“It’s like Prohibition never happened but for one thing. Prices will increase twenty-fold. We got a product a fellah’s gotta have. Even better is that, we got a product he ain’t allowed to have.”
The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire began pretty much the only way it could have after the bloodbath that ended the previous season. It was an explosive season that delivered the best gangland war in television history. Now there has to be some kind of peace or at least status quo after the end of the violence. Nucky is making his peace with Arnold Rothstein and his people. He also owes Chalky White for saving his behind when war broke out. It’s all going to cost him: money to Rothstein and the rebuilt club on the boardwalk for Chalky. The new Onyx club is now run by a man who is not allowed to sit in the front section of his own club.
With the death of Gyp the show needs a new nemesis, and it’s found in two places. Chalky’s club opening is marred when one of his men kills the booking agent supplying the talent. It’s made worse because said agent was working for Dr. Valentin Narcisse, played with great flair by Jeffrey Wright. You’re going to love the character. His front is a society to better the condition of blacks, whom he refers to as Libyans. His real goal is to corner the heroin trade in Atlantic City. He’s going to be going against Chalky White to get there, and Nucky’s going to be put in the middle. It’s a nice payoff to last season when it was Nucky who needed help with an enemy.
The second enemy comes in the form of the new Prohibition agent in town. He’s Agent Knox, played by Brian Geraghty. He poses as a willingly corrupt official, but he’s actually working undercover as an agent for the Bureau Of Investigation and its new leader J. Edgar Hoover, played by Eric Laden. It’s another in the line of popular historic figures shown in their early days. Hoover is trying to move into a big chair, and it doesn’t matter who he has to use or step on to get there. Knox has just as much to worry about from inside his own organization as from the mobsters he’s targeting. He’s a young agent crying out for respect.
I was pleased that the character of Margaret (MacDonald) is used quite sparingly. There’s a minor story arc that puts her in Rothstein’s path, but little screen time is devoted to the story. The same is true of Gillian (Mol), who also has a very specific arc, but it plays out in small ways throughout the season. Her arc involves a new character and possible love interest.
The best news is that Chalky is front and center this season. Kenneth Williams made his mark on The Wire as the colorful fan-favorite Omar. Who can forget that moment on the stand when Omar is asked what he does for a living? “I robs drug dealers.” It was one of the best line deliveries in television. Pizza Hut might say they deliver, but Michael Kenneth Williams is the real delivery guarantee, and he doesn’t disappoint as Chalky White. He’s the only character who truly holds his own with Nucky. If you share my opinion, you’re going to love the amount of central stage time Chalky gets.
Nucky also expands his business to our neck of the woods here in Tampa, Florida. It starts as a favor to a friend who was in trouble. A land investment turns into a land of opportunity for the booze business as he ends up swapping whiskey for rum, and it makes money for all parties until someone gets greedy and adds narcotics to the mix. The Florida storyline also introduces Nucky to Sally Wheet, played by Patricia Arquette. Sally’s a new kind of love interest for Nucky. She’s a tough girl who isn’t above giving him a shot to the kisser. It’s a good idea for a character, but Arquette is terribly miscast, and the potential never really comes through for me. It just becomes another in a long line of weak female characters for the show.
An exception to that trend, however, is Marot Bingham as Daughter Maitland. She’s a popular singer who Narcisse brings to the club. He’s like a father to her, and the relationship gets strained when she falls in love with Chalky. She’s a wonderfully fresh character and causes music to be more of a front and center part of season 4. The music truly helps build the atmosphere of this place and time which was already so well presented. She shares nice chemistry with both Narcisse and Chalky. She’s a bit of a tragic character but stronger than she first appears.
The Van Alden character finally gets a story arc that brings this character into the story. For years I’ve loved Michael Shannon’s performance but could never understand what the character was there for. He’s caught up in the war between O’Bannon and the Capone brothers. He gets to finally have moments that work within the context of the show. He’s not in a ton. When he’s there it finally pays off as well as the introduction of Al’s brothers Frank ((Spector) and Ralph played by another Wire alumni, Domenick Lombardozzi. They get involved in some election fixing, but it highlights a bone I have to pick with the showrunners. They fell down on the authenticity route here for political agenda reasons. It was the Democrats Al’s union bosses worked for, not Republicans. I guess the show didn’t want to paint Democrats in a corrupt light. Anyone who knows the history of Chicago politics, however, knows this was reversed deliberately here.
Nucky ends up having to find a traitor in his midst, and the season sees the death of two very well known and beloved regulars on the series.
