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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.


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 10/26/2014

Season 5 : Episode 8

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Does Gillian know that Nucky was behind Jimmy's death? I can't remember
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Where did this article come from? It never posted on the main page. if it did, I didnt see it.
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This was a great write up. Since the beginning one of Boardwalk's strengths has been the strength of its supporting cast, quite clearly highlighted here. But even as many of these players have taken the spotlight this season, the show has not neglected that idea. Jeffrey Wright as Dr Narcisse, and Margot Bingham as Daughter Maitland in particular for me have breathed new life in to the show (see what I did there?) I am glued to every moment they are on screen.

It's interesting though what might have happened if Kelly MacDonald (Margaret) didn't fall pregnant and had been available for the season's entirety. Less screen time for the others as a start, and whilst I really enjoy her character but I know many loathe her. Sometimes a little bit of luck is also needed in the process!
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I envy the people who will find this show after its conclusion, who will be able to watch Boardwalk Empire in its entirety over a span of days or weeks. I think that is only the way to fully appreciate its brilliance.
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Been a loyal fan since the beginning, and I agree with pretty much everything Cory says on this one -- this season has been tops, and the latest episodes the best!
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Thanks Cory, really glad you are writing about BE again ! I thought you were on holiday since there was no write up on The Tomorrow People this week. Hope we will have one next week.

You have summarized this season and the character development quite well. It is an excellent season. All those viewers who stopped watching after Jimmy's death so really come back.

Even as I dislike Gillian as much as the other viewers, I finally got a back story about her narrated by herself which is really great.

Looking forward to what little is left of the season.
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I've always loved Chalky; I'm so glad his part got bigger this season. I've always wondered if Richard's story (love this character too) would somehow connect more with Nucky's - I have the impression that he knew Nucky was behind Jimmy's disappearance. Let's see how it's going to play out. Great show!
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He knew and at the end of season 2, the writers had Richard saying "he knows the reason why Nucky did was business and not personal" so he did not take revenge. I personally found it quite lame. He killed the other guy who killed Jimmy's wife.
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Na. His words to Nucky, early in s03 was that "Jimmy was a soldier. He fought - he lost." It was a war that he didn't take personally, something Harrow understands.

Angela on the other hand was an innocent, killed by Horvitz for reasons unknown to Harrow, though we the viewer know he was after Jimmy that night. I fully accepted that
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I do not remember the exact words but the reason was what you stated, its business not personal but I for one do not really agree with it.
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Each to his own I guess! I've also just remebered - it was in the same scene where he had Doyle at gunpoint (hilarious.) But in the same scene where he said Jimmy was a soldier, he also acknowledged that the Thompson's were good to him in the past. That would definitely have played a role in his decision
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Oh, I completely forgot about that. Thanks for reminding me! Too much TV, I guess!
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I think Richard always felt that Manny had needlessly and despicably murdered Angela when he didn't have to. She was an innocent mother who was kind to Richard. Jimmy on the other hand was a man who was well aware of his choices, and Richard knew what Jimmy's actions would eventually lead to. When Jimmy said goodbye to his son, Richard knew Jimmy was saying goodbye to them. Seemed like one of those "a man must walk his own path and face his own destiny" kind of moments.
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Yeah, Richard told Nucky he killed Manny to avenge Angela. He said Jimmy was a solider; he fought and he lost. Richard assured Nucky he would inflict no harm on Nucky and his family.
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I guess in that sense Richard's decision not to exact revenge on Nucky makes sense, but I really always thought the writers would set up Gillian to find out and try to avenge Jimmy's death.
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I think the quality of season 4 of Boardwalk Empire has a lot to do with the addition of Dennis Lehane as executive producer. I have read all of Lehane's novels. This is the man that gave us "Gone Baby, Gone", "Mystic River", and "Shutter Island". If you are familiar with his work, you will know that story and character development are paramount to the success of his works. His influence on season 4's story arc is very apparent. He also contributed to several seasons of "The Wire", collaborating with David Simon.

In addition, the production values of this show are outstanding. The recreation of this era in American history is amazing. The sets, the costumes, the language, the music and the mood setting is first rate. The attention to detail is impeccable. Each episode of Empire is like a little weekly movie.

As for the characters, where do I start? I love (or hate) all the characters but my favourites are portrayed by Shea Whigham, Stephen Graham, Michael Shannon, Jack Huston and Michael Stuhlbarg. Also, honourable mention to Paul Sparks, hee-hee-hee!

