It’s probably not fair to contrast any show on the air, right now, with Breaking Bad. But plenty of us are thinking a good bit about that other show right now anyway — and since being fair is not our main job when watching or talking about TV, let’s do a little compare and contrast anyway. Boardwalk Empire can be just as elaborately plotted (lots of stuff is always happening), though its symphony of whirligig action only very rarely feels as well executed as the one unfolding over on Vince Gilligan’s show. The surprise transitions on Boardwalk carry a jolt, for sure, but they also tend to lurch us forward with an awkward hitch.
Which is why, here at the beginning of the fourth season, we’re watching with a memory of the emergency-evacuation alarm that got pulled toward the end of last season. Some of the characters even seem to be operating with the same awareness that it doesn’t pay to over-remember recent history. Early on in this episode, which goes by the title “New York Sour,” Nucky Thompson short-circuits a bygones-aren’t-quite-bygones-yet verbal squabble between his crew, and those belonging to Arnold Rothstein and Joe Masseria, by tossing a bag of money at New York mob boss Masseria and saying, more or less: “Is that enough to make you all forget a lot of season three?”
Masseria looks soulfully at the money and clicks his fingers at Lucky Luciano — now stationed reliably at the elder Italian’s side — and they leave, with but a word of pro forma pleasantry for Luciano’s ex-boss Arnold Rothstein (really overdoing it with the face powder, here in early 1924), and some general seething in the direction of Meyer Lansky. Rothstein lingers a bit, the better to quote a line of Blaise Pascal’s before shuffling off to try a wager of his own at one of Nucky’s tables. (This, along with a sideline reference to Fletcher Henderson by Chalky, duly fulfills the highfalutin cultural-reference-of-the-week quota for Boardwalk.)
Now Nucky can eat a steak in Manhattan without having to peer over his shoulder. But even better, we apparently no longer have to care (at least for the time being) about all of that complicated Nucky-Rothstein sparring, or how many men Masseria lost, which was really more Richard Harrow’s doing than the Thompson Brothers’ (not that anyone besides them knows that). Anyway, sure: A bag of amnesia-promoting money will do just fine to get the narrative engine going on a different track, now.
And yet, I doubt it’s any accident that this was the third major scene of the opening episode — or that the writers decided to lead us into the fourth season by way of two characters audiences have typically responded to more emotionally than they have to any version of Nucky (the presumable protagonist), let alone Eli, Rothstein, Lucky, Meyer, or Masseria. That characters I’m talking about, naturally, are Richard Harrow and Chalky White.
In this fourth season opener, Harrow is on a merciless campaign to murder … a bunch of randos working for the Old Mission Title and Insurance Company. Is it a job? Did someone neglect to pay out for old Harrow pal Jimmy Darmody’s death? His victims — including a couple of hapless no-name toughs we meet in the first scene of the season, on a wintry night approximately five hour drive from Columbus, Ohio — have no idea what point their murders are in the service of. Nor do we. This seems a continuation of the grand guignol Taxi Driver–quoting splatter-blood tracking shot in last season’s finale. Was the company supposed to provide for Lil’ Foundling Darmody’s future, and they shirked their life-insurance responsibilities? Or is this a job Harrow is doing for someone else? Maybe we’ll find out later. But for now, we’re a little like the middle-man Old Mission executive whom Harrow shoots, unaccountably, through both cheeks (instead of through the head), and who lingers about long enough to ask — still making an adult’s amount of sense — “Why?” (The episode closes with Harrow approaching a remote, snow-capped house that we’re geared to think of as the next stop on his revenge-a-thon, though it winds up being the residence of his gun-toting sister.)
Thankfully, the time we spend with Chalky starts to pay immediate dividends in this season. His operation of the Onyx club, with Nucky as a silent (though highly visible) partner, is a good way to bring the show’s protagonist into a zone that feels alive and interesting and all that good narrative stuff. Chalky’s first scene is a great one: Seated at a table, he is assessing the worthiness of a pair of tap-dancing nightlife-scene aspirants. Dickey, the white talent manager who has brought the tap dancers to the Onyx for a tryout, may be a slimy sort. (And does he seem to enjoy pantomiming the “patter” required for a popular African-American stage act of his day a little too much, perhaps?) Chalky, never not sharp, seems to register all of this right away — but still, he likes being in business, running a club, being in charge. It’s hard not to feel happy for him, too.
But then Dickey’s wife starts flirting with Chalky’s lieutenant, Dunn Purnsley, and we can hear the train bearing down from a decent distance (even if we can’t see how it’ll strike just yet). The wife seems to make a sport of taunting her husband while talking to Dunn: Does he mind terribly if she asks the black gentleman to refresh her drink? “If you’re thirsty, you’re thirsty,” he says, affecting an expansive world sagacity. Purnsley offers that he’s not sure what the lady had been imbibing, and she chides him for not paying attention — it’s flirtatious on first reading, but based on what comes later, it’s hard not to see this as the beginning of the white couple’s abuse of poor Dunn. Dickey gives the episode title as an answer — “New York sour” — and Purnsley smiles to the effect that he’ll bring her back “the Jersey version.”
