Recap: Boardwalk Empire, “The North Star”

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To say that Boardwalk Empire‘s fourth season has been spotty would be an understatement. While the former intrigue and weight of the old show glimmers through every once and a while, season four comes and goes in waves. A thematically rich and engaging episode followed by several disparate scenes lassoed together without any rhyme or reason. “The North Star” is the latter. Following one of this seasons most original and interesting episodes, “The North Star” brings its characters as far from home as possible, anchoring them to plot lines that neither intersect nor advance. 

The North Star is an evocative symbol for the journey home. Look into the sky and the spot at the end of the Big Dipper will lead you to your front door. It’s also the name of this episode. The irony of this title hits almost immediately as we meet Nucky in Penn Station staring down at his cup of coffee. This is pretty much the state Nucky has been in all season: near-comatose, staring blankly. He never noticed that Penn’s trains cause his coffee to shake, just as he never noticed Eddie slipping behind him or the Feds closing in. The false-promise of Margaret’s return the show is dashed almost as quickly as its suggested, and we learn that Nucky can never truly go home. The same is true for Chalky, Eddie, and Eli. All three ostracized by their families for turning toward their own path.

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Family seems to be an ongoing theme for the season, but one that never really takes off in a dramatically effective way. Nucky tells about Eddie and Eli cries about his son, however, rarely are these feelings reflected in the overall plot of the episode. The one exception, Chalky, who breaks free of his supposed impotence at home and at work, makes a move that could alter his family life in ways that already appear very uninteresting. And, of course, there’s Richard, who continues to struggle with his past and returns to Julia and Tommy, hoping to make amends. But how do we get the overall sense that things are changing for these characters. Nucky works out his land deal in Florida in hopes of forgetting Atlantic City and moving on? Does any of this feel earned? That Nucky deserves a break?

Not episode to episode.

I get the impression that season four is not for the week-to-week viewer, but rather the binge watcher. Episodes remain less intact to each other than they do the whole season. However, because the themes and events of season four, particularly “North Star,” have been so separated, cold, and inconsistent, staying engaged weekly becomes harder and harder. And no where is this more apparent than in Nucky’s response to Eddie’s death.

Eddie was a character that never really got his due. We never learned much about the man outside of his final few episodes and, frankly, neither had Nucky. Over his lunch with Margaret Nucky expresses how little he knew about the man, but as the episode continues and Nucky engages with other characters, this them of uncertainty never fully reveals itself. And although he begins to express his uncertainty as fear to Sally Wheat—before she thankfully punches him in the face—this never really connects with his actions. We never see Nucky expressing his uncertainty, rather only talking about it.

And that’s line between a good episode of Boardwalk and bad one. Do the writers and directors establish a theme and it express that theme through their characters’ actions? As finely acted and photographed as this show it, it has a hard time dramatizing the script. Last week’s episode managed to this quite splendidly. This week, it’s clear these characters want to go home, but have no idea which direction north is.

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