Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 1 review: New York Sour

Boardwalk Empire's fourth season gets off to a confident, painterly start. Here's Michael's review of New York Sour...

This review contains spoilers.

4.1 New York Sour

I’ve commented before about the informal tetralogy of TV shows that between them have charted the long American twentieth century. From Deadwood to The Wire, via Mad Men and, of course, Boardwalk Empire, we have a succession of investigations into America at, very roughly, forty year intervals. Mad Men, the only non-HBO show on the list, focuses on one central character, although the rest of the cast are interesting enough. Deadwood and The Wire offer broader tapestries of life in a particular territory. Boardwalk, which is often marketed as an example of the first type, is now clearly of the second, having expanded its scope considerably. Steve Buscemi is still the man at the top of the bill and remains the only figure in the opening credit sequence, but although Nucky is still the central figure, but we’re approaching the point at which he could absent himself for an entire episode without any loss in quality. 

That isn’t a criticism of Buscemi or Nucky, so much as a response to just how well everyone else has come on, and just how much is happening at once. New York Sour, which has a full hour-long running time, crams so much into its slot that it almost feels like some sleight of hand has taken place. Atlantic City and the titular boardwalk are now merely one location among many. We spend time in Cicero and strong hints are given at the new prominence of New York to the multiple plot threads. If there is a central character here, it is not Nucky but 1920s America as a whole. 

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It’s for this reason that so much of this opening episode can deal with the fallout from the last season without suffering as a result. The Onyx Club and the changed relationship between Nucky and Chalky; the custody battle for Tommy Darmody, even the brief, painful mention of Billie Kent all point to Boardwalk Empire’s status as an ongoing tapestry of a busy decade into which characters come and go without distracting from the larger canvas of America itself. Figures as richly characterised as Arnold Rothstein can drop in for two minutes and remain crucial and memorable. It takes real confidence and no little flair to pull this off, considerably more to make it seem so natural and unforced. 

The scene is set from the beginning, in which we’re with perennial fan favourite Richard Harrow, who, unsurprisingly, has taken really well to his new role as the Angel of Death of North America. He’s long had a talent for making himself the last half-face that people see, and it’s good to see that his skills haven’t gone to waste. He’s on some kind of mission, seemingly a personal one, that involves him taking out creditors, I assume to protect his sister’s ownership of house. He’s a hard man to kill, but I hope he continues to survive for a few more years yet – his new line will come in very useful after the Stock Market Crash. 

The early and prominent appearance of Chalky White and Dunn Pernsley should be read as a statement of intent. (Notice how Nucky is relegated to the shadows, an impassive observer in the club where he now dwells as a mere guest). Babette’s is now rechristened as the Onyx Club and repurposed for more ‘primitive’ entertainment, though I couldn’t see much difference between the dancing of the Onyx Girls and any of the other Busby Berkeley showstoppers we’ve seen so far. Which was the point, I suppose 

Yep, season four is destined to be the Race Relations One and there will be an awful lot of unpleasantness to follow. Not that there were too few horrors in the opener. Pernsley’s rather unfortunate introduction to the world of cuckoldry-by-gunpoint was almost unbearably tense. Until it got worse. Whilst it provided us with a great chance to see the partnership between Chalky and the Thompson Brothers, it was also a strong metaphor for the pattern that the show is likely to take with this strand. Atlantic City’s African-Americans will be the subject of the exploitative entertainment no longer. Talk of Harlem promises an even more expansive take on this historical conflict. 

Continuing his rise is Alphonse Capone, or ‘Capony’. Now joined by his brothers Ralph and Frank, Al has continued to heed the lessons of Johnny Torrio. Well, some of them at least. His indignation at the misspelling of his name was one of the episode’s lighter strands, but it had serious intent. Al is now smart enough to limit the violence of his temper to a few cheeky headslaps, but not yet canny enough to realise that insisting on his name being in the paper, spelled correctly, is not exactly the smoothest thing for a bootlegger and pimp to do. 

If that was the light, there was a lot of shade, literally and figuratively. It’s always been a dark show but it really blew the lights out this week. The coffee bar shot of the two doomed Old Mission guys was beautifully Hopperesque and in its use of the shading of hat brims (even if it did make me think for a moment that Nelson Van Alden had had his throat slit). Even in a show that has always looked stunning, several scenes particularly stood out for their painterly quality, especially Dunn disposing of the body, Nucky on the balcony of the Albatross and that gorgeous final wide shot of Emma Harrow’s place. 

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The addition of Emma is set to open up Richard’s emotional and personal life, which is a welcome development from his touching concerns for Angela and Tommy Darmody in previous seasons. The mystery and darkness at the heart of his life are a source of fascination for many of his fans, and it will be good to see them explored in more detail. 

There are plenty of clues to the other new directions that this set of twelve episodes will tackle. Warren Knox appears to be an oddball Agent in the manner of Nelson Van Alden, but potentially far more malevolent. Roy Phillips, played by new main cast member Ron Livingston had just one scene to establish that he’ll be accompanying Gillian on whatever despairing journey she takes this year, plus there was young Willie Thompson, who was no better at convincing us that he’ll stay in college this season as he was at persuading his parents that he doesn’t actually smoke.  

And we still haven’t met Jeffrey Wright’s Dr Valentin Narcisse yet. Van Alden and Margaret Schroeder are still to make their fourth season debuts. There was just so much going on that they couldn’t possibly be squeezed in. A great opener that proved just what an embarrassment of riches we have to enjoy. 

Read Michael’s review of the season three finale, Margate Sands, here.

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