The last few episodes of Boardwalk Empire had been heating up until it looked like the season was ready to boil over, but the strange, disappointing and slow to the point of pain “Havre de Grace” put that to a quick stop. Not that it didn’t phone in the requisite number of killings to fulfill Boardwalk’s episodic quota, but they came about in such a lazy, forced fashion that it stood in marked contrast to what we’d seen most recently. More than anything, it felt like the show’s writers overestimated the amount of time their stories would need this season and ended up with an extra episode of space to fill before the season’s finale. Instead of an exciting drive to the conclusion, we’re given this dull lurch forward.
In many episodes of Boardwalk Empire, it feels like there’s so much plot moving that summarizing what happens is a fool’s errand (which isn’t to say I don’t try), but not so here. “Havre” was split very evenly into three stories, and even within these stories not too much really happens. The fact of the matter is that Boardwalk Empire simply isn’t very good when it moves slowly. Its characters rarely verge beyond archetypal, and pretending that Eli or Chalky have depth that they simply don’t possess can be torturous. I appreciate the fact that Boardwalk Empire is not an action movie. It’s not supposed to be fast, and its pacing can sometimes work to the show’s benefit, but there has to be a payoff. In an episode like this, though, each story moved very directly from one major plot point to the next. In all, it was 10 to 12 minutes of plot development in an hour of screentime, much of which was devoted to what is far and away the show’s worst storyline.
Of course I’m speaking about Gillian Darmody here, and while we’re offered more than usual this time out, it wasn’t in a good way. Gillian gives up on Tommy and agrees to sell her mansion, and it isn’t long before Roy proposes to her. Soon afterwards, though, he has an altercation in a parking lot and seemingly kills a man. Consoling him, Gillian confesses to have murdered a man in the place of her son, at which point Roy reveals he was lying the whole time and he was working as a detective. Presumably we will learn more about who her victim was soon, and perhaps this will make more sense, but at the moment it seems as if someone paid truly insane amounts of money in order to have Roy pose as a wealthy businessman and court Gillian and then, on the off chance she confesses, nail her with the charge. Why would they possibly believe she would confess, let alone right there and right then? It’s an insane, expensive plan that throws any sense of realism so far out of the show that it’s no longer in the same continent. Yes, it’s a twist, but a stupider one would be difficult to pull out. The fact that Gillian herself is impossible to empathize with, and that her fate at this point seems to bear no weight on the rest of the show in any way whatsoever, and we have a truly obnoxious third of an episode (or, to be more accurate, much more because of how much time this has taken throughout the season).
Fortunately that wasn’t all that happened in “Havre de Grace,” but it wasn’t the only unsatisfying story. Chalky somehow manages to get a ride to his mentor’s house, where he and Daughter hide away from everyone in Atlantic City. He ponders what to do next, not that it’s a surprise to either the audience or Daughter, and right before the end of the episode Daughter leaves and people attack the house on behalf of Dr. Narcisse, killing his mentor. And that’s it. Not that there isn’t more screentime, but it’s mostly there to suggest what will happen and does so without much subtlety. Despite learning more about Chalky’s past, it doesn’t feel like he’s become a fuller character. His backstory doesn’t really determine who he is, or how he acts, so this feels empty. It’s a lot of time spent brooding and hanging around with supporting characters we’ve never seen before, not the type of thing worth 20 minutes of screen time.
This also pinpoints the disappointing nature of Chalky’s role in Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season. I spent the first three seasons of the show complaining that he wasn’t given a big enough role, but although that’s not the case this time out the show hasn’t shown us that there’s any more to him than the ambitious gangster we saw from the beginning. It says something that, despite seasons of screentime and a bigger role even now, Chalky feels less developed than Dr. Narcisse. It’s nice that he finally has a past and plays more than a supporting role, but ultimately Chalky still feels like only half a character.
The final third of the episode concerned Nucky’s suspicions, based on a call from Means that there is a traitor (well, skunk) in his men. After an outburst from his brother at dinner, Nucky suspects that perhaps something is up with Knox, not to mention his brother. This is the one part of the episode where the pacing made sense. as the slow accumulation of details is the only way for Nucky to interrogate, in a way, his brother. He agrees to having Eli set up a meeting, but knows by then that his brother is once again betraying him, not to mention that Will seems likely to side with his uncle rather than his father.
The thing is, Boardwalk Empire is a show about plot, about machinations and betrayals and double-agents and twists. Its best episodes are those with momentum, because when it slows down we’re left questioning why we care about these characters and their fates. The network, the system between them, is what’s important, as Knox seems to understand even when the show’s writers don’t. The part of “Havre” that had that link with everything else in the show, the tangle between the Thompsons and Knox and the rest of the nation’s criminal empire, was good entertainment. The rest of the episode, which went down to the level of the personal, was trite and dull. Here’s hoping the finale works as well as previous seasons’ in connecting all of these threads and weaving together something compelling from all of their individual characters and stories, unlike what we had here.