Upon his return — and with Dickey and Chalky still doing their own club-owner/act-manager patter — the wife signals to Dunn to look in his right front pocket. In doing so, he discovers a pornographic drawing of such little imagination that any recipient would just have to suspect the artist’s principal gifts resided in activities other than pen-and-ink rendering. (It’s at this juncture that we cut to Nucky for the first time in the episode. He’s stashed in the shadows of a second-floor balcony-box-style room above the main floor in front of the stage. This is where he starts to get dressed, by reliable old Eddie, for the meeting with Masseria, et al. But we’ve already covered that, and we’re in the middle of talking about the most interesting arc of the episode, so back to that … )
Dickey’s wife makes noises, at the table, about not wanting to soldier on to Trenton and getting a good hotel in Atlantic City. Later in the episode, she’s in a hotel — but not an especially good one, by her lights (“it’s disgusting”). But at least she’s with Dunn. And boom, they get the pre-main-event patter out of the way, and they’re having sex more or less like the way she sketched it out on the Onyx club napkin. We have a couple of strangely remote shots from outside a little door, that appears to lead off into a hallway (cheap hotels, always with the extra doors and unused space!), and that seems a bit strange until …
Whoa, Husband Dickey announces his presence. He effectively comes out of nowhere, to be seated on a chair not three feet from the bed where Dunn and his wife are at it. (Did you rewind your DVR to try to figure out how he got in the room, and so close, unnoticed by at least Dunn? Yeah, I rewound, too. I saw what looked like an unoccupied chair in one of the wide shots from the “other room,” so I guess Dickey just sort of sidled up to them during one of the erotic close-ups? Anyway, it happened.)
Dunn’s surprised, curses, goes to put on his pants, the better to get into damage control mode. But Dickey seems pretty cool, for all this. And in no hurry for Dunn to put on his pants. When Purnsley tries to “reason” his way out of this jam and calls the talent agent by his first name, this is the short monologue he receives in turn:
“We’re not on a first name basis. We’re not friends. You’re fucking my wife. And you interrupt. And you know I go around and I spend a lot of time with all-a-you. Do business. Eat your food, put money in your pockets. And I love the music, I really do. But in the end, you know what always happens: you act like the fucking n—— that you are. Huh. Isn’t that right?”
He presses the gun to Purnsley’s head, compelling him to go along with the racist script in his head. Dunn starts to call Dickey “boss,” the way he knows he has to. But then, in a move that clearly surprised Purnsley, he’s directed to continue having sex with the man’s wife, while Dickey watches.
“It’s just some fun,” she says, confirming her knowledge of the project from the beginning. Dickey makes a few more racist remarks — but it’s when he says “there’s no changing you people, is there” while masturbating to the image in front of him that Dunn takes a bottle, breaks it over Dickey’s head, and then uses the business end to slash and stab at the racist’s throat until he is more than dead. It’s the kind of explosive TV-MA thing that Boardwalk Empire does to show that it’s edgy — but unlike some of the kinky-weird Gyp Rosetti stuff from last season, this violent outburst feels important. (This arc also teases out the implications of justly righteous revenge, and its immediate consequences, more meaningfully than Django Unchained, and in considerably less time.) Let’s also tip our hat to actor Erik LaRay Harvey, playing Dunn, for the way he brings across a great number of moods (arousal, confusion, deal-making, resignation, uncontrollable rage) in a pretty short but very complex scene.
When he gets to the scene of Dickey’s murder, Chalky is understandably upset. This threatens his whole operation — the New York connections cannot be allowed to go sour — and Nucky’s as well. Chalky starts derisively referring to Dunn as a “Sweetback” — and even taunts him with this as Dunn disposes of Dickey’s body in a swamp (with Chalky and Eli looking on). Chalky has no time for solidarity against racists; he needs to make clear to Dunn that protecting the business is more important than honor (though he will remind Nucky that Dunn had his back at the end of last season, in private). Oh yeah, and they need to locate Dickey’s wife, who escaped out the window while Dunn was over-killing her husband.
Interestingly, the show does not let its critique of racism go cold in this episode, once Dickey is dispensed with. Soon after, we are invited to enjoy a performance by the dance troupe at Chalky’s club, in the form of a jazz-age (and presumably period-accurate) dance that a new blonde character vying for Nucky’s affections insultingly describes as “deliciously primitive.” This implicates casual viewers of Boardwalk Empire in an interesting way — one that is unfortunately sort of sidelined by Nucky’s eventual bedding of the boring new blonde, who speaks almost exclusively in cliché.
Other similarly less interesting plot strands of this episode include: Eli’s boy being bored of college life, and wanting into the business; Gillian’s custody hearing over Junior Darmody; subsequent revelations that she’s selling herself to pay the bills (and is taking heroin both by needle and by nose). Slightly more interesting is how Agent Sawicki — raise your hand if you care about him? — dies at the hands of a new, goody-two-shoes-seeming Prohibition agent named Knox. He seems a wide-eyed sort, but is actually only playing at being hayseed. After learning that a local crook has shotgun-booby-trapped his backdoor, Knox plays blind and lets Sawicki open the door, and thus take the gunshot. (Now there’s a new crooked federal officer on the beat!)
Also: In Illinois, Al Capone has brought his brothers out to help him yell at the prostitutes he is running for Torrio. (Oh, you scamp, Al! Slapping a woman’s ass, and telling her to get to work! So charming!) The newspaper spells his name wrong, and Al goes over to give an intimidating copy-desk note. If this still feels a bit why-are-we-here? in nature (especially when the Dunn story seems so interesting over in Atlantic City), there is at least not that much of this, in this episode. But the show is still going to have to make room for some non-Jersey elements, like Agent Van Alden (unseen in this episode), so who knows what the story-unity will feel like when all the season’s characters are engaged. But even if it’s not as perfectly smooth-at-every-moment (the way another certain show wrapping up this month can feel), it’s good to have the chaotic, occasionally profound Boardwalk Empire back on the scene. As a cold-bitten realist like Chalky might say to Dunn (or anyone else who asked): Perfection is sometimes impossible, and maybe overrated, too.
NEXT WEEK ON BOARDWALK: Jeffrey Wright’s character debuts. Let’s be excited for that.