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Our reviews of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published December 26th, 2011), Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published August 22nd, 2012), Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published August 14th, 2013), and Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season (published January 28th, 2015) are also available.
Know who's behind you.
"Which horse will you bet on tomorrow, I wonder?"
Facts of the Case
Now that his intense battle with mobster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale, Nurse Jackie) has concluded, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, The Big Lebowski) is able to resume his position as head honcho in Atlantic City. As you might expect, plenty of new problems are on the horizon. Chalky White (Michael K. Williams, The Wire) is now running his own nightclub, but soon finds himself in conflict with the ferociously intelligent, menacing Harlem kingpin Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat). Former federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) has formed an unlikely alliance with mobster Al Capone (Stephen Graham, Gangs of New York). Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 to Yuma) finds herself locked in a strange, unpleasant custody battle over her grandson. Nucky's wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald, No Country for Old Men) has disappeared completely. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston, American Hustle) attempts to clean up some of the messes he left behind at the conclusion of the previous season. As ever, these characters (and many more) will find their lives intersecting in a variety of intriguing (and often violent) ways.
After the spectacular, pulpy showdown between Nucky Thompson and Gyp Rosetti that dominated the third season of Boardwalk Empire, it was perhaps inevitable that the fourth season of the show would be a little bit of a letdown. After all, cleaning up the aftermath of an event is rarely as much fun as staging an actual event. As such, the first few episodes of season four are a little on the dull side. Not bad, mind you—the show is consistently well-acted and always at least modestly compelling—but you get the sense that showrunner Terence Winter and his team have to start from scratch after losing a magnificent villain like Rosetti. Fortunately, once the show gets all of its new pieces in place, the season evolves into something riveting
Part of what makes the fourth season so intriguing is that it finally shifts the attention away from Nucky for a change. Steve Buscemi has done fine work in the lead role from the beginning, but part of what makes him distinct is that he's not a particularly commanding crime boss. Nucky has always been an exceptionally methodical gangster—the sort of man who rarely lets his temper get the better of him and prefers diplomacy whenever possible. He's more accountant than cowboy—to put it in modern terms, he's more Obama than Bush—but some have complained his reserved approach to handling things makes him a less dynamic lead character than volatile antiheroes like Tony Soprano or Walter White (in fairness, nearly everyone is less dynamic than those guys). However, shifting Nucky to the background is an effective move—it makes him slightly more enigmatic and threatening. More importantly, it opens up room for this season's riveting showdown between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse.
For much of the first three seasons, racial tensions in Atlantic City and the story of Chalky White's rise to power have percolated in the background—more window dressing than in-depth study. This season makes those subjects the show's central focus. I never would have expected this, but as the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire proceeds, it becomes one of the most nuanced and compelling examination of racism that I've seen on television in recent years. In far more explicit terms than it has done before, the show reminds us of just how bigoted nearly all of its central characters are, and how uncomfortable they get when they begin to feel that a person of a different skin color is beginning to feel something resembling equality.
That's where Dr. Narcisse enters the picture. Narcisse is a horrible, horrible man, but he's also a man who's almost completely unwilling to dignify Atlantic City's racist climate. He confronts Nucky publicly on the matter and demands to be taken seriously as a businessman—not a black businessman, but simply a businessman. Such demands would get most people killed, but Narcisse is clever and forceful enough to get exactly what he wants. Meanwhile, Chalky finds his own more subservient approach to business increasingly unrewarding, and seems to take a certain measure of inspiration from Narcisse even as he grows increasingly hateful towards him.
The ongoing war between the two boils over during the season finale, which delivers the series' most devastating episode to date. Yes, it's even more soul-crushing than the season two finale. In some ways, it serves as a 180-degree turn from last season's final episode, as explosive heroics and badass moments are replaced by one scene after another of cringe-inducing failure. The tormented climax may be a disappointment to those looking for another season of action-packed thrills, but as far as I'm concerned, the back half finds the show actually living up to its vast potential.
Not everything works, mind you. The female characters aren't particularly well-handled this time around, with Margaret having almost nothing to do and Gillian getting stuck in TWO of the season's worst storylines (an unusual romance with a man played by Ron Livingston, and a tedious custody battle). Still, almost everything starts working incredibly well after the first few episodes, from Nucky's complicated relationship with his brother Eli to Richard Harrow's latest endeavors to Van Alden's descent into a life of crime.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) has received another beautiful 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. HBO has done a fine job with this series in the technical department from the beginning, and this release is no exception. Stunning detail and depth throughout, despite the fact that the whole season is spread across four discs this season instead of five. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly masterful, and the show's blend of detailed sound design and period-appropriate tunes is once again spot-on. Dialogue is clean and clear, too.
Unfortunately, the series is being dropped after a truncated fifth season, and you can see HBO starting to lose interest in the show just by taking a look at this box set. It's smaller and less lavish than the previous three collections—no DVD copies or thick cardboard slipcases this time around. Still, supplements are rather generous. You get interactive "Boardwalk Chronicles" features on every episode, six audio commentaries featuring a host of cast and crew members, a Paleyfest Q&A with assorted cast and crew members (26 minutes), four brief featurettes ("Becoming Harrow," "The Onyx Club: A Step Back in Time," "New Characters" and "Season 3 Revisited") and a digital copy of the season.
Despite a slow start, the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire gathers steam as it proceeds and delivers a devastatingly effective finale which does a beautiful job of setting the stage for the fifth and final season.
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