DVD Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire: Season 4’

All good things must come to an end, and time certainly appears to be up for Terence Winter’s rightly celebrated Prohibition-era crime series Boardwalk Empire. With three superb seasons already under its belt, there was always going to be the danger that the Atlantic City-set Boardwalk would either overstretch itself in terms of characters and locales or begin recycling tried and tested past cycles. As it is, it’s the latter that ultimately lets down the latest season of this hugely successful HBO production, with a fifth and final outing arriving just in the nick of time later this year. And yet, for those already with a taste for Boardwalk’s smooth wares, Season 4 still offers a watered-down blend of hits and hooch.

Steve Buscemi reprises his leading role as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, Atlantic City’s former mayor and one of the most successful bootlegging operations on the East Coast. Having seen off the threat from New York mobster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) in the previous series, Nucky is found busying himself with rebuilding his empire and healing old wounds. Seizing upon a possible business opportunity in Tampa, Florida, Nucky temporarily leaves his kingdom in the hands of his loyal generals: brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and club owner Chalky White (Michael K. Williams). However, a new threat arises in the form of Harlem heroine dealer Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a West Indian immigrant looking to take his share of Atlantic City, while Eli finds himself cornered by the FBI.

Wright is undoubtedly king among the newcomers in Boardwalk Empire: Season 4; a slippery customer who disguises his narcotics acumen beneath the veil of his righteous cause, the U.N.I.A. (United Negro Improvement Association). Though Winter and his team of writers unquestionably play hard and fast with the true events of the period at which Season 4 is set (some quarters have criticised Wright’s character, whom they believe to be loosely based on black civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois), the motivations behind Narcisse’s often morally questionable actions are both muddied and myriad. What’s more, there aren’t many period dramas – made for either big or small screen – that have taken the time to realise African-American life during the 1930s quite as much as Boardwalk has. Elsewhere, series regulars such as disfigured sharpshooter Richard Harrow (the superbly twitchy Jack Huston) and washed-up Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (an enjoyably straight-faced Michael Shannon) each have their own satisfying, if not necessarily blissful, arcs.

However, whilst the first three series of Boardwalk each built tension slowly and effectively towards a bullet-strewn crescendo, Season 4 too often feels like its stalling for time before leaving itself with far too much to resolve in its final episode. Having already fallen once before, Whigham’s Eli finds himself again walking the path of brotherly betrayal, whilst Michael Stuhlbarg’s once-imposing Jewish-American racketeer Arnold ‘A.R.’ Rothstein is reduced to little more than a narrative device. And what of Rothstein’s one-time business partners Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano – played by Anatol Yusef and Jersey Boys’ Vincent Piazza respectively – arguably two of the best, most rounded secondary characters of the entire show? Early teasers suggest they’ll both play larger roles in the fifth and final season, but are disappointingly sidelined here. Like any two-bit street hustler who has managed to duplicitously double-cross their way to the top, Boardwalk Empire: Season 4 spends too much time looking over its shoulder rather at than what lies ahead.

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Daniel Green