Knots Untie and Tie Again in ‘Boardwalk Empire: Season Four’

If previous seasons gave us glimpses of the evil that men do, then this penultimate season of HBO's best current series gives us an extreme closeup.

Boardwalk Empire‘s penultimate season is as ceaselessly interesting as its first. The HBO drama has become synonymous with fine writing and acting. That should be no surprise given Steve Buscemi’s placement as lead character Nucky Thompson. Meanwhile, the supporting cast isn’t just rich; it’s always improving. Gretchen Mol, who has long shown promise but seemed incapable of landing a role that matched her talents completely has found that role on this show as Gillian Darmody. Shea Whigham is once more pitch perfect as Eli Thompson (Nucky’s family man brother), Jack Huston finds all the layers of wounded warrior Richard Harrow, and Stephen Graham gives one of the most nuanced portrayals of Al Capone yet to hit the screen. Michael Shannon is back too, and it’s impossible to tear away from Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky White) this season.

The fourth go-round is largely about truth, it seems, though not always about who’s being truthful. This storyline involves lies and deception that goes to such lengths that Boardwalk Empire could have devolved into a squawking melodrama. Fortunately, it’s a credit to the fine writing, acting, and direction that it doesn’t. For as much emphasis as there is placed on deceit, there are also questions—as there have been all along—about identity, one of the themes that marks the HBO hit as a tragedy. Michael Shannon’s George Mueller has been living with that false identity for some time now, and we know that it’s just a matter of time before he cracks; there are questions about who acts like more of a father to Willie Thompson—Eli or Uncle Nucky. (Guess where that burden lands.) Richard Harrow’s facial disfigurement has been a constant reminder of duality as a motif in this series and its plays just as large a role in this group of episodes as it has in the past.

But two new characters emerge to challenge virtually everything we’ve known about the nature of good and evil. Jeffrey Wright emerges as the most evil Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a man whose schemes for bringing down the very people he espouses deep affection for are so twisted that one often stops just short of proclaiming the bad doctor’s sinister nature aloud. Wright’s performance allows us to see how Narcisse can conceal his contempt for mankind at moments and how, more often, it bubbles dangerously close to the surface.

Brian Geraghty brings an equal amount of wickedness to Atlantic City as Agent Warren Knox/James “Jim” Tolliver, a character whose young, nondescript face belies the absolute wickedness in his heart. His aw-shucksy demeanor only lasts a few moments before viewers get a full glance at what makes him the second most dangerous man on this series. The darkness of his heart casts a shadow over the Thompson family that lifts only in this season’s final moments, just as other knots are being closed and others are being untied.

And, yes, of course, the storyline this time out is as interesting as ever, but what to say about it without giving away the very core of what unfolds before our eyes? Let’s just say that the Chicago and Atlantic City arms of organized crime are about to link up with another limb in Florida. Let’s just say that it’s not all about running booze anymore and that now that Chalky’s got a place on the boardwalk, he has more than ever to lose. There’s as much murder and mayhem as in the past, though it seems the sex is toned down from previous seasons. What has also been heightened is the presence of African-American characters this season. This could not have come a moment too soon, as it’s added numerous dimensions to the plot.

All the twists and turns that we’ve come to expect from Boardwalk are here, and it’s with a tinge of sadness that we now know we’ll soon be saying goodbye to a show that’s brightened the roster of cable dramas these last few years. And maybe that’s the thing to focus on—what we’ve been given rather than what’s being taken away.

Of all cable shows Boardwalk has given us some of the most gorgeous DVD packaging and best extras. HBO’s Season 4 release is no exception with featurettes, commentary tracks, a Season Three recap, and more.

RATING 8 / 10