Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season may not be the show’s most exciting, but it is in many ways its best—the one in which the HBO gangster drama finally got comfortable with itself after spending 30-plus episodes swaggering like a little guy in a too-big suit. The big rap against the show (besides complaints about violence and nudity) is that it’s aces at delineating dramatic externals—plots and counterplots, affairs and whackings—but unwilling or unable to explore the inner lives of its characters. At the two-thirds mark in this season, the show is demonstrating all of its well-established virtues and few of its flaws. Boardwalk’s new confidence isn’t because it’s suddenly decided it’s okay with being a shallow potboiler and that, to paraphrase its erstwhile protagonist, gangster-politician Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), it does not want our forgiveness. No, it has somehow found a different, more surprising way into the deep end of the pool, and it’s backstroking in it while a scratchy Victrola plays “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” In the Boardwalk scheme of things, not much has happened, but there’s a laid-back sense of purpose. Almost every scene and subplot is landing elegantly and building toward a climax that looks to be substantial rather than predictably and tediously “explosive.”
Nucky tried to put together a huge real-estate deal down in Florida and fell for tough bar owner Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette). He also tried to shift his dissatisfied valet Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) into courier work, with tragic results: Kessler got nabbed and pressured to flip by the FBI (led by Brian Geraghty’s Agent Warren Knox), then took his own life. Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) fell deep into heroin addiction, stumbled through a pathetic junkie odyssey, and went cold turkey with help from her beau, Piggly Wiggly executive Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston). Nucky’s nephew Willie (Ben Rosenfield) accidentally poisoned a college classmate to death and exposed his uncle to FBI strong-arming.
There have been complaints that Boardwalk hasn’t known what to do with Michael Shannon’s pious, hot-tempered former Treasury agent Van Alden since he drowned a colleague in a river at the end of season one. The show licked the problem this year by turning into the dramatic skid, so to speak, and transforming Van Alden’s Cicero, Illinois–based story line into a perverse sitcom about a henpecked thug who tries to go straight but keeps falling in with violent criminals (including Stephen Graham’s coke-snorting Chicago tommy-gunner Al Capone). Shannon’s ghoulishly constipated double takes are never funnier than when Van Alden is begging others to be reasonable. Incredibly, Boardwalk has somehow folded the Cicero and Chicago material in with the Atlantic City, Harlem, and Florida story lines—a trick worthy of a Damon Runyon cardsharp.
Best of all are the scenes focusing on the class anxieties of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), proprietor of the Onyx Club, a nightspot where black entertainers perform for white patrons. His devious foil, Valentin Narcisse (the incomparable Jeffrey Wright), a power-broker and smack dealer posing as a Marcus Garvey–type back-to-Africa figurehead, is one of Boardwalk’s boldest creations. He’s so attuned to Chalky’s insecurities that you sometimes wonder if he’s a flamboyantly unreal character turned loose in Boardwalk’s “real” world (à la Max Cady in Boardwalk executive producer Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake) or a pure figment of the imagination. Either way, he’s a devil perched on the shoulders of the show’s African-American strivers, whose ranks include Chalky’s brutal right hand Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) and showgirl Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), a light-skinned siren who lures the dark-skinned ex-bumpkin Chalky into a torrid affair.
Earlier seasons suffered from an oppressive too-muchness. Creator Terence Winter and his writing staff kept creating new characters, losing interest in them, and adding still more new characters, and new subplots, and new criminal organizations, and new cities. As the series struggled to keep tabs on everyone and everything, the length of scenes grew shorter, the storytelling more jumbled. Many episodes felt chaotic and overstuffed.
Boardwalk is still an externals-driven show, but now it’s probing psychology more carefully, simply by slowing the pace and clearing the clutter. It seems to have a unifying theme (addiction, whether figurative or literal) but isn’t flogging it too hard, and it doesn’t seem to be knocking itself out to check in with everybody listed in the opening credits. A few characters are clearly the leads this season. Everyone else is a supporting player or an extra, or simply absent—such as Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret Thompson, missing from the first five episodes (Macdonald gave birth in December). The show is fine with that, and its confidence in this regard is so bracing that I don’t mind that certain subplots (Willie’s especially) feel spliced in from a BBC or PBS drama.
The show is also fine with embracing coincidence and treating it as a flourish rather than a crutch. This season, grand-chance meetings between barely related characters have felt less easy and convenient than dramatically right—and cosmically funny. When the strung-out Gillian begs heroin from Dunn, the moment connects her needy emptiness to Chalky’s. Eli realizes that Agent Knox is the one who arrested Kessler and drove him to suicide when Eli breaks down over the prospect of leaving his own son in such a tragic way and Knox gives him one of his own monogrammed handkerchiefs to cry into. The fourth season’s mix of looseness and precision evokes one of its literary ancestors, E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime, as well as the films of coincidence-loving writer-director Robert Altman, who was once set to direct the Ragtime movie. Its fascination with addiction—to drugs, to alcohol, to gambling, to fantasies of every sort—recalls a great line from Doctorow’s masterpiece, one that Chalky White, more than any other character, would appreciate. “I am often asked the question ‘How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few?’ The answer is ‘By being persuaded to identify with them.’ ”
*This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
Video: Matt Zoller Seitz Analyzes Boardwalk Empire