I started watching Boardwalk Empire after Season 1 and now I don't miss it. It has the second best theme song on TV (Hawaii Five-O is the best, that drum roll, baby!) Its consistent quality makes it must see TV (don't sue me, NBC).
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That's an excellent point about each episode being like a "little weekly movie". They are more self-contained than a lot of other shows, even great quality shows like Breaking Bad, usually end on cliff-hangers to draw you back. I'm not saying BWE doesn't make me want to come back to know how the overalll stories are panning out, but the stories feel more complete somehow.
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The continuity and completeness of the story telling is rock solid. It would be interesting to find out if the characters are created and then a story is written for them or vice versa. Wouldn't it be amazing to sit down with Martin Scorsese and Terrence Winter and talk about the creative process?
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Yes, it would. I'm always fascinated by shows like this, or The Wire or The Sopranos, which are obviously written and designed by teams the same as any formulaic cop show on TV, yet maintain a singular style and vision.
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Didn't know about Lehane's addition to the show, I haven't read any of his work, but I have a copy of Shutter Island on my bookshelf.
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It is a fantastic book. It was made into a movie starring Leo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese. Wouldn't be surprised if that's how Mr. Lehane got involved with Boardwalk Empire.
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Lovin some Allison Dubois finally kicking some ass!
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This has been a superb season. This is the type of season that normally gets a veteran show some notice but all anyone writes about are the just plain garbage at this point 'Homeland' and the when are they going to realize zombie stories that go on forever get old 'Walking Dead'. (This site still gives 'Revenge' a review column as well - every 9pm show but the best one this year) Whereas 'Walking Dead' just keeps slugging around as usual in its nihilistic setting waiting for everyone to die -that is boring - 'Boardwalk' has found its footing by just adding a couple of veteran actors in two great roles and giving its really phenomenal cast breathing room and a lot of great stories all different but all working. You didn't even touch on the coming down from his perch of Arnold Rothstein and the completely balls move by Meyer Lansky and Luciano - thankfully out of Gillian's story Jeffrey Wright and Patricia Arquette have been awesome as Narcisse and Sally and Knox is also a great character unlike every most Feds this show has presented us with (he may have a little Van Alden in him. This guy doesn't have his hand out to anybody. Anxious to see where these stories are going. And they finally found a good footing for Gillian's story as well. You can hate the character, but when the material is there Gretchen Mol is a great actress. Still betting on Eli's jerk of a son finding out about his father and Knox. Let's see where it goes.
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I thought the last episode of TWD was really strong though.. character-wise..
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loved the write up! :D glad I stuck around with Boardwalk Empire too, at this point viewers are just too invested with the characters to not keep watching! Also keen to see how Lansky's storyline plays out, progression from AR's right hand man to a major player in his own right
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Agree with all the points made. BE does it to us every year. Builds and builds and then rewards us with mountains of gold. Looking forward to Capone and Van Alden, Richard and Knucky, Narcisse and his drug Empire, all deal with their 'problems'.
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I'm glad I didn't run out angry after they killed Jimmy in season 2. The show was worth sticking around for, my Sunday is gonna be loaded with sooooo many great shows including this one.
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Definitely Boardwalk's strongest season. Seeing characters like Chalky, Van Alden, and Capone finally get their chance to be in the spotlight has been terrific. The acting has always been top-notch and it feels like the overall stories for this year will hit that same level.
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Excellent article. I caught up on Boardwalk Empire this season, and it's a very good show. It can be slow moving at times, and individual stories like Van Alden's can be very isolated, but those are very compelling. Not only that, most things end up tying together at the end of the season, and that's something I don't see shows with large ensembles do very often. I agree with you about the big 4 (White, Capone, Van Alden, and Harrow) getting great treatment this year. I have a bad feeling we will be losing a few favorites this year, but I admire the show for not being afraid to kill of characters, like they did with Jimmy. I think it's the best show on tv on the moment. It's certainly way above Homeland and Sons of Anarchy.
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Glad to see you still giving Boardwalk a shout out, Cory!

I agree with you on some points, but feel differently about others. The show has definitely been able to utilise Chicago this season, and yes, they no longer feel like a wild detour as compared to previous seasons. I think this is mainly because though, like you said in your other point, that Al Capone and Van Alden are finally receiving substantial storylines. It would have been hard to make Chicago anything more than a wild detour from the show as a whole if he only received sub-plots from these characters as we have in previous seasons. But their stories and therefore their characters have been given more screen time, and the show has definitely benefited from it.

As for Chalky, I don't seem to find him anywhere near as compelling as everyone else does, but watching him play of Narcisse has been exciting nonetheless. I didn't really care for Richard's return home earlier in the season, despite its significance, but he's back in Atlantic City now, and probably working for Nucky, so hopefully things pick up for him storyline wise. I'm one of those people who dislikes Gillian, purely because I felt her character has been wasted since Jimmy's death - the writers just don't know what to do with her (I was always hoping she's try to exact Revenge on Nucky, but that never really panned out). As for her being 'the foil to Julia's attempts to keep Tommy', I would love to watch the wily Gillian try to scheme and manipulate to keep Tommy, but she's too busy being a self-loathing drug addict this season, which has been boring to watch.

I think you mentioned a while back, perhaps towards the end of your Season 3 reviews on how you felt Nucky was a really stagnant character. And while I'm sure I wholeheartedly disagreed with you on that back then, I can definitely see where you were coming from now. While his storyline has been reasonably compelling this season (his business deals with Florida, and Eddie's death), I can't help but feel more and more that his character is eternally perplexed, and all the plots seem to happen around him, but he is very ineffectual in their development himself. Perhaps that is what you mean when you say that Nucky is at the center of the story, but he isn't the center of the story. Maybe I'm just complying to conventional television storytelling, but I really expect more from a main character (I know Boardwalk's an ensemble show, but you can't help but pick out a main charcter in any show) than the amount of indecision that Nucky has shown over the course of this season. He's always um-ing and ah-ing about what he should do, and for me it's become tiresome to watch. The whole Willie plot does not help, I think he significantly dragged down Nucky for majority of this season. I do agree that 'his relationship with Sally has been really, really fun', but how could you not expect that from a love story involving Steve Buscemi? Shame on you Cory!
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Best show on TV right now. Would love to see more write-ups. Thanks!
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This show is so underrated. It is just as brilliance as any other great show. When all the characters tie up together (usually at the end of the season) the show is as gut-punching and action packed as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
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