In my review of Boardwalk Empire's Season 4 premiere, I talked quite a bit about how this is a show that you have to learn to get comfortable with. It has its own rhythms, it doesn't mind taking its time to build up to sneaky powerful moments, and it doesn't seem interested in over-explaining the relationships between the roughly 291 characters involved in its story. That's just what Boardwalk is, and at this point, it's not going to change—nor should it. But while all that's been just as true this season as it was in Seasons 2 and 3, this year the show has really rewarded the viewers who've stuck it out. Long-running stories and sometimes-sidelined characters are getting their respective time in the spotlight, just as Nucky Thompson—one of the most enigmatic lead characters on all of TV—has found his rightful place as the centerpiece of the story, but note THE central focus.
Chalky, Richard, Van Alden, and Capone FTW
One of the great things about any remotely serialized show is that over time, certain supporting characters get to come to the forefront, and their slow-burning stories suddenly pay off in interesting ways. Boardwalk is exceptional in this regard, both because it has so many supporting characters and because a handful of them have consistently been more interesting—and more beloved by viewers—than some of the show's more prominent characters. In Season 2, Jimmy had quite the arc before he was disposed of in one of the more underrated ballsy moves in recent TV history, but in Season 3, Nucky's actions consumed so much of the narrative that other characters suffered. Owen literally suffered—and then died—in another shocking moment, but his death didn't pack the same emotional wallop as Jimmy's because the show wasn't dedicated to building Owen up as anything other than a romantic foil for Nucky (ZzzZzzzZz).
But this year? Totally different story. If you polled a hundred Boardwalk Empire fans before Season 4 began and asked them to name the show's most interesting/best characters, I'm willing to bet that some Chalky, Richard, Van Alden, and Capone would've been the most popular answers. Those four characters have had good stories through the years, particularly Richard, but so often, the show has teased us with a fascinating Capone or Van Alden arc just to pull back and dedicate more time to Nucky—or worse, Gillian. Thankfully, Chalky, Richard, Van Alden, and Capone have all had substantial stories this season, and the show is much better for it. But it's more than just the fact that Chalky seems like this season's lead character; it's that his consistent place in secondary and tertiary stories in previous seasons is actually making this season's stuff even better. It almost feels like Terence Winter rope-a-doped us a little; right at the moment when the show really had to give these characters more stuff to do, it did.
Of course, Jeffrey Wright has been amazing as Narcisse, but it's been awesome to see Chalky deal with all the challenges that come with getting everything you've ever wanted. The club was a goal of his for a long time, but as these things go, success hasn't brought Chalky a lot peace. The scene earlier in the season where he was walking the club floor and had to let the obnoxious white drunk dude rub his head for 'good luck' was about as humiliating as it gets, and it signaled that all the money, luxury, and women on stage can't really change the views of a majority of Chalky's community. Still, one of the reasons Chalky is such an interesting character is that the show has resisted making him a clear symbol for certain racial issues. Instead, it's positioned him as being not unlike Nucky: He's made the right deals with the right people, and that's given him a modicum of power. Narcisse has complicated that power quite substantially, putting a public face on a more racially based movement while filling the streets with drugs at the same time. And because we've watched Chalky claw and politic his way to where he is now, however wobbly his status might be, the stakes have been pretty clear throughout most of the season. We don't want Chalky to lose his spot. Purnsley's betrayal was a gut-punch because we've watched them grow together—not necessarily as BFFs, but as close associates at least—and Nucky's unwillingness to help deal with Narcisse is grating because we know that Chalky bailed Nuck out when he was in pretty terrible spot last season.
