“All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself,” says Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) to Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) in the fourth-season premiere of Boardwalk Empire, paraphrasing French mathematician Blaise Pascal in an attempt to make Nucky realize the error of his ways. Pascal’s words may very well be the perfect encapsulation of Boardwalk Empire’s corrupt microcosm, now set in 1924, where the characters who are already firmly seated in a position of wealth and authority stubbornly endeavor to expand their domain further, even when it places their current level of command at risk.
Boardwalk Empire’s geographic scope is finally broadening along with the criminal ambitions of its characters, with Nucky aiming to capitalize on the bustling Floridian real-estate market, leaving the bulk of his Atlantic City operations in the arguably less capable hands of his associates. Florida’s much brighter color scheme is a pleasant respite from the darker scenery of the AC boardwalk. Seeing the ghostly pale Nucky transplanted to the sunny, palm tree-lined shores of Tampa is a juxtaposition that, for once, allows him be viewed as a sort of fish out of water, albeit one not without his learned resourcefulness, rather than a ravenous shark eagerly circling its prey.
As the breadth of Boardwalk Empire’s locales magnifies, so, too, does its focus on the cultural issues of the era. The newly constructed Onyx Club, succeeding the exploded Babette’s as the boardwalk’s happening joint, is the first time the series has so freely presented blacks and whites commingling in the same environment, and tensions frequently run high. The site is overseen by Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), who has prematurely assumed himself as well-respected among the town’s upper-class white citizens. With the introduction of Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), the proverbial Big Bad replacing Bobby Cannavale’s unapologetically cartoonish Gyp Rosetti, heated racial relations are pushed to the fore. Narcisse is a coolly diabolical, black-power-enforcing kingpin hailing from Harlem, constantly quoting cryptic Bible verses as he speaks of the great Libyan master race and how it must never be “mixed” with that of the “Nordics.” Nucky, too busy with his Tampa trespasses, fails to see Narcisse gradually tightening his grip on Atlantic City’s lawless underground. Wright portrays Narcisse as a kind of scholarly loon, walking a fine line between genius and delusion, delivering vaguely metaphorical lines with an air of sly ruthlessness and creating a surreptitiously enigmatic villain whose true intentions are always cloaked in shadow.
Boardwalk Empire’s expansion of its plotlines is as relentless as its characters’ appetite for prestige: half-faced sharpshooter Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) returns home to reunite with his estranged sister, Emma (Katherine Waterston), only to find that his homesickness was actually for the battlefield; ex-Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is now deeply entrenched in Chicago’s gangland clashes, caught in the middle of a boiling turf war between Dean O’Banion (Arron Shiver) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham); Nucky’s brother, Eli (Shea Wingham), officially instated as Nucky’s right-hand man, is struggling to keep his collegiate son, Willie (Ben Rosenfield), from falling into a life of crime; and all the while, Nucky’s luck may be beginning to run out, as the F.B.I. dream team of baby-faced Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) and J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) is hot on his trail, slowly chipping away at his weakest link, the recently promoted Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura). The onrush of activity is merciless, and yet the show’s pacing never suffers for it. Lengthy scenes of characters hashing out business deals are intercut with frantic bursts of gory violence, and as the body count rapidly rises, so do the stakes. More than in past seasons, each gruesome death seems to have a justifiable reason behind it, motivated by the seemingly insatiable appetite for increased influence and respect. In the realm of Boardwalk Empire, a man’s worth isn’t determined by how much money he has, but how skilled he is at acquiring more of it. Nucky has long been the king in this regard, but for once his throne seems like it’s in real jeopardy, and it’s a joy to watch him squirm.