I enjoyed Season Three of Boardwalk Empire quite a bit, to the point where I hoped that some of the actors received some awards recognition for the work. While it would have been difficult to see if the show could match themselves in that regard, they certainly gave it the college try in Season Four, albeit in a different fashion.
The fourth season finds Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, Youth In Revolt) alone but still running things in Atlantic City. Now in 1924, the club that he ran initially has been rebuilt after a bombing, now it is renamed The Onyx Club and run by Chalky White (Michael K. Williams, The Wire), a business ally of Nucky's. Nucky has incorporated his brother Eli (Shea Whigham, Take Shelter) into more of the operation after his release from jail. However, investigative agents in Washington are still pursuing Nucky, notably Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty, The Hurt Locker), working under Edgar Hoover in a then-fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. Along with this investigation, the predominant story in Season Four is the conflict between Chalky and Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, The Ides Of March), a crime boss in Harlem whose interest in Chalky's turf leads him to try and turn Nucky against him.
Before the early episodes of Season Four of Boardwalk aired, seeing that Wright would be appearing on the show was encouraging to see, and he does not disappoint in the role. Narcisse is one that if he needs to, strikes with fury at people who may impede him from his target. The introduction of Daughter Maitland to the mix only heightens the tension. Maitland is portrayed by Margot Bingham (In Between Men) in the show's more underrated performances, torn between her business allegiance to Narcisse and her personal one to Chalky. Wright and Bingham's appearance in the show generally made for special moments in Season Four.
On the opposite site, Ron Livingston (Rounders) for her work. And Nucky's ex-wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald, Brave) was not in the season much, but when she was, her relationship with a former foe of Nucky's that I imagine will work itself out in Season Five, but in Season Four it just comes off as creepy.
We have not even talked about the Chicago component of the show, whether it is Al Capone (Stephen Graham, The Damned United) and his increasing prominence into mob business with his brothers Frank and Ralph, the latter of whom is played by fellow Wire alum Domenick Lombardozzi. Or the continuing slow metamorphosis of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon, Mud) from former Bureau agent to iron salesman to…well, you can find out for yourself in Season Four.
There could be some natural and disproportionate disappointment to some of the lulls of Season Four of Boardwalk Empire because Season Three was excellent, but I think the subtle difference was intriguing. Season Three was more about the payoff of events that set their course through the season, but Season Four made you experience more of the burn to get to those payoffs. Eli dealt with family turmoil on two different levels, and the end of the arc in Season Four's finale was one where you experienced his letting out the emotion and frustration. Whigham's performance through the season was extraordinary. Williams' character had the more grandiose scenes for the season and we saw more of Chalky's character (and Williams' range) than we were exposed to in the past, and it was rewarding.
For that matter, it seemed like there was a lesser spoken push in Boardwalk Empire to have the viewer experience more of a character's path to a given point than in previous seasons, and it was handled about as well as one could expect. Performances and storytelling continues to be excellent, but the exploration of depth in Season Four of Boardwalk Empire was a pleasurable and sometimes painful ride, but well worth it throughout.
Twelve episodes split evenly over four discs, all presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and look excellent. Colors and flesh tones are reproduced cleanly and accurately without issues in color saturation or image noise, and the source material remains as pristine as can be. There were brief moments of haloing, though not which stuck around long enough to detract from the image, and film grain and detail was abundant throughout. Boardwalk Empire remains an excellent show when presented on either standard or high definition.
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for all episodes and they all are excellent as well. The level of immersion for the show is consistent over the course of the season, regardless of the context of a scene. It could be the outdoor country of in "Havre De Grace" or the beach scenes at Nucky's retreat, or the more dynamic sounds in and around The Onyx Club. Surround usage is smart without overkill, subwoofer usage is well-placed and effective and channel panning and directional effects are clear and pleasant. It remains one of the better shows technically for good reason.
The Blu-ray release of the show has some more extras to it, but the standard definition release is no slouch when it comes to the bonus material as well. Disc One has a look back at Season Three and slightly towards Season Four, hosted by Terence Winter (14:31) which covers characters and storylines, along with the obligatory speculation and teasing for the season to come. Disc Four has "The Onyx Club: A Step Back in Time" (9:12), an interesting look at the production challenge to make this new set and how it fits into the historical times. It covers the singer and dancer approach to such a club and the subtle changes in music for the show. "Becoming Harrow" (7:40) is a piece of appreciation to the character portrayed by Jack Huston, his origins and evolution throughout the show's existence. "New Characters" (5:55) is a look at just that with Winter and the actors who are new to the ensemble.
The show includes commentaries on six of the twelve episodes, with appearances by Winter, Buscemi, Williams, Bingham, Timothy Van Patten and others. The commentaries are decent, we learn about how the impetus to keep things historically faithful is handled, along with naming a Federal Agent after Hubert Selby, and there are raves for actors not participating on the commentaries also. There is a fair amount of watching the action onscreen and the tracks are certainly not integral to the enjoyment of the show, but if given the chance, I would consider skipping the tracks.
That Boardwalk Empire could explore new ground that their characters had not experienced before and yet still give the general public the violence and the emotion that other seasons had is a testament to how on point the ensemble in the cast and crew is. Technically the show looks and sound fabulous, regardless of what medium up experience it in, and from a bonus material perspective, they give the fans what they want. If you are looking for a binge watch, there is no better candidate at this point, and fans of the show should happily add this to the library.