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The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire began last night and, as usual, the HBO series started things off with a bang. Despite the sensational should-be-nominated Season 3 not being recognized by the Emmys, the critically acclaimed drama didn't miss a beat even after killing off the (co-)lead. Who could have thought that Boardwalk would not only (quickly) recover from the loss of MIchael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody but produce one of its most affecting and compelling seasons yet? Instead, the show managed to work a pervading sense of loss into the narrative(s) as well as introduce new rivals and wrinkles to try and fill the gaping hole. And thanks to some riveting, and often emotional storytelling, as well as sensational turns by guest stars Bobby Canavale and Charlie Cox (to name a few), HBO did a fantastic job of not just moving on but perhaps getting better. Of course, not everyone made it through last year alive (those two in particular), making me wonder if the bloody, bootlegging drama can again fill the holes for Season 4? They made all the right moves in the off-season, bringing in a bunch of talented new actors (and writers), to ensure that Boardwalk Empire remains one of the premiere series on (it's not) television. The Emmy voters should expect a visit from Richard Harrow. That's if he's not too tired from serving several cold dishes of revenge in "New York Sour"...
"I thought we were laying low."
The cold open for the fourth season premiere takes place about 500 miles from Atlantic City on a cold and snowy night in Warsaw, Ohio. It doesn't take long to figure out that the two gentlemen having dinner at the open late diner are criminals on the lam but it's not immediately clear how they connect to the pre-existing characters on Boardwalk. And even after Richard takes care of them, in his usual well planned out and professional manner, all we know is there's some connection to Old Mission Title Insurance. Whatever that means. The sequence was expertly crafted and ended with my favorite shot of the episode, Richard receding into the snowy night. His quest functions as this week's framing story, with scenes also placed at the mid-point and the end of "New York Sour." In the middle, Richard rubs out a middle-man working for someone in Milwaukee and he too wants to know why. Like, so bad that he's willing to speak with a bullet hole in his cheek. Finally, Richard arrives at a home out in the middle of nowhere and, just when you think he's there to gun another person down, he hides his pistol before knocking. Doesn't matter, his sister Emma has already got the jump on him before welcoming him home. It must run in the family.
"It's waiting for a man, the right man, to bring it back to life."
While Richard has been busy murdering his way home, let's not forget the countless bodies he left at the Artemis Club at the end of the third season in an effort to save Tommy from having to live with his horrible grandmother. Sorry, I know Gillian has had the toughest life but she's the worst. All the hate people have for Skyler White, I have for Gillian Darmody. And yet, Gretchen Mol is so good that she makes me feel for the wretched thing from time to time. "New York Sour" was not her finest hour. Julia did her best to tell the court just how despicable Gillian is but I'm not sure the outcries did any good. Gillian is also looking for someone to buy the club and her is they want. Drugs don't come cheap and she's doing just about all of them. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her when all pretence was dropped and the, uh, prices were discussed. My pretence is still up. The next man looking to buy the place treats her with some dignity, however, I already don't trust Ron Livingston's Roy Phillips. Something is up and it's not just my pretence (or his odd accent). I'd venture there's no Piggly Wiggly deal. It's still a much better option for her than any of the previous applicants.
Business in Chicago seems to be going well for Al Capone, who has not only taken over most of the leadership responsibilities from Johnny Torrio but also brought in his brothers Frank and Ralph to be his right hand men. The brothers get a nice introduction, mostly by showing how both differ from the hot-headed one in charge that we've come to know over the last three seasons. We also get to see the major difference between Al and Nucky, the former doing everything he can to get his name out there while the latter does all he can to keep himself in the shadows. Different approaches to Empire building. Torrio and Nucky are of the same generation and the Italian boss isn't pleased with his name being linked to criminal activity in the Cicero Daily Tribute. Al, however, is mad that the reporter called him a servant and misspelled his name. How the hell are people going to know how he is if the papers can't even get his name right? Also, how many times do you think he would have hit Frank with the boot if their mom hadn't stopped the rough housing. Nothing like family. Al, being the hands on leader than he is, takes the initiative and pays the young reporter a visit to ensure that the next time he runs a story on the crime syndicate, he'll get CAPONE right.
"I just don't see well in the dark."
