In the world of Boardwalk Empire, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, at least, they try to; whether or not they succeed is a bigger question, and one this season sets out to answer. But it’s striking that in contrast to the opening of season three, and its emphasis on Gyp Rossetti’s incensed strongman routine, here we have Nucky Thompson negotiating for peace with Masseria (and Luciano) and Rothstein. What he wants is a return to normalcy, despite everything that he went through eight months before, with his wife leaving him, his girlfriend dying in a bomb blast, and his entire empire almost destroyed. But there’s no hard feelings here; rather, there’s an attempt at pretending Atlantic City is the same as ever, and what’s more, Nucky is willing to put up the money to say so.
This desire for normalcy within the crime world is far from unique in Boardwalk Empire, but few other shows contrast its characters’ actions with such complete destruction of their familial relationships, and what passes for normal in its world is, at this point, never domestic bliss. It took Tony Soprano nearly six seasons to murder his surrogate son; it took Nucky Thompson two, and it would’ve come earlier had he been trying. As the third season begins, Nucky has moved locations once more, out of his office or the house he lived in with Margaret and into a room overlooking Chalky White’s Onyx Club. Even he’s forced to admit that it’s sometimes a lonely existence, but Nucky still wants to pretend nothing has happened and is back to making rounds with actresses. However, it isn’t long before the actress he’s courting misreads the situation entirely and insults his previous relationship for Billie as career-based prostitution. What’s more, it’s a reminder of his past entirely at a time when Nucky wants to move on and pretend that living alone, above a club, is what he always did. Nucky disappears almost immediately while his butler asks her to leave the premises. If she isn’t going to play along with him, Nucky has no use for her.
I was surprised to see Gillian return this season, not only because it seemed like she might be dead, but also because Boardwalk Empire has never really known what to do with her—in fact, material about the Darmodys has generally been the show’s weakest. Here we see her make a return to prostitution under the guise of selling her house, though now the only thing she has left to prostitute is herself. She also makes an attempt at getting her grandson back under her custody, but presumably that went nowhere. Despite her addiction, she’s finally cut a break at the end of the episode as a wealthy man named Roy Phillips, who wishes to introduce Piggly Wigglys to the area, misinterprets her intentions and takes her for what she pretends to be, at least for the moment.
The most interesting part of the episode, though, was story of Chalky White’s consigliere Dunn Purnsley, who murders the husband of a woman he’s sleeping with after being humiliated by him (and it’s a far more complex and interesting scene than I make it sound here, perfectly acted and directed). Chalky and the Thompson brothers come in to clean up this mess, but fail to locate the woman. Unfortunately, the man is a talent booker Chalky was using, though their main concern is of course simply covering up the murder and pretending it didn’t happen. The best part of this storyline, though, was simply that it brought Dunn and Chalky to the spotlight for once, as the two excellent actors—not to mention Boardwalk Empire’s intermittent claims at dealing with race during the 1930s—never get enough screentime. Since Michael K. Williams first made his appearance in the show, I’ve been waiting for him to get something to really do, and it looks like season four may finally be the one to do it.
The episode’s two other storylines were less interesting, largely because they either repeated what we already knew, or spent such a long time divulging very little information. The first of these opens and closes the episode, as Richard Harrow continues his rampage and is killing seemingly random targets across America in a journey to, apparently, reunite with his sister. The main revelation in this is that Richard is still angry and, unlike the rest of the cast, seems unwilling to pretend his past actions haven’t occurred. Up until his spree at the Darmody estate, he’d always been reluctant to kill, but now he’s come uncorked and his ruthlessness may never abate. However, what this has to do with the rest of show seems unclear, and it’s a lot of false suspense and time spent on a pretty simple concept. The reveal of who threatened the monologuing man in the office couldn’t have been less suspenseful, and we still have no idea why Richard was killing anyone.
And then, back in Chicago, we have another of Al’s picaresque adventures in his rise-to-fame. Very little of what occurs in Chicago has much effect on the rest of the show, so these scenes often feel like Boardwalke’s writers just love his character too much to let Capone only feature when necessary. The adventures of Capone and Luciano, and the legendary men they evoke, remove suspense, too, as we know they can’t die, and mostly serve to distract, as they’re very little parts of a much bigger puzzle. Here, Capone threatens a newspaper for getting his name wrong. Capone’s not a subtle man, and this isn’t a subtle storyline, so it’s obvious what this means, and not nearly as exciting as Boardwalk Empire wants it to be. It’s also something like the 20th story in the show’s history about how Capone wants to be famous. The main interesting point part of this is just the way it reflects against almost everyone else in Boardwalk Empire. Like Richard, Al’s not interested in forgetting the past. Ideally, he’d be famous for it, and would rather be a well-known killer than a rich, successful gangster living in the shadows. The contrast to Nucky’s ideal, or Rothstein’s man sitting in a room (like, for instance, Capone’s boss Johnny Torrio), couldn’t be clearer.
The wheels within wheels of Boardwalk Empire’s massive plot machine kick off here, but it doesn’t feel as big as what we saw with the opening of season one or season three. The world of the Onyx club feels, like Nucky’s apartment above it, insular. Not that it’s a bad thing for a show with a cast this big to, perhaps finally, quit expanding, but nothing we saw, aside from giving Dunn and Chalky larger parts, was particularly captivating. Last season Gyp came into the foreground with his sociopathic anger, and Nucky threw the glitziest party the show’s ever seen. This season, we have dimly lit, unexplained murders and a cover-up in the woods. It was a perfectly serviceable start, but nothing to get too excited about, and the action seems to have, at least for the moment, bled itself out in New Jersey.