Boardwalk Empire wrapped up its fourth season on Sunday and in typical Boardwalk fashion, all the story threads were pulled together and set up for the following year, some character arcs wrapped up forever, while others were surprisingly kept in tact to continue further. There's no show on TV right now that's so intricately plotted and planned from year to year, and it's kind of a shame that despite the first season love and acclaim that was more based on big name recognition than anything else (hello Martin Scorsese), the show has really only gotten better with each passing season. For now it remains a treat only for its devoted fans who stuck with it, and for that they have been duly rewarded.
This year, Nucky took a bit of a backseat, as the two big storylines of the fourth season involved his brother Eli and fan favorite Chalky White (Michael K. Williams). It was a banner season for the latter in particular, as Chalky finally got the A-plot stories that he deserves, after three seasons hovering around the fringes as a kind of back up tool for Nucky's designs. But this time it was all Chalky, as he got to run his Atlantic City nightclub and face off against the series' new antagonist, Dr. Narcisse, played with delicious fervor by Jeffrey Wright (sure to be an Emmy nominee next year). Narcisse was a villainous immigrant who set out to take everything that was Chalky's and nearly did, as Chalky managed to miraculously escape death no less than three times in the climactic episodes. Much to my delight and surprise, Narcisse was not killed off in dramatic fashion ala last year's Big Bad Gyp Rosetti, but looks set to stick around for quite some time under the thumb of the notorious Jay Edgar Hoover, who was introduced this season as the director of the newly formed FBI.
Which leads to the season's other main antagonist, who did meet quite a bitter end, in the character of the ambitious FBI agent Knox (Brian Geraghty), who proceeded to make the lives of Nucky's loyal followers a living hell, first with poor Eddie (Anthony Laciuria) who didn't survive the season, and then with Eli (Shea Whigham) who just barely got out. Geraghty did a great job in creating a very unctuous, obnoxious character, and the final, painful fight to the death between he and Eli should have proved satisfying for any fan who hated Knox with a passion. This storyline also provided the pay-off for the very lengthy set-up this year involving Nucky's nephew Willie (Ben Rosenfield), who seems positioned to be the new Jimmy Darmody, which doesn't bode well for him in the years to come, but Boardwalk likes to surprise us, so we'll see what happens.
As well as these stories were set up this year, it did leave some characters short shrift, not least of all Nucky himself, who felt placed in a sidelined position, and whose only real plot of his own involved his new romance with obnoxious tough gal Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), whose performance I frankly did not enjoy. I've never been much a fan of any of Nucky's girlfriends though, so it's a good thing they never seem to last too long. Others we barely saw this year include Arnold Rothstein (still charmingly played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and Margaret (Kelly MacDonald, who remained second billing despite appearing in just 4 episodes). As disappointing as that was, they did take the time to set up the two of them for a potential storyline together, which I cannot wait to see unfold next season, as even the tease of it holds real promise for those often under served characters.
Finally, Gretchen Mol got some meaty stuff to do, as she was duped by a new love interest in the person of Ron Livingston, and forced to give herself up for the murder of the innocent boy she killed last year, and at long last, Richard Harrow, a beloved favorite for many years, met his end in the final scene of the finale- a beautiful and poignant moment made sadder by the nagging thought that he really didn't have to go so soon. Showrunner Terence Winter insisted that he did though, despite the anger and sadness from virtually all fans of the show, saying they didn't want to keep him on without having anything more for him to do, and that is one of the strengths of Boardwalk as a whole- its total willingness to be unpredictable and not kowtow to fans' expectations, as sad as it may be to see the awesome Jack Huston depart (his marksman Richard Harrow will be legendary in this show's legacy).
And in the sprawling ensemble cast that is this series, after all that action I'm still leaving out one other group, and that's the Chicago mobsters, who this season fully integrated Michael Shannon's former government agent into the fold as a full on gangster, and it was consistently hilarious to see him embrace his true destiny as a killer by Al Capone's side (Shannon can continually and smoothly pull off any task that is asked of him). They also skewed close to the facts here, as Johnny Torrio finally retired to Europe, leaving the business to Capone entirely, and here's hoping this marks the rise of the notorious Al Capone history knows all too well, and gives Stephen Wright the material he deserves in the coming years. Wright's been fantastic as the young Capone for four seasons in what's been a limited role, but I can only imagine how great he'll be at what's surely coming.
All in all, a really good season of Boardwalk, marred only by the relative absences of Rothstein and Margaret, but I now trust this show so much to deliver the goods when they can that I'm sure we'll be more than compensated for their lack of screentime next year. I can't wait till it comes back- Boardwalk Empire is alive and well, even if Richard Harrow is gone forever.