November 25, 2013

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Boardwalk Empire”


It’s a continuing paradox that a show could have as many colorful characters, so terrific a cast, as much plot and incident and history (not to mention sex and violence) and visual style as BOARDWALK EMPIRE does and yet so often feel like homework.  It’s a pulpy series that sometimes lets its morose sense of seriousness get the better of it, and the result is only intermittently as satisfying as it should be.  That held as well for Season 4 in general, and for tonight’s season finale.

This year’s Boardwalk Empire was more sprawling than ever.  Geographically, it added Florida to its already wide territory of Atlantic City, New York, Chicago and Washington, not to mention an extended journey to Wisconsin with Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) early in the season.  More importantly, this season greatly expanded its picture of black America in the gangster 1920s, giving Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) a much expanded role, and adding the superlative Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a richly conceived character who combined high ideals with ugly morals.  These two and their contrasting experiences and world-views were nearly as much at the center of the season as Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) himself.  The series rarely gets rid of characters or settings once they’re introduced–even when Michael Pitt’s Jimmy was eliminated at the end of Season 2, his mother and son have stayed as substantial characters–and there’s a certain loss of focus as it takes an increasingly higher-angled view of its world.

Although a tremendous amount happened during the season finale, it all ended up somewhat less dramatically than one might have expected.  The only major character to go down was fan favorite Harrow, who shockingly missed his shot and, instead of killing Narcisse at Nucky’s behest, mistakenly killed Chalky’s innocent daughter.  Perhaps after that calamity, it was a mercy for Harrow to be fatally shot by one of Narcisse’s men, and he got a nice send-off, believing himself back home with all of his family and his face intact when he was actually dying on the beach.  Jack Huston was tremendous as Harrow, but the show seemed to have run out of ideas on how to use him.  (Although the ending of his story was meant as the payoff to that Wisconsin trip, it didn’t really justify the amount of time we all spent on that excursion.)

The rest of the storylines ended more ambiguously.  Both Chalky and Narcisse managed to survive the season, despite being at each other’s throats, with Chalky holed up at his (now-dead) mentor’s home and Narcisse enlisted as an FBI informant.  (The writers, headed by series creator Terence Winter and Executive Producer Howard Korder, who together wrote the season finale, were extremely clever at dropping nuggets throughout the season about J. Edgar Hoover’s much greater interest in black nationalists than in organized crime–an obsession that would eventually lead to Hoover taping Martin Luther King–which allowed Hoover to finally intersect with Narcisse in a believable way.)   Also alive:  Nucky’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham, who did sensational work this season), despite having betrayed Nucky to the Feds in order to protect his son Will (Ben Rosenfeld)–Will’s college story, setting all this up, was another lengthy tangent that may not have been worth all the time spent on it.  Eli ended up exiled to Chicago, where he’ll be with now-gangster Van Alden (Michael Shannon), which should be interesting next season.

There were more supporting characters given large amounts of screen time, like the extremely long con run on Gillian (Gretchen Mol) by her supposed lover Roy (Ron Livingston), a storyline that became more and more far-fetched when it included a The Sting-like simulated murder.  Or Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), put in league with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) after she went to work at a boiler room investment operation.  Even the FBI’s Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty) and his internal Bureau power struggles got their share of screen time, although that’s done now that Eli, in an impressively brutal sequence, beat him to death.

With everything that goes on in Boardwalk Empire, Nucky himself is often one of the less interesting people in the show.  It was hard to get particularly invested in his romance with tough Floridian Sally (Patricia Arquette), or his machinations with his partners in the liquor (and then heroin) business down there.  His decision to chuck it all and move to Cuba with Sally was even less convincing than the show meant for it to be.  There are times when Boardwalk takes the “Empire” part of its title all too literally, and loses the center of its own story.

Even with its flaws, Boardwalk Empire remains a first-rate TV drama.  The writing, however measured in pace, is never less than incisive, and the actors are uniformly superb.  (This season, in addition to all those mentioned above, there was excellent work from Anthony Laciura as the sadly late Eddie Kessler and Margot Bingham as singer Daughter Maitland.)  The show is shot and designed with a sumptuousness than many feature films would envy (the finale was directed by Tim Van Patten, who’s directed many Boardwalk episodes), this season including some marvelously realized sequences in the boardwalk nightclub that Chalky ran.

Boardwalk Empire is as “prestige” as TV gets, but it’s a show that can feel enervated.  It might actually benefit from a shorter order than the 12 episodes it gets from HBO (Game of Thrones makes do with 10), perhaps forcing Winter and the other writers to pick up the pace and choose their side stories more selectively.  Like a dream house built by a gangster with too much cash, it’s got more wings than it really needs.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."