deep dives

Seitz on Boardwalk Empire: Season Four’s Greatness Blues

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire season 4 2013 Characters: Jack Huston- Richard Harrow

The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire was a masterpiece. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about it in the past, you already know that I never imagined myself typing that.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Terence Winter’s HBO gangster saga, though it certainly had its moments. The period details were always marvelous, and particular characters, scenes, and even whole episodes knocked me out. There was always some truth to the notion that it was a “slow burn” drama that built very slowly over the course of a season and paid off in the final two or three hours.

Nevertheless, there was always something off about it — a sense that it was trying a little too hard to be Quality TV all while making you notice that it couldn’t always cash the aesthetic checks it was writing. It seemed unable or unwilling to get a handle on what it was actually about, beyond superficial plot and period descriptors: gangsters, Prohibition, capitalism, etc. Its rampant Freudianism, including sub–Mad Men dream sequences (remember Nucky’s baseball glove in season two?), seemed to diminish rather than enhance the characters, and its tendency to add new people and locations rather than fix the ones it already had was frustrating. Boardwalk seemed to have all the ingredients it needed to be great, yet somehow it wasn’t.

And then, finally, it was. I watched the Sunday finale twice and have been working my way through other episodes, at a time of year when I really ought to be catching up on other series, because it’s so beautifully crafted and full of hard truth and hard-won, at times overwhelming, sorrow. As I wrote in a recent appreciation, at its finest, this batch of episodes reminded me of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, still the gold standard for weaving together real historical figures and invented supporting players; specifically, it suggested what a version of that novel might have looked like if it had been directed by Robert Altman, who was originally attached to the project before he got pushed out by its producer and Milos Forman took over. Something about season four’s slow yet confident rhythms felt Altmaneseque, though of course the filmmaking was much more sharply classical, posing the characters from head-to-toe within doors and windows to create frames within frames, and sometimes pushing people to the edges of the screen, oppressed by negative space. It had that Short Cuts or Nashville feeling — that willingness to really commit to a particular character’s story and stay in it for a long scene, or several long scenes.

The show didn’t seem to be knocking itself out to distribute screen time democratically, and this was a very good thing. Al Capone, for example, was little more than a glorified foil for Van Alden in Cicero, his coked-up ebullience contrasting hilariously with the former treasury agent’s constipated fury. Nor did we spend much time with giggling goon Mickey Doyle or Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret or Arnold Rothstein. And this was more than fine; in fact, it contributed to the season’s uncluttered feeling — the sense that Boardwalk had made some tough choices about whom to care about, the better to give its favored characters room to breathe.

Consider the stuff with Eli Thompson’s eldest son Willie accidentally killing a college classmate during a prank gone awry. It felt like a detour at first, a bit of Downton Abbey awkwardly shoehorned into a Prohibition-era gangster soap. But it paid off beautifully, allowing volatile and ambitious FBI agent Warren Knox to pressure Eli into turning informant against Nucky. It also reflected, subtly, on tensions that had always poisoned Eli’s relationship with his more powerful and confident older sibling — a touch of Michael and Fredo Corleone, but only a touch. Eli, Nucky, and (now) Willie are doomed by their family bloodlines and business (“Pop, isn’t it what we do?”), but it’s Eli who carries much of this story line’s weight; how fitting that he’s last seen starting a period of exile, getting into a car driven by former agent Van Alden, another victim of temperament and inclination. And the way it ended — with Knox going berserk after his case fell apart, terrorizing Eli in his own home, and dying in the nastiest pay cable brawl since Dan Dority’s fight with the Captain in season three of Deadwood — suddenly made us realize that the Eli material mirrored the Knox material. Knox was in J. Edgar Hoover’s shadow just as Eli was in Nucky’s, and this entire narrative swath, including Willie’s aborted stint in college and Nucky’s attempt to build a secondary empire in Florida, was a glorified adjunct to Eli’s tragic story.

Season four did a fantastic job of letting subplots mirror each other without making too big a deal of the mirroring. Think of how the ends of both Nucky’s valet Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) and Eli both came about through feelings of being unappreciated or impotent, feelings that also recur in the Chalky and Gillian story lines, and to an extent, in Narcisse’s attempt to build a criminal empire by exploiting black pride. (The Chalky-Narcisse-Daughter material was rich enough to stand on its own; not since Roots: The Next Generation has this period of African-American history been portrayed in such a rich, glittering way, while allowing all of its characters to be people rather than symbols.)

“The exile does not choose his Babylon,” says Narcisse, the pimp–drug dealer–cult leader piggybacking on Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement. The quote resonates not just for Narcisse — last seen in a jail cell being turned by J. Edgar, whom he’s forced to call “sir,” the ultimate humiliation — but with other Boardwalk characters as well. Richard Harrow, like Jimmy Darmody before him, died in spirit during the war long before he died in the flesh. He gets what is, if I’m not mistaken, the season’s only extended fantasy sequence, an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”–style deathbed hallucination under the boardwalk where he first made love with the woman who was (so briefly) his wife. He was always treated as a walking weapon, a sharpshooter’s rifle in an “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” case, and it was for precisely that reason that his actual gun misfired and took the life of the woman it was supposed to save. If anybody in a position of power had really looked at and listened to Harrow, and heard the story of his contract-killer wanderings after the massacre and that truly piercing story about the dog he couldn’t bring himself to put down, they never would have sent him to the Onyx Club.

I’d never thought of Harrow, the disfigured war veteran, and Gillian, the raped child turned too-young mother who’d been exploited throughout her life, as spiritual siblings, but they were linked this time by their doom-spiral story lines. Both were psychically destroyed characters, ghosts haunting their own lives. Both tried to amend for past sins so great they could never be atoned for. Gillian tells her lover and secret deceiver that, shades of Don Draper, you can move past anything, but on Boardwalk, you really can’t. That belief is just one more delusion.

I’m making the whole thing sound very meticulously and obviously integrated, and I shouldn’t, because part of what makes this season so special is the way it embraces the gray area separating short fiction from the novel. More so than previous seasons, season four of Boardwalk felt like a collection of long short stories, maybe novellas, traveling deliberately on parallel tracks that only sometimes converged. There wasn’t as much forced connective tissue this year. As in one of those big canvas Altman pictures, the Cicero stuff seemed to be taking place adjacent to the stuff about the Thompson clan, and those bits only sometimes overlapped with Chalky battling his sinister rival Valentin. And the bits with Gillian trying to kick heroin and win her grandson back in a custody battle didn’t really intertwine with the tragedy of Harrow until the last few episodes.

But when it all did come together, it did so in a poetic, glancingly Altman-esque way. The final montage was a roll call of disappointment. It was aptly scored to Daughter Maitland singing the blues, not in the Onyx Club, where her boss turned lover Chalky fell for her and destroyed the stable home life he’d spent years building, but in a roadside juke joint. All was loss: Daughter lost her dream of fame, Chalky lost his family and seemed (however briefly) consigned to being a mythic has-been, like his mentor Oscar Boneuau; Nucky gave up on Florida; Eli was a fugitive on the run from a murder charge. What connected all these characters wasn’t a unifying plot thread or any particular outcome, but an idea, or more accurate, a feeling. Of what? Disappointment at failure, at the realization that one’s dreams were doomed, and maybe always had been doomed, by the limitations of the dreamer. And when you realized that the feeling was being very slowly poured, along with supporting characters that you did not realize were supporting characters, into a handful of human vessels — Eli, Gillian, Chalky, Harrow, and Van Alden — the effect was emotionally overwhelming, like a sad song triggering long-suppressed tears.

Boardwalk Empire S4 Was a Sorrowful Masterpiece