Photos: HBO

The Man Show

Assessing Boardwalk Empire's oddly shaped, lady-free fourth season.

Going into the finale of Boardwalk Empire, I was certain of three things:

  • Nucky would kill Eli
  • Chalky would kill Dr. Narcisse
  • Boardwalk would kill my favorite characters, Chalky and Richard

The only safe bet with Boardwalk, of course, was #3, partially: Richard Harrow, shot by a random, bleeds out under the boardwalk.

Boardwalk EmpireBut this was inevitable, spelled out as it was by his sister basically telling him back in the third episode, "You will DIE, Richard, if you pick up a gun again. D-I-E. Now help me bury this fella I just gut-shot for you." It was also spelled out long ago by the S2 murder of Jimmy Darmody, where Boardwalk Empire clued us in on what kind of show it really was: the kind of show that has no problem killing off key, beloved characters.

But if Season 4 of Boardwalk harks back to an earlier version of the show, it's probably Season 1. Both of these took their sweet damn time in assembling storylines, both had an odd shape, and neither seemed to know what to do with Nucky Thompson.

The latter is okay, because Boardwalk Empire has never been about one person. If they redid the opening credits (please?), it'd do wonders for perceptions of the show. Boardwalk has vastly more in common with Game Of Thrones than with its direct ancestor (and creator Terence Winter's former home), The Sopranos. Both GOT and Boardwalk are about kings in isolated kingdoms, looking to rule the world. Both feature tons of female nudity, and both love scenes where one character tells a long, ultimately revealing or prophetic story to another. And like GOT, Boardwalk improved massively when it started injecting its characters into other characters' kingdoms. Seasons 2 and 3 were flat-out great.

But there was something about S4 that never took hold. The show had cleared a lot of decks in the S3 finale — Rosetti was dead, Nucky's hotel and love interest were blown up, Margaret fled with the kids, Gillian was injected with a seemingly fatal dose of heroin, Richard delivered Tommy to safety. This left a wide-open field for the show in S4, and even with a pretty satisfying final two episodes (a Boardwalk specialty), I wonder if it wasn't too wide, too open.

Boardwalk EmpireIn all of S4, the Chicago storyline was the most coherent and the most engaging, and that's a problem: in a show called Boardwalk Empire, I shouldn't want to spend all my time in Chicago and Cicero. To quote the great Fabio Viviani, "This is Top Chef, not Top Scallops." But while giving Chalky a main storyline was long overdue, Dr. Narcisse never felt like a person with a real agenda or a burning interest, just someone who was brought in to clash with Chalky and mess with his well-ordered life. He's a collection of contradictions, not to mention some great habits of speech, but that's not a character. And Jeffrey Wright is an actor who can play anything, but I don't know that I was happy to see Narcisse survive the season.

Here are the other storylines that dominated:

Boardwalk EmpireWillie Thompson, Student: Willie's story is where I'm torn over Boardwalk's glacial-in-the-first-half/rocketing-in-the-second approach to its seasons. On one hand, it was hard not to think, during the first half of the season, "Where is this going?" On the other, when it's finally out in the open about Nucky helping Willie with his college homework (evading a murder charge) and Eli says, "So you go to him? Over your father?" it's perfect and heartbreaking. But that doesn't erase the fact that Willie's early scenes this season felt like they were treading water.

Boardwalk EmpireRoy Phillips Is The Worst Detective: Maybe not the worst — he did catch his suspect! — but definitely least efficient. Roy spent approximately 7,000 hours cultivating a relationship with Gillian Darmody, including faking a murder, just to get her to confess to killing and cremating Jimmy's body double. That's a lot of trouble, considering when he met her she was smacked-out and thus 200% more likely to casually give up that information in the first minute. Was this the Pinkerton way? Hardly seems cost-effective.

Boardwalk EmpireVan Mueller Is A Man, Dammit!: George Mueller used to be Nelson Van Alden, federal agent. Now he snorts blow with mobsters, kills three of his former co-workers in a back alley, and nearly changes the course of history by pointing his gun at a scurrying Al Capone in the middle of a riot. But at home he's still the henpecked husband of a dissatisfied Swedish wife who won't stop ordering new furniture for the house he's hand-built from a kit! Then his boss is killed and Mueller becomes something new: Van Mueller. Van Mueller comes home to show his wife who's boss and, presumably, slap her around with his penis. Seriously: the Muellers-at-home storyline seemed written for the enjoyment of Danny Aiello's character in Moonstruck: "A man who can't control his woman…is funny!" On the other hand, Van Mueller is now fully in with the Capones. How can that be anything but great?

Boardwalk EmpireAgent Knox Is A Man, Dammit!: Agent Knox is convinced that there's such a thing as "organized crime," and he's willing to kill another lawman in order to get himself inside and prove it. Knox felt like he was supposed to be the Scary Wild Card this season, someone to replace Gyp Rosetti as the Heisenberg Principle in Atlantic City, but while he sure put Eddie and Eli in some tough positions, there's a big difference between Rosetti's crazy-eyed choke-sex monster and Knox's desire to have his law-school rival J. Edgar Hoover see him as a playa.

Boardwalk EmpireBoardwalk Empire Is A Man, Dammit!: It was worrisome when the season premiere aired and there were only two female names in the front credits. And to be fair, Gillian was in almost every S4 episode. But by season's end, the other Boardwalk Lady, Margaret Schroeder (Thompson), had appeared in only four episodes — one of which was the finale, where she literally just appeared deep in the frame while smiley Uncle Rothstein ushered Peg and her tots into their fancy new apartment building. Which would be no big deal, except here are all the other female storylines for S4:

  • Daughter Maitland goes from putting ointment on Dr. Narcisse's chest to bandaging Chalky's wounds
  • Sally Wheet talks on the phone with Nucky late at night
  • June Thompson can't do anything right
  • Paz de la Huerta's character is still out there, somewhere (this is more implied than anything)

The Takeaway: I am a Boardwalk Empire fan. But having watched four seasons of it now, I think I've hit what keeps me from loving it: it can do what it does in fewer episodes. It's as if twelve is too many, and so you have these looong stretches of setup, longer stretches of waiting-and-seeing, and then a flurry of killer scenes in the final three or four episodes. It may be that this isn't actually a twelve-episode show. Maybe it's more of a ten! There's no shame in that, Boardwalk Empire! It doesn't make you less of a man.

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