Boardwalk Empire is a series which has always been blessed with a large host of intriguing and unique characters. And finally in its fourth season, show producer Terence Winter of Sopranos fame, has found the perfect blend between character development and its opulent 1920s background to produce a show much more gripping than has been the case in previous seasons.
Unlike previous seasons, there has not been a central antagonist for protagonist Nucky Thompson to outwit and eventually execute. By the end of the third season, this formula had become stale; Gyp Rossetti with his cliqued cartoonish temperature came across as dull compared to the older members of the cast.
This time round, by focussing on already established characters, as they became increasingly displaced in one of the most tumultuous eras of American history, the audience gains a real emotional investment as they witness both the tragedy and tremendous glamour of the 1920s, along with the effects this time had on these people.
Who would have thought that Nelson van Alden, the pious Prohibition Agent would be working for Al Capone, literally attacking someone with a hot iron when the season began? Or that we would see Nucky put a gun to his brothers head, only to be startled by an unexpected arrival.
It seems that as the series has continued, the disintegration of the characters’ morals has become central to the action. Fans were drawn in by the stunning visuals Boardwalk Empire enjoys, but it is the impact on these people which keeps people watching.
The endless economic opportunity that the Roaring Twenties provided are a given, but these same economic opportunities gives rise to the fascinating question: what are the characters of Boardwalk Empire willing to sacrifice to gain this wealth? We see numerous examples of this as the season continues. Eli, Nucky’s younger brother and the former sheriff of Atlantic City has to deal with the fallout from his own son William’s decision to leave university, opting instead to join Nucky in the bootlegging business, has enormous consequences for other characters throughout the series.
Likewise, Chalky White, the leader of the black community in Atlantic City, endures a spectacular fall from grace throughout the season. Happy to rest on his laurels after gaining control of the old Artemis club, where the underbelly of Atlantic City drink, frolic and fornicate, Chalky is powerless as he has his associates, and eventually Nucky himself, turned against him by the nefarious Dr Valentin Narcisse, played by Jeffrey Wright of Casino Royale fame.
In focussing on characters such as Chalky, and van Alden, the Boardwalk Empire showrunners have neutralised an issue from previous seasons. There had been so much focus on the young lives of infamous gangsters, such as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, that these original characters did not always get a chance to shine. Though Capone, Lansky and Luciano are fascinating in their own right, they have been so well documented and portrayed by other shows and films, that there is the sense that you can see where they are going already. There is no sense of fear for Lansky when Nucky has a gun to his head midway through the season, because anyone who has a vague knowledge of Lansky knows that he lived into his eighties anyway.
Boardwalk Empire then, by refocusing on its more interesting characters, and expanding the beautiful 1920s backdrop off of the boardwalk and into Florida and Chicago, hits a sweet spot. The slow-burning drama leaves viewers in total suspense as we wait to see what this crazy era will throw at them next. Roll on Season Five.