‘Boardwalk Empire’ can eat a bag of dicks
Another season of “Boardwalk Empire” has come and gone, and Jesus Christ, what a wet blanket of a season it was.
The cult HBO Prohibition drama, about which I have gushed, turned around a made a fool of me. From the garbage season premiere it was painfully uneven, with excellent episodes followed by boring ones. Bleak storylines dragged on forever when they could have been wrapped up in a couple episodes. Most of the acting was phoned in and dead flat. The new characters were annoying and empty and the main character did nothing. This was not so much a depiction of the roaring 20s; it was more like the mewing 20s. And then last night it went full on tragedy.
Major spoilers coming up, so be warned, but at this point who cares?
Season four picks up where season three left off. After fighting off the assault from New York, the show’s anti-hero Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) has further isolated himself and sunken deeper into his criminal lifestyle. He has not just pulled himself back from the public glad-handing that accompanied his former political life; he has retreated from the boardwalk itself. The actual boardwalk was barely shown this season, though it finally resurfaced in the heartbreaking ending. When not lurking in the back rooms of Chalky White’s new Onyx Club, Nucky lives in a newly built, empty hotel set about a mile down the beach from the boardwalk.
The Albatross Hotel, aside from the obvious comparisons regarding the name, not only represents Nucky’s void of a personal life, but the cost of doing business with enthusiastic murderers and the need for space away from the outside world. Nucky has the most boring arc of any character all season and wants out of the criminal life. His weariness of the life brings him to Florida, where he considers a retirement, but then he just turns the trip into another business enterprise. His estranged wife, Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) is nearly absent from the season, showing up in just four episodes. Their relationship was the soft heart of the first three seasons and gave the show its more tender moments. Without their chemistry the show limps on without its anchor. Nucky makes a few deals and just mopes around all season. He drinks whiskey and befriends the bloated and boring Floridian, Sally (Patricia Arquette). Seriously, she’s unwatchable.
The passion this season came from Chalky (Michael K Williams), as he falls in love with the honeypot sent to woo him away from his power center by the beautifully bearded and scarily cool Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Geoffrey Wright). Wright is the wildest part of the season and a welcome addition. Narcisse is a dandy chess player whose black liberation ideology somehow goes hand-in-hand with peddling heroin to Harlem and Atlantic City. But even his shtick got old, and he just came off as a creeper after a while.
Gillian befriends the mysterious businessman, Roy, played by Peter Gibbons, I mean Ron Livingston. Anyway, he gets her to kick the smack habit, and as she falls in love with him she reveals more about herself. Finally she delivers the best line of the season (“You can live with anything”), and admits to Roy that she had murdered a dude and made it look like her son had overdosed so she could have full access to his estate. Roy then reveals himself to be a Pinkerton investigator, sent by one of Gillian’s cohorts, who had been trying to coax the confession the whole time. It was one of the most heartbreaking scenes on the season, and it ends with Gillian being hauled off to the slammer.
Gretchen Moll deserves an Emmy. So does Michael K. Williams.
Richard Harrow (Jack Houston), after an interesting but meaningless sojourn to his Midwest homestead, returns to AC and doesn’t really do much of anything this season other than get married and try to go straight. More on that in a minute.
Capone, Luciano and Lansky continue growing into the legendary gangsters they will eventually become. But really, who gives a fuck?
Eli again betrays Nucky, to the Feds this time, kills his righteous and intense Van Alden-esque handler, and is on the run by the end of the season. His son, William, takes a larger role in Nucky’s family business of corruption, and is basically another Jimmy.
Van Alden continues his Chicago reign of bad-assery. He whacks some dudes, blows some coke, drinks some whiskey, goes through a little personal redefinition as a gangster, makes it rain on his own wife before tossing a gun on the bed, and generally just rocks at life and devastates people’s faces.
Is a pattern beginning to emerge here? A bunch of great characters are caught in a holding pattern and the show is starting to repeat itself. The old characters are doing the same shit and the new characters suck. Which means that third season, which I raved about, was the peak. The show is on the downswing. Like Big Love and the final season of The Wire, it’s now clear that it will not end at the top of its game. It’s sad to watch a good show go downhill. But that’s what this season was. One long torturous, downhill, slowass roll. It can’t be fixed or rehabilitated. The magic is gone. It’s over.
