Last night we were treated to an hour of television that was gorgeously filmed, intricately constructed, smart and scary and violent, full of deeply realized performances and polished writing. No, I'm not talking about Breaking Bad. While that much-talked-about show dazzled last night with an unbearably suspenseful episode, HBO's Boardwalk Empire returned for a fourth season, reminding us, or some of us at least, what an exquisitely crafted, darkly gripping show it can be. And yet, no one's talking about it.
Many people gave the show a shot back in its first season, intrigued by the Martin Scorsese pedigree, and curious, after the breakout success of Mad Men, to see another period piece about an iconic American era. But pretty quickly, the conversation moved on. People didn't seem thrilled with the show's drawing room political intrigue, especially given its obstinate refusal to dole out much exposition or, y'know, explain who most characters are. Like The Sopranos before it, and Game of Thrones after it, Boardwalk Empire is sprawling and mostly unconcerned with holding viewers' hands as they wade into its world. Chatter about the show died down as people gave up or lost interest, which is a shame, because by the second season the show had found its groove.
The first season was, yes, a little slow, too quiet and interior, but by the second season the show opened up; it's still moody and more understated than some people might like, but its cast of characters has evolved and expanded in fascinating directions — we've seen a lot more of the black community led by Chalky White on Atlantic City's North Side, have delved down the rabbit hole with Gretchen Mol's addled Gillian Darmoody, been captivated by the ghostly, menacing hit man Richard Harrow. The physical world of the show has grown too, integrating the mob scenes of Chicago and New York in a way that doesn't feel unwieldy, but rather serves to further embolden and clarify the strategic importance, and perilous limitations, of Nucky Thompson's Atlantic City. We've had several Truly Shocking moments (I won't spoil anything, but some major characters die) and many small, unexpected moments of grace. It's become a consistently rich and entertaining show, one that may not have the philosophical or metaphysical heft of some of its peers in the prestige television genre, but still has the satisfying texture of meticulously tailored television.
And so last night we arrived at season four. Mercifully finished with one of the show's most annoying villains, season three's overdone Gyp Rosetti, we're on to new things. The premiere episode spent most of its time giving us the new lay of the land. Nucky has made a tentative peace with his colleagues in New York, but his estranged wife Margaret and her kids are nowhere to be found. Poor, crazy Gillian seems to have taken up drugs and is selling her house. Harrow is on a dark, violent homecoming journey. Chalky has opened a burlesque theater on the Boardwalk, a bawdy but elegant place staffed by black performers and frequented by white patrons who want a taste of the exotic. And, most troublingly, Eli's college-age son Willie seems suddenly interested in the family business. We're also set to meet some new characters, including a Harlem crime boss played by Geoffrey Wright, and J. Edgar Hoover himself. The time period is now firmly the Jazz Age 1920s (we're in '24 now) and there's a dread beginning to loom on the horizon, the coming Depression sadly teasing that pretty soon, nearly all of this will be gone.
I know there are some people who find the relentless violence of Boardwalk Empire to be too dominant, who think that the show too often mistakes its elegant set pieces and blood-spurting moments of horror for genuine insight or meaning. And they have a point. But, frankly, not every show has to be The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad. There's enough resonance and thoughtfulness on Boardwalk Empire to make it a sterling example of what it is: A gritty gangster tale where morality is not the chief topic of consideration. This is a show more about the how and less about the why. I think the show has, now four seasons in, rid itself of the notion that we have to love Nucky, or relate to him, or learn something from him. There are moments of connection, of course, with Nucky and with many of our other nefarious friends, but for the most part these are the plainly, but skillfully, drawn characters of a pulp tale. And that's just fine! It's the prettiest pulp around — Sopranos vet Timothy Van Patten directed last night's episode and it was chock-full of achingly gorgeous camera work — and darn entertaining to boot. The show deserves credit for that.
If you tried Boardwalk but eventually walked away because it moved too slowly or didn't hook you in the same way as other shows of its kind, I'd urge you to give it another shot. It's not the most exciting or buzz-worthy television around, but there's much to recommend it. Come for the costumes, the stunning photography, the sordidly entertaining, operatic violence. But stay for the nuanced acting and the clever and occasionally lyrical writing. Boardwalk Empire is not simply empty aesthetics. There is a real brain, and yes even a heart, whirring at its core, even if they mostly broadcast on a few grim, guns-blazing frequencies.