With Agent Nelson Van Alden no longer Agent Nelson Van Alden (and sadly Michael Shannon didn't make an appearance in the episode), it's past time we saw some new blue blood on the Boardwalk and I really, really like this new guy. When the audience first meets Brian Geraghty's Agent Knox, we see a nice, eager to please person working at Agent Stan Sawicki's side. I actually got a sense that he wasn't all that pleased with the corruption but was such a good boy (and a little incompetent) that he was willing to toe the line. By the second scene, I started to get suspicious that Knox might be playing up the 'oh boy' personality and using it as his Columbo-ish approach to gaining trust and knowledge. And oh boy did it work. It was also telling that the rookie agent 'forgot' to share the details of the shotgun booby trap with his superior when setting up the sting on Otis. The doofus act worked on Sawicki for one final time, and had me smiling ear to ear, before Knox finally revealed his cold and calculating (borderline psychotic) real self. The shotgun wide shot was amazing. This guy is going to be a thorn in everyone's side. I'm fully invested in him already and wonder who the Bureau of Investigation is going to send to be his partner?
"Where'd this giant come from?"
The Capone's weren't the only family featured in "New York Sour" with the Thompsons, meaning Eli's clan, figuring prominently in last night's story. Willy, the oldest, is back from college and the scene with the father teaching his son to drive was one of the few touching moments in the season four premiere. Of course, it's also perhaps setting us up for devastation because after the sweet exchange, the boy asks about the 'family business' for the first time this episode. The next comes once he's been sufficiently babied at the dinner table by his parents and he runs out to ask his uncle for advice. Nuck never should have given him a taste of the life last season. Do you think this will cause another rift between the recently reconciled brothers? I wonder. Speaking of the family business, Nucky is still dealing with the fallout from the third season skirmish with various factions from New York and he calls a meet to make the peace. There was an epic feeling to the gathering, with Nuck and Joe Masseria meeting for the first time with all the other major players also in attendance including Rothstein, Lansky and Luciano. Oh, and Eli and Tonino. I was actually surprised to see Tonino still alive but if Mickey Doyle has taught us anything, it's that flip floppers sometimes prosper.
"All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself."
The meet also makes another division quite clear, Lucky has left Meyer to work at 'home' with the Italian mob. There's a lot of talk about home in "New York Sour." Nucky brings another young showgirl back to his home at the Albatross, which is just about as secluded as you could be, but finds the fact that she's only sleeping with him as a stepping stone to Broadway distasteful. I can't imagine why? At least Eddie Cantor has nothing to worry about. Well, except that the hottest new club in Atlantic CIty, the Onyx, only features African-American talent. Nucky and Chalky are in the club together but the latter runs the day to day operations like booking the talent and even though he'd love to get Fletcher Henderson and rival Harlem's The Cotton Club. I think we all know they will draw the attention of Harlem (probably some unwanted) but for now Chalky, and his right hand Dunn, have to deal with sleazy talent agents like Dicky. I was pretty amused by the drawing letter and also impressed because it reveals that she's done this before. More specifically, they've done this before. Dunn takes the bait and things go very wrong, very fast. He's also one of my favorite characters, I'm happy to see him anchor a thread this season.
"Mix you up the Jersey version."
Race has always played a part in Boardwalk Empire but with the opening of the Onyx it's obviously coming to the forefront this season. The events of last night are only the beginning, we haven't even met the characters from Harlem like Jeffrey Wright's Dr. Valentin Narcisse. Dunn is really put through the wringer in "New York Sour," not only having to deal with the incident but also be blamed for it by Chalky. And then forced to clean it up. The burying scene was beautifully shot and it did a great job of emphasizing class as much as race. Also, don't push a man too far, especially one who's willing to almost sever a man's head with a broken bottle. I think we were all happy to see Dicky get his for the racially charged sexual assault (he earned it) and I'm curious to see how (if) the escaped widow will play into the storyline. Witnesses are never good and Nucky saying that he wants no grief means he's probably going to get some grief. The name Owney Madden was dropped when talking about Dicky. Another potential problem for Nucky. He's got 99 but, thanks to Eddie Kessler, a bitch ain't one. A land deal in Florida, however, that might cause a few.
"I know you're gonna die."
Boardwalk Empire returns with Episode 2, "Resignation," next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Created by Terence Winter, the series stars Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Vincent Piazza, and Michael Stuhlbarg.