By Andrew Williams
February 3, 2014
Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation).
Now, this is a story all about how… Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), fully-fledged gangster in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, is caught in the middle of a war between Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright).
Happy days? After a fantastic third season where Boardwalk Empire finally became the sum of its parts, the fourth outing had a lot to live up to. Was the previous season a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come? Pleasingly, the latest adventures of Nucky and friends are just as good, if not a smidge better, than their predecessor.
It all comes down to characters, in the end. The first two seasons of Boardwalk offered us a fascinating, exciting setting populated by unbelievably dull people. It was like going to a bacchanal with a bunch of teetotaller accountants. Slowly, though, as some of those characters were excised and others were developed into more fascinating presences, the dull exterior gave way to a much more exciting centre, and Boardwalk Empire became very close to the kind of show it had always threatened to be.
Unfortunately, Boardwalk Empire has a ceiling, and that ceiling’s name is Nucky Thompson. Both the unknowable, placid nature of the character and Buscemi & show-runner Terence Winter’s decision to play him as a buttoned-down bureaucrat have always held the show back. After four seasons of watching I still have very little idea of what makes Nucky tick, what makes him who he is and certainly why I should find him compelling. It’s a great pity that such a potentially terrific show should be stifled by a fatal, conceptual flaw.
The final frontier: This might be Boardwalk Empire at its peak, but its peak remains much lower than other shows of its ilk. It’s an ‘A’ season from a ‘B+’ show.
Top three episodes: 8) The Old Ship of Zion. An excellent showcase for Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White, as his confrontation with Dr Valentin Narcisse has brutal repercussions. Williams has been so good for so long that it’s no coincidence the show’s best season has occurred with him at the centre. 11) Havre De Grace. I love it when I don’t see a twist coming – and I didn’t see this one coming at all. 12) Farewell Daddy Blues. A heartbreaking final shot caps a terrific season.
Worst episode: Enoch’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham) is almost as dull as he is, so when Season Four started to focus on Eli’s son Will I was not salivating over the prospect of more Thompson drama. Episode Three (Acres of Diamonds) does not inspire confidence, though the storyline does pay off in the end.
Season MVP: It’s a tie. Jeffrey Wright, an actor that never met a tic he didn’t like, is deployed to perfection as educated, snooty villain Narcisse. He injects Boardwalk with a fizzy, malevolent energy that builds on what Bobby Cannavale did the year before. Gretchen Mol is every bit his equal as Gillian Darmody’s twisted, desperately sad story reaches its climax but not its conclusion, and every bit of her four seasons of terrific work pays off in grand fashion.
Check out Andrew Williams’ previous instalments:
Boardwalk Empire is available on Quickflix.