So, when last we left Boardwalk Empire, Gyp Rosetti had been dispatched to the Great Roadside Diner in the Sky while relieving himself on the beach and Nucky had, with great bloodshed, retaken control of Atlantic City. And that’s where Season 4 began this week.
One of the problems I have with the series is that each season has included an arc like last season’s Gyp saga, and then the conflict ends and we’re really no further along than we were – Nucky’s in control, and, well, that’s it. Meanwhile, some of the most interesting characters in the series, like Jack Huston’s alternately tender and ultra-violent Richard Harrow, Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White, Stephen Graham’s Al Capone, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein, seem way more worthy of being in the foreground than Nucky himself, despite Steve Buscemi’s outstanding performance. And some of the secondary characters, especially the great Michael Shannon’s Nelson van Alden or whatever name he goes by at any given point, are cartoonish to the point of being jarringly out of place. But with all that, and with the nagging feeling that the show’s lurching from season to season without a lot of direction, it’s still compelling enough to keep me coming back. And so, with “New York Sour,” we’re back contemplating Nucky’s next move.
It’s winter, snow is blowing around outside a bar in Warsaw, Indiana, and a couple of strangers are stuck with a car that won’t start; They aren’t going anywhere after Richard Harrow shows up to dispatch them and take their money. Meanwhile, Chalky’s reviewing entertainment — some tap dancers — for his Onyx Club (the former Babbette’s), and Chalky’s lieutenant Dunn gets an invitation from a talent agent’s wife that he can’t resist (after she asks him to freshen her drink, a “New York Sour,” hence the episode name — things do, indeed, go sour). Upstairs at the club, Nucky has his first meeting with Joe Masseria after Gyp’s execution, and Nucky proposes splitting New Jersey, which doesn’t go very well until a bag of hundred dollar bills eases the tension. “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself,” Arnold Rothstein tells Nucky. He asks if that’s what Nucky’s trying to do, but it’s obvious Nucky can’t do that.
Gillian is in court, represented by Leander, pleading for custody of her grandson, which isn’t a smooth case considering her career and what happened at her place of business months earlier. And Eli drops by to visit Mickey Doyle and pay off agent Sawicki and new partner Knox, a seemingly timid country guy, for their cooperation; Knox arranges some extracurricular activity involving one of Doyle’s guys. In Illinois, Al Capone welcomes a (literal) truckload of women imported to “entertain” a bar full of shriners and, meeting with Johnny Torrio, discusses trouble on the horizon from some reform-minded candidates, but seems way more distracted by the newspaper article, which misspelled his name. Back east at Chalky’s club, Nucky meets with Eddie Cantor and flirts with Cantor’s partner, while Gillian takes a potential resident for her facility on a tour while taking a few moments to shoot herself up — her habit’s in full effect now.
Insurance company president Franklin P. Werner is nervously taking a meeting with a silent visitor and pleading that he’s a middleman taking order from the Milwaukee office. The visitor is, of course, Richard Harrow, who isn’t taking Werner’s offer of money. “You don’t know anything about me,” Werner cries. “I know,” Harrow croaks, “you’re gonna die.” It ends with a bullet to the face and another in the forehead. Mr. Harrow is on quite a roll already.
It’s a family occasion at the Thompson’s with Uncle Nucky visiting Eli and his large family. Nucky’s oldest son Willie takes a grilling from his parents about college while Nucky excuses himself, but takes a moment to counsel Eli’s son, who wants to learn more about “the business”; Nucky tells him to stay at Temple and “get A’s.” The kid’s probably got a different idea about his future.
Capone’s still upset about his name being misspelled in the papers; his brother Frank suggests that he’s better off if nobody knows who he is, but Al doesn’t agree. Chalky’s guy Dunn and the talent agent’s wife are getting it on and get interrupted by the agent, who has a gun; the wife claims rape and the agent isn’t listening to any other story, using the gun to elicit a humiliating “yes, boss” and then ordering a resumption of sexual activity while his hand goes down his pants, but when he says “there’s no changing you people,” that’s enough for Dunn to leap up and stab the agent in the neck until he dies while the wife escapes through an open window. When Chalky finds out, he is less than pleased, to say the least. Eli and Nucky show up to survey the damage, and Nucky just tells them, “just make sure people stay quiet here.” Chalky and Eli drive Dunn and the body out to the middle of nowhere, where Dunn is left to dump the body, with Chalky barking orders to Eli’s amusement.
Gillian is again showing the whorehouse to a prospective resident, who happens to be Ron Livingston assuming an odd southern accent as businessman Roy Phillips, a representative of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. More will come of this, it’s clear. In Illinois, the Capone brothers pay a visit to the Cicero Daily Tribune to teach the reporter who misspelled their name a lesson in how to spell his name. He will not forget.
The Onyx Club is packed with revelers for a performance kicked off by the Onyx Girls; it’s a Cotton Club stand-in, a black club for an almost entirely white audience. In the back of the room, Nucky and Dunn exchange testy words over the missing wife before Nucky joins his date, Eddie Cantor’s partner, at his table. Later, while she’s naked in bed, she tells Nucky that she’d wanted to meet him since hearing about how Billie Kent had gotten ahead; Nucky, rattled, excuses himself and sends Eddie in to tell her to leave.
Sawicki and Knox are poised to go in and raid Doyle’s guy’s place, which turns out to be boobytrapped with a shotgun; when Sawicki breaks in, the gun kills him, and when Doyle’s guy walks out to see what happened, he’s shot, too. Knox set them up. He’s not a timid hick after all. I guess we’ll see more of him.
While Nucky ponders his existence on the porch of a windswept hotel in Atlantic City, Richard Harrow walks up to a house in the middle of a snow-covered field, hides his gun in a woodpile, knocks on the door, and finds himself held at gunpoint by a woman, who, surprised, lowers her shotgun, while Richard says, “Emma, I’m home.” It’s his sister.
And that’s where it ends. Nucky’s dealing with the realization that he’s being used, Gillian might have a new partner in crime, Chalky’s finally getting some foreground action with the Onyx Club, Capone’s becoming more the Al Capone of legend, and Richard is exploring his past in bloody fashion. Van Alden and Margaret remain AWOL, and Jeffrey Wright’s character hasn’t shown up yet, but this week was a promising and bloody start to the season. The coming episodes will introduce Wright as this year’s nemesis; it’s promising, and if the show can get a handle on what to do with its various characters, maybe it can take the next step towards must-watch….