving it credit for. Still, if one could put aside for a minute the negative I’ve already mentioned of going somewhere we’ve already gone before, the season handled it well.

Particularly, we’ve seen this Nuckie and Eli dance before, in season two, when Eli was part of a cabal, along with the Commodore and Jimmy, who worked to overthrow and ultimately kill Nuckie. Nuckie forgave Eli, but not Jimmy, and Eli had been a fairly loyal soldier until this year, aside from the constant sibling squabbles between the two. As I mentioned, unsurprisingly, I’m not usually a fan of repeated storylines, and I’m not here, but again, if we accept that Eli betraying Nuckie is going to be a repeated plotline, it’s done as well as could be expected.

I’ve always though Eli (like Gillian) was one of the stronger side characters and that his relationship with Nuckie was a fairly realistic portrayal of a sibling relationship, amped up in a violent way because of their positions as gangsters. With Nuckie as the protagonist, Eli can seem grating when he’s constantly rankled by Nuckie’s constant looking out for him and his family. It’s difficult, though, for Eli to constantly be under his brother’s thumb, not only at work, but often even within his own family at home, even if he ultimately loves his brother deep down, which i still think he does. Eli has a more convincing reason for betrayal his time, and I actually liked that in the end, at least this season, Eli wasn’t killed, which would have been the obvious move even though his actions clearly deserved it by the rules seen in this show.

The extra layer here was that the betrayal could have been avoided if the sibling rivalry didn’t run so deep. Agent Knox blackmailed Eli regarding his son’s murder charges, and if Eli had gone to Nuckie right away, the situation might have been resolved without endangering anyone in the family. Eli was too proud and ashamed to go to Nuckie, and Nuckie had to play big brother and patronize Eli by hiding his son’s actions from him in the first place, generating the understandable resentment from Eli. These are basic sibling conflicts that follow siblings everywhere, but they’re played out writ large due to the numerous murders and federal crimes which they’ve both been a part of. The family connection comes into play again in the decision of Nuckie not to kill Eli, as all of the rationales on both Eli’s and Nuckie’s sides are wrapped up in their complicated family web along with Eli’s son Willie, whose seemingly unnecessary and somewhat irritating (Willie is not my favorite character) actions early in the season set up the ground for Eli and Nuckie’s struggle.

I loved Patricia Arquette’s character,Sally Wheet, and she played a huge part in keeping Nuckie interesting for another season. I do think Nuckie is a good character overall, and has layers of depth and moral complexity that have shown over the course of the show, but it’s getting tough to keep him interesting, as mentioned earlier, without ever having him win or lose completely. He wants out of the gangster game, and the stress and the violence, but then he doesn’t because of his need for money and power, and around again we go. Arquette was a genuinely believable and compelling romantic interest that made me invested in Nuckie’s love life in way I didn’t feel was particularly likely before the season. Florida didn’t add a ton besides plot conveniences outside of Arquette, but she alone made it worthwhile. Florida was built up in the early seasons, only to largely fall away towards the end of the season, leading me to believe we’ll be back in the Sunshine State sometimes in season five.

Nuckie’s ex-wife Margaret largely sat this season out, for which I was grateful, as she’s my least favorite character. Her two scenes with Arthur Rothstein I enjoyed though; perhaps there’s much more potential for her now that she’s fully out of Nuckie’s life and in the show in limited doses.

Real life gangsters Rothstein, Charlie Luciano, and Meyer Lansky each had minor roles in the season, each befitting the size of characters throughout this series, but each added color, character, and fine acting, in the smaller roles they inhabited. They were like basketball three-point specialists, making the most out of their limited time on screen, injecting little bits of character into smaller parts without needing the ball to have an impact. Mickey Doyle, another character whose actor gets listed in the main credit sequence even though he has a relatively minor role, is the type of character who can be grating with all but the slimmest parts, but in short bursts adds a much needed bit of levity to a show that can easily get overserious. Rothstein and Lansky are about the only other two who ever seem to show any sense of humor, and both faced more serious situations this season that prevented them from being at their most lighthearted.

Antagonist FBI Agent Knox wasn’t my favorite part of the season. He was largely fair in his handling of Eli, but his unnecessary beating of Eddie left me cold and somewhat unsympathetic. He’s clearly on the right side ethically and legally, relative to the show’s protagonists, but because they’re protagonists our natural sympathies lie with them, so the relatively more moral FBI agent needs to be legitimately clean to win us over. Knox, to his credit, isn’t corrupt, and he is certainly on the side of right, but I think he could have been even more convincing and relatively more likeable, which would have shone a brighter light on the fact that the characters at the center of the show are no-good criminals.

This report wouldn’t be complete without nothing that Nuckie’s servant Eddie got some serious work to do and excelled in his final episodes mid-season as he’s cornered by the FBI and then takes his own life. His last scene was brilliantly acted and wonderfully filmed.

Overall, this season was a positive step for the show. Side characters were fleshed out. Plots came together somewhat, but not entirely, and wrapped up some season long plots while leaving a lot hanging for next season. The antagonists were more complicated and enticing than Season 3’s Gyp Rosetti, who was a fun sociopathic villain but not a particularly interesting or complicated one. I’m looking forward to what the writers and creators come up with next.

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

  1. Anonymous December 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    “Knox, to his credit, isn’t corrupt, and he is certainly on the side of right”

    This dude straight up murdered 1 guy (when the FBI pulled over the truck convoy coming up from FL via Eli’s tip) and also setup the mustachioed FBI guy to be shot and killed by a rigged shotgun in episode 1 or 2.

    Knox absolutely was corrupt – and sadistic.


  1. 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 rather […]

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