Boardwalk Empire has always had difficulty making its stories even remotely as exciting as its climaxes. The show has some of the most complex plotting ever put to television, but a lot of this is walking us through the motions in order to hit the big explosions at the end of its seasons. Fortunately, though, the end of the show’s fourth season has alleviated some of this problem, and events with real stakes and risks have been brought into play earlier.
It’s no coincidence that, in contrast to so many episodes of the show, “Marriage and Hunting” saw its cast literally arming itself for what’s in store. Last week, Dunn’s brawl with Chalky was so exciting because, while the show was building towards an altercation, the only real way of guessing a winner was to think meta-fictionally about Michael Williams’ bigger star power. Now, though, nearly every character on the show is expecting the other shoe to drop, and Chalky opens his door with caution and a gun in his hand. The season’s ultimate direction is still hazy, but the feeling on all sides is that the current situation is coming to a head.
Still, Chalky’s story was eclipsed this week, in large part because his family, despite four seasons on the screen, is still barely developed and only exists as a plot device. The fallout from daughter Maitland’s betrayal was bound to be dramatic, but it did little to change the status quo between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky. They were ready to kill each other before, and while this most recent violence adds fuel to the fire, that’s all it does. As a side note, I was tempted to focus this week’s write-up on Boardwalk Empire’s always problematic, borderline misogynistic depictions of women, but Maitland’s face more or less did that for me.
No, this was essentially Van Alden’s episode, and not just because he’s finally reclaimed his name. We already knew his situation, caught between O’Banion and Al Capone, was untenable and that something had to be done about it, but the question was how this would come out. I suggested in the past that Van Alden would ally with Capone because his fear and dislike of Capone is stronger in both counts than his fear and dislike of O’Banion, but added to this were his money woes. Simply put, Van Alden saw a way out. That he reclaimed his self-confidence along the way, though, was what made this story electric. We haven’t seen this version of Van Alden since the first season, and it’s wonderful to finally see Michael Shannon given something to do.
That being said, his character’s arc, how long it took for Boardwalk Empire to turn Van Alden from a religious zealot to a gangster, was far too drawn out. Not only that, it had long been obvious where the show wanted to take him, making his storyline tedious as well. Unfortunately, Boardwalk Empire has proven time and time again that it’s perfectly content to give a character little to do for dozens of episodes if it thinks the payoff is worth it, but that leaves us in an interesting place now. This arc is nearly complete, and as such Van Alden is finally unpredictable again. His outburst of violence at his ex co-workers was an example of this, and while his throwing $1000 onto his wife was cliched, Michael Shannon imbued it with an energy that made that easy to ignore.
Intercut with these more interesting stories were the continued developments of the Darmody custody trial. It was as dull as usual, though at least now Richard is around Atlantic City again, and as a result the case finally has bearing on another part of the show. Namely, he asks Nucky for work, which is the “gun” Nucky metaphorically arms himself with. However, Gillian and her new beau were still dead air. I keep hoping that Roy plays some role in the show beyond as a wildly unrealistic deux ex machina for her fortunes, but Boardwalk Empire keeps thwarting this desire and Ron Livingston is wasted. Maybe he’s being set up for a grand part next season, but that doesn’t make his appearances this time around any less frustrating.
“Marriage and Hunting” was a less focused episode than last week’s, to its detriment, but the sprawl for once felt purposeful. There was tension when Eli spoke with his brother, for instance, and it’s been entertaining to watch the continued bad fortune of Arnold Rothstein, as much as it’s difficult to guess where that’s headed. Now that all the pieces are nearly in place, with the exception of the custody battle every story feels like it matters and every development is worth paying attention to. This comes in striking contrast to the first half of the season, which feels like it could’ve been skipped with no big loss. And now that the marriage license has been acquired and the guns are in place, Boardwalk Empire has declared a beginning to hunting season.