Illinois is no longer just a faraway place
This also the year where the Illinois stories have finally come together. Although they're still a little separated from what's happening in Atlantic City, they no longer feel like a weird detour—they're their own thing. Capone and Van Alden probably had more to do than Chalky in Boardwalk's first three seasons, but their stories in Season 4 have been just as satisfying as Chalky's. Capone unhinged in the aftermath of his brother's death has brought out the violent, angry best in Stephen Graham. Those emotions have bubbled up time and again in previous years, but not to this degree. And speaking of bubbling emotions, Van Alden's explosion in Episode 9, where he finally shed the Mueller persona after being cuckolded and beat down by his former co-workers, was tremendously satisfying. At times during the last few seasons, I've felt like the show had absolutely no idea what to do with the character, but wanted to keep him around solely because when you have Michael Shannon under contract, you use him. Now, though, all those somewhat frustrating stories with Van Alden pushing down his inner Van Alden-ness and pretending to be the goofball Mueller—they almost seem worth it. The cathartic release of snapping back into his true self? The creepiest switch being turned back on. Unsurprisingly, Shannon sold it well. And again, having to wait for the transformation made it all the better. Even if Boardwalk Empire accidentally backed in to some of these wonderful moments these, it doesn't really matter now.
Gillian and Richard are coming into their own
Even two characters who've had quite a bit to do in the past, Gillian and Richard, have benefited from the long-game style of storytelling. I know there are people out there who flat-out hate Gillian and her prominence within the show, and I respect that. She can be a frustrating character—that was especially true in Season 3. Although she's probably worn out her welcome, Boardwalk has used that to its advantage this season. Not only is she the foil to Julia's attempts to keep Tommy, but her story has underscored what happens to people who get chewed up and spit out by the Atlantic City ecosystem. She's trying to claw her way to happiness with Roy, creating this idealistic narrative for herself along the way. But it's garbage. She's a broken-down, drug-addicted woman who can't stop lying to herself. Even in her "honest" moments, she lies. It's bound to come back to bite her in the bottom, but she'll hang around. That's what Gillian does. It's annoying, but it's also kind of powerful. The season has also done a nice job of filling in Richard's family history while still emphasizing that the things that've happened to him make it almost impossible for him to return any prior conceptualization of family. Instead, what Richard has with Julia (and maybe Tommy) is his family. Now he's coming to work for Nucky, reminding us that so much of this story comes back to Nucky. Speaking of which...
Nucky's at the center of the story, but he isn't THE center of the story
Perhaps the big thing that's made Season 4 so great is that Boardwalk Empire has finally figured out how to use its lead character. Nucky has definitely had his share of stuff to do, and a lot of that has been good—his relationship with Sally has been really, really fun, which is not something I'd expect from a love story involving Steve Buscemi. However, Boardwalk has done a phenomenal job of showing Nucky's reach and centrality without actually giving him the majority of the screen time. Nucky helped Chalky get to where he is, and now he isn't willing to help him. Nucky and Gillian are forever intertwined, no matter how little they interact.
Most importantly, this season has just hammered home one primary theme: associating with Nucky Thompson isn't so great for your health. Eddie Kessler's suicide was such a great reward to a super-slow-building story. Eddie never got the recognition and appreciation he deserved, and Nucky thought the answer was just more money. And the relationship between the Thompson brothers has never really recovered from Eli's previous betrayals. To say Eli's feelings toward his brother are complex with be an understatement. He's happy to have a paying gig in the larger organization, but you just see how much Nucky's involvement with Willie fills Eli with rage and jealousy. Once Eli went to jail, he lost his family. He's just now realizing it.
Of course, Eli has a chance if he turns Nucky in to the FBI. That story has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly in how great characters from the past—Gaston Means, Esther Randolph, and Andrew Mellon—have just randomly appeared to remind us that the show hasn't forgotten it threw all these balls in the air. I'm not that interested in another story about J. Edgar Hoover was a D-bag, though, and real-life events notwithstanding, I'm concerned that we'll see Nucky avoid some of the comeuppance he's got coming to him. If this is a season, and really a whole story, about one meek-looking man's sprawling, sometimes indirect power and the consequences of that power, a bunch of hellfire probably needs to rain down. But even if Boardwalk finds a way for Nucky to avoid major consequences, I can't imagine it will fumble the resolutions to Season 4's other big stories. Everything is coming together on Boardwalk Empire and it's awesome.
AIRED ON 10/26/2014
Season 5 : Episode 8