Four Ways to Get Boardwalk Empire Back on Track

In lieu of another recap, which I’m already late on, I’ve decided to take a look at  Boardwalk Empire‘s problematic fourth season. Uneven in every sense of the word, the show has overwritten the plot and underwritten the characters. Here’s how the show can get back to doing what it does best: blowing beautiful set pieces up.

Where is the Central Arc?

Boardwalk Empire is, above all else, an ensemble piece. Giving everyone enough screen time sits at the top of the writers’ list on interest. However, nothing drives them forward or together. Everyone exists in the same universe but they never interact. What Capone does seems to have no affect on Nucky, and that makes for some boring TV.

Seasons one through three stayed on Nucky’s acquisition and protection of his territory. To do this, season one pit Nucky as an aspiring gangster, season two a conflicted gangster, and number three a complete gangster. The threats there within reflected Nucky’s decisions and ascension to power, as well as a clear progression of character. Now, that he’s all-powerful, the show has lost this as a core. Most of this has to do with expansion of Boardwalk‘s world. There’s very little tying us back to Atlantic City, because everyone has set their sights much higher now, especially Nucky, which brings me to my next point.

A Matter of Land

For the love of god, why are we spending so much time in Florida?

So, starting in episode two, Nucky has been negotiating a land deal on Florida, which would allow him to transport rum from the Caribbean to AC. There’s some talk about time shares, a plastic alligator, and a machete to the brain, and we still haven’t come any closer to caring about this thread, and that’s because it starts with a strong premise without a center.

Territory is everything to gangsters. If it wasn’t, what would stop them from just waltzing in and taking control of another. More importantly, what would they take? Yet this territory has no connection to Nucky, and outside of a underdeveloped plot from a criminally underused Patricia Arquette, there are no emotional stakes. None. Despite their best attempts to create them.

This reminds of my third point.

There are no emotional stakes

So Nucky’s been abandoned by his family, the son and daughter whom he would give his whole heart to and the only woman who ever knew him. At what point are we supposed to start caring about Nucky again. Boardwalk Empire is not a Rorschach test; it leads by the viewer toward what is important. Yet, this season’s emotional climaxes had almost not weight. The death of Eddy did not faze the cold and bored Thompson, so why should it faze us? It doesn’t.

Other plots work under the assumption that we are invested in the outcome. Chalky White’s infidelity seems almost irrelevant to the rest of the plot. We barely know his family, let alone his club, which doesn’t seem to have the impact on the community last season promised, so him cheating on his wife didn’t have the punch the show hoped.

Strangely enough, the great emotional stakes seem to come from Eli and his son Willy. These two characters have more to lose than any other, because we see the effects. Nucky has an episode of reflection of Eddy and Chalky has an argument with his wife. We don’t see cause and effect. There’s no ricochet to their actions.

In a show this big, as I mentioned earlier, characters should indirectly affect each other. Even characters that right next to each other barely acknowledge their actions. Build up Chalky’s relationship with his wife and how important the club is to Atlantic City, and we might be a little bit more concerned with his actions.

“Explain to me what happened.”

I feel like that’s all Nucky is saying this season. People come to him for advice or money or help, and he just sits there and has them explain. He went from the protagonist to this passive waste in a matter of months. Nucky may be being pushed to the background so the other characters have room to grow, but after we lost Margaret and her family, the writers seem to be at loss for what to do with this character.

Margaret’s brief return helped things. She can exorcise Nucky’s humanity and make him someone worth following. He needs a reason to fight or continue fighting, and she can give him that. If she could just hang out for the next few episodes, it would make all the difference.

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