Sometimes it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Terrence Winter and the rest of Boardwalk Empire’s writers have little idea what it is that makes their show interesting. “William Wilson” is far from alone in juxtaposing strong material with the deeply banal, but in a way very different from something like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. Within other shows, home lives reveal depth and thematic material within the violent, crime-based material that serves as their primary focus, but for Boardwalk Empire those banal stories, the ones too dull to carry their own show, are themselves frequently the main storyline.
Even moreso than in previous seasons, this has been season four’s particular weakness, perhaps because the show has become even more scattered than it was before. With so many plots spinning, there’s little time for relationships that don’t move the story forward, so at this point those have been left more or less by the wayside. If you were to ask me at this point in time what season four is about, I would talk about the land deal in Florida and the gang wars in Chicago, but just as much if not more time is spent on the previously almost unknown Willie Thompson’s time in college and Gillian Darmody recovering from heroin addiction. While Boardwalk Empire’s stories always come together at the end of the season, watching them develop in the meantime can be dreadfully boring.
“William Wilson” began with a literal bang, as Al Capone shoots a cop in the head on a public street in the daytime in front of plenty of witnesses. It’s the beginning of his revenge against O’Bannon, who he believes is at fault for his brother’s death, but the monumentally important scenes between Al and his boss Johnny Torrio are doled out sparingly. There’s always a thin line between building anticipation and putting the audience to sleep, and unfortunately this episode tips over to the later. It’s not just the violence that makes this storyline more interesting, though; it’s the unpredictability. Darmody’s storyline, by contrast, is sheer melodrama that hasn’t had an interesting turn this season. Even if she were an empathetic character, her story this season warrants about five minutes of actual screentime while it’s been given more than five times as much.
Why would an audience interested in the Chicago story possibly care about Gillian’s private drug problems? As of yet, the show still has no answer, which is the problem. Essentially, all stories in Boardwalk Empire are considered equally important, regardless of whether they have bearing on a national level or are simply strange family affair. Willie, so far, has no depth and the only actions we’ve seen him take are selfish and duplicitous, but the show asks us to care whether or not he goes to college because his family does. The possible row between Nucky and Eli is interesting, but Willie himself remains dull and inconsequential. Would we feel like we’re missing out on much if we’d never been reintroduced to him this season? My feeling is no.
The best part of “William Wilson” came from the time spent with Agent Knox and exploring his backstory. In contrast to Willie, he’s a fascinating figure full of contradictions and personality. His ambition and ruthlessness contrast with his boy scout-like desire to do what he believes is right. It’s similar to Van Alden early on but without the religious fervor, and like Van Alden wherever he goes there’s chaos. Plus, the investigation into his past meant the return of Stephen Root, which I’m always in favor of. The stakes of everything involving Knox are high, as the fate of the everyone in the show hangs in the balance of his investigations—unsurprisingly, whenever he’s around or discussions center on him the show jumps back to life.
And then there’s the continuing war, as much as there is one, between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky White. The lack of any real nuance in this rivalry, though, means that neither of Jeffrey Wright or Michael Williams’ charismatic performances have any real weight. Once interesting and complex, the more we’ve learned about Narcisse the more he seems transparently evil, and while at least this gives Williams more to do with the show, that’s not saying very much. Like with other stories, it’s also difficult to tell whether the writers understand how cliched Chalky being seduced by a chorus girl really is. His proprietorship of Onyx has given Williams more screentime, but his character remains sadly one-dimensional. He feels, as so many of the show’s characters do, less like a person and more like a plot device, going through this affair less because he’s interested in it than because it’s something to do. Were it not for Williams’ portrayal, his would be another monotonous part of the show. Dunn Purnsley is the saving grace of these stories, and was excellent throughout the episode, but he’s continually playing supporting player to the other two’s lead.
As usual, it felt like the few moments of excellence in the episode were sprinkled in to keep us watching through some otherwise tedious storytelling. The most electric moments in the episode came when Margaret and Rothstein recognized each other, but even this came to little, or at least little that we could see at the moment. Several scenes in “William Wilson” had me tense or shocked, as is almost always the case with Boardwalk Empire, but getting between them felt interminably long this week. Of course I’d prefer it if the show’s creators to focus on their few truly interesting storylines and drop the rest or at least give them less screentime, but I fear that if they were asked to do so they’d have no idea which is which.