The best decision the team made, however, was casting Steve Buscemi in the critical lead role. This guy has always been able to deliver a powerful performance. He gave Tony Soprano a run for his money for a full season. Here he is as much the character as anyone you’ll ever find. From the way he dresses to the way he walks across the room, he is Nucky from head to toe. And that’s even before you start to get hypnotized by his wonderful expressive facial movements. This is the reason to watch the show. Sure, there are other great performers, but everybody gets dimmed just a little bit when Buscemi walks into the room. It all begins with very effective yet simple opening credits that have Buscemi on a beach as liquor bottles come rolling onto the surf. This guy bears watching. The character is based very loosely on the real Nucky Johnson who did run Atlantic City during this era.
I learned this season that the showrunners actually approached James Gandolfini for the role of Nucky. It seems he actually looks a lot like the real guy. As much as I loved Gandolfini, I think they made the absolute best choice in the end. Considering both shows are on HBO and there’s a bit of commonality in the roles, it would have been harder for an audience to separate the two roles. The end result would have been a weaker Boardwalk Empire. And sadly, the show would not have been able to run this long because of the untimely passing of the Sopranos star.
The supporting cast of characters and actors is also quite good. Michael Stephen Graham does a good job of hiding his British accent to give us a very young Al Capone. This is before the days that Capone built his own empire. He’s an up-and-comer without as much of the ego and self-confidence he would one day find. A gem not included in the HBO press is Greg Antonacci as the Chicago crime boss Johnny Torrio. It’s a pretty sweet part, and he eats it up. This is one scary gangster. It’s all in the eyes, and that’s where the best actors make the magic happen. Finally, there’s Jack Huston, who plays the disfigured army vet who joins the organization as an enforcer. This guy never says a lot, and half his face is covered, so it’s hard for him to emote just properly. Still, I think he’s the scariest guy in the show. Very clever acting, to be sure.
The series does have some wonderful sets. The Boardwalk set is absolutely stellar and just as much a character on the show as any of the supporting cast. The level of detail here is truly outstanding, and it has to be one of the greatest set pieces ever designed for a television show. Combine that with the costumes and cinematography and you have a totally convincing period piece, to be sure. If you want to be completely and utterly whisked away to another time and place, this is the show you’ve been waiting for. I don’t think a single detail was left to chance. Scorsese left a solid template for the other directors to follow and set a standard I hope the series continues to honor.
When I was growing up, my grandparents took me to Atlantic City about once every summer. I remember the boardwalk and the piers. I saw the horse jumping from the Steel Pier and rode many of the attractions on the boardwalk. That was the 1960’s and 1970’s, so it wasn’t quite the same era at all. But there’s something about the essence of pre-casino Atlantic City that is captured here. The series is authentic if anything. They play a little bit with the timing of certain events and trivial pop references, but the show pulls you into a certain time and place. And isn’t that always just great fun?
Each is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The series is quite dark most of the time. Even the brighter exteriors on the boardwalk during the day are somewhat darker than you would expect. It’s a fine style point, and fortunately we get excellent black levels that allow the viewer to appreciate the subtle cinematography here. The high-definition image presentation is always flawless. Colors, while muted, put us firmly in the period. The detail might as well be considered bragging, because it highlights the incredible care of the production design. This is one of the last television shows to use actual film. It shows with a warmth and organic nature that only enhances the atmosphere.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is pretty much what you would expect. There are moments where the action brings out an aggressive burst from the presentation. Mostly, however, it’s the dialog, and it works just fine here.
Advanced Viewing Modes allow you to pull up certain points of information and features during each episode.
There are Audio Commentary tracks on select episodes.
Season 3 Revisited: (14:23) A recap of the previous season.
Paleyfest – Made In New York – Boardwalk Empire Panel: (26:08) The panel was part of a Paleyfest screening of episode 5 on 10/6/13. It was streamed on the net about 90 minutes before the episode premiered on HBO. No spoilers here, just some general conversations with some cast and crew.
New Characters: (5:55) A brief profile of the season’s new faces.
Scouting The Boardwalk: (23:10) Location managers Audra Gorman and Amanda Foley talk about episode-specific locations. There is one for each episode or a play-all option.
The Onyx Club – A Step Back In Time: (9:12) This feature looks at the elaborate new set and discusses the nightlife and music of the time.
Becoming Harrow: (7:40) A well-deserved profile on Hack Huston and the strong character he plays here. It’s rather strange hearing him use his own natural voice.
This season is a bit of a slow burn. It’s hard to amp up the action after last season, and so no one tried. Instead you get plenty of strong character moments and a build toward another blowout. Much of the promise here will pay off in the next season. Myself, I can’t wait. The show continues to grow as does the audience. It will continue that way so long as “they’re paying cash money out there”.