There were some great moments this season that were both historical recreations and total fiction. From J. Edgar Hoover’s first appearance to his final deal with Narcisse, to black jazz, to the April 1st Chicago electioneering mess and Capone’s ascendance, to Gillian’s meltdown and Chalky’s tragic arc. Visually, the show had never looked better. It was truly gorgeous. The Wisconsin bookends at either end of the season were beautiful and appreciated. The staging, lighting, and blocking were perfect.
It’s a just a shame that the story didn’t match the picture. The show didn’t seem to have the same sense of humor. Even the funniest character, Eddie, committed suicide. The comic relief literally committed fucking suicide. There was, just as Nucky says to Gaston Means(Stephen Root), a “vague, uneasy feeling” pervading the season. It was more slowly paced, contemplative, and noir-ish, than any season before it. If there was any deliberate pacing, it never developed momentum. It just wearily plodded along and seemed to be both the aftermath of season three and a sickly sad addendum.
And then the finale. The fucking finale. Richard had made a deal with Nucky to snipe Narcisse from across the club during a meeting with Chalky and ended up hitting Chalky’s daughter who Narcisse had taken hostage, killing her in front of her father. It was cheap, sloppy and beneath “Boardwalk” to have such a crass inclusion. It was like something out of a 90s Fox drama. Narcisse’s gang opens fire and Richard is gutshot. He limps away under the boardwalk. Later, after the world’s saddest music montage, the audience is teased with a shot of Richard riding the train to be reunited with his wife and adopted son, Tommy, at the old Wisconsin home to which he has sent them, then a shot of him walking along the train tracks, and then him arriving at the house, his face fully restored and his loving family waiting for him. In reality, he never made it out from under the boardwalk. He dies as the sun rises and the tide rolls in.
I know that I’ve said that killing popular characters serves the story rather than the character, and that it’s needed for good drama, but this was different. Richard could have just as easily rode off into the sunset and it would have served the show just fine. This was unnecessary. This wasn’t Stringer Bell or Jimmy. This was worse. It was a cruel end to an especially sadistic season.
I know a lot of people say this, but to end an already weak and sloppy season with this kind of slap in the face, after four years of watching one the most compelling and beloved characters ever on television, and to dispatch him in such a lazy, careless way is too much for a fan to bear, and I won’t be watching next year. I’m done. Eddie’s death was hard to take but Richard’s is unforgivable. In such a dark season, shouldn’t one character have a redemptive, happy ending? Didn’t the damaged, scrapbooking, former soldier turned hitman with a heart of gold deserve that? How do you not kill off Eli or Narcisse or Doyle but whack Richard? Why not just kill Van Alden and leave nothing but a bunch of unpleasant, criminal bores? Why should we care about any character if they’re all in the same danger as Richard? Why watch? The fun is over and the show is broken. There’s nothing left to look forward to.
There’s really only one thing that explains the sudden shift in the tone of the show. Season four of “The Sopranos” filmed in the months after September 11th, and the tonal impact of the attacks had forced an obvious shift in the show’s attitude and style. It got a few shades darker and strengthened the show overall, but it was an abrupt change. Between the third and fourth seasons of “Boardwalk”, Hurricane Sandy struck New York and New Jersey, where most of the cast and crew call home. Sandy’s dark influence is pretty obvious on “Boardwalk”.
Nucky’s hotel, The Albatross, is itself set alone on the beach, away from the boardwalk, like the lone survivor of some great storm. Throughout the season there is the dreadful sense that events are spiraling out of the character’s control and just like the storm rolling in off of the ocean in the opening shot of the finale, something awful was coming. And in the final hour, the show broke its audience’s heart for no reason whatsoever. I know it’s been renewed for a fifth season and there are a lot of loose ends, but I don’t care. Richard and the audience deserved and expected better. Fuck it.