Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘The North Star’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I’m attacked by a rogue possum…

“She said, ‘I am who I am. Who else could I be?'” -Sagorsky

We’ve reached the halfway point of season 4, and while I’ve really enjoyed it so far – as I said at the start of the year, the increased focus on characters like Chalky, Capone and Richard, and the introduction of a great new character like Narcisse, has made this one of the show’s best seasons to date – I’ve spent a lot of it wondering when exactly Nucky’s story was going to kick in. Though he’s not my favorite character on the show, he is far and away the central character, and he spent most of the early episodes reacting to other people’s problems: Dunn’s screw-up with the talent scout and his wife, Eddie’s demand for more responsibility, Bill McCoy’s wild Tampa land deal, Rothstein’s bad night at the card table, Willie’s legal troubles regarding the poisoning, etc.

But Eddie’s suicide, and Nucky’s response to it, helps put both his story and the arc of the season as a whole into stronger focus. Right before a brief, awkward encounter with Margaret (Kelly Macdonald’s first appearance of the season) at Penn Station, he laments the idea of going through “your whole life with things right under your nose” and comes to realize just how much he took Eddie – and Margaret, and so many of the people in his life – for granted. And while down in Tampa, he begins turning to Sally the bartender for the same comfort and counsel he once received from Margaret – more even, given that he entrusts her to be his eyes on the ground for the land deal, which is greater oversight than he ever granted his wife – and admits in his own words that he has failed Rothstein’s test about a man’s ability to sit quietly in a room by himself. He’s not sure why he keeps doing these deals, making these partnerships, when his operation is in solid shape already, “And I wonder if I did nothing – nothing at all – if I would be happier. But I can’t stop. I tried. But I… I get wound up.”

Nucky thinks he can go back to a calm, peaceful existence, but that life is long gone. Now he’s the kind of guy who goes to alligator fights, then trades punches with a woman in a lightning storm before the two of them make love against a wall. Whether he spends the season’s second half trying to fight his new nature or embracing it, it finally feels like Nucky has stepped back to the forefront of his own series – conveniently right at the moment his brother was inadvertently giving Agent Knox access to all the information Eddie tried to protect with his suicide. I expect Nucky to defeat this latest threat the way he has every other one, and it helps that he feels like a more vital, vibrant character while doing so.

“The North Star” not only put Nucky back at the forefront, but did so while exercising the series’ trademark patience and artistry. What’s so impressive about this episode, and the best hours of the show, is how they let scenes and moments linger, whether it’s Chalky (also trying to fight his own inner nature) watching Daughter Maitland sing, or the dying Sagorsky telling Richard his terrible war story from the Philippines, or Lansky and Luciano having their falling-out because of Lucky’s paranoia about doing a deal with Joe Masseria’s cousin. The show lets scenes breathe, and if a story or character isn’t fully-baked, it can feel like things are being dragged out past the point of interest. But when you have the right people and conflict, like that gorgeous Chalky/Daughter scene, time becomes irrelevant. I could have watched him watch her sing for much, much longer than the show let us.

And though the Tampa set-up could feel like one far-flung location too many for a show that already has regular stops in Atlantic City, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, I just love the atmosphere of the place: gangster, cowboy and tropical, all put in a blender and served in one of Sally’s shot glasses.

Very happy with where we find ourselves at the midpoint, and looking forward to seeing how (or if) Capone’s coup of Cicero, Willie’s misadventures at college, Gillian’s affair with Roy, Narcisse’s plotting with Dunn and various other threads all tie together by the end.

Some other thoughts:

* This is the fourth out of the season’s first six episodes to have Howard Korder get ever sole or partial script credit. His co-writer here: “Tremé” co-creator Eric Overmyer, who had some time on his hands due to that show’s abbreviated final season (which will debut in December, after “Boardwalk” wraps for the year).

* Korder, Terence Winter, Gretchen Mol, Michael Kenneth Williams and Jeffrey Wright were all on hand last Sunday for the “Boardwalk Empire” panel at the inaugural New York version of PaleyFest, which I moderated. Fans got to see last week’s episode a few hours early – which made things somewhat awkward when we then tried to discuss Eddie’s death without spoiling it for people live-streaming the Q&A (but not the episode) – and then we briefly discussed recent developments. Korder and Wright both talked about the creation of Narcisse, whom the writers see as kind of a “vampire” living off the blood of his own people, and who’s loosely based on a Harlem crime figure of the period. Among the more interesting revelations: Winter said that when he was first developing “Boardwalk” at HBO, the first actor they talked about to play Nucky – especially given his great resemblance to the real Nucky Johnson – was James Gandolfini, but they recognized quickly that Gandolfini wouldn’t want to do another series immediately after “The Sopranos,” if ever. You can see part of the Q&A here.

* I often get frustrated when the antagonist on a show survives and succeeds because one of the protagonists acts stupidly, but Eli doesn’t have the information we do about Knox, and Nucky already has a history of putting money into other people’s names (specifically, the person he saw at Penn Station) and suffering for it. Although did Eli pick up some kind of clue about Knox’s true identity from the monogrammed handkerchief?

* Also, given what we know about the real J. Edgar Hoover and his fixation on Communists and anarchists over organized crime (alluded to here during their meeting), I suspect that if/when Knox screws up, his boss will not have his back.

* Good to have Richard back after a two-week absence. I do hope, though, that his arc this year doesn’t wind up just being a repeat of season 3, where he attempts to give up killing and focus on Tommy, Julia and happiness, only to be forced to pick up his guns at the end. (Which isn’t to say I don’t want to see Richard shooting anyone anymore; I just don’t want a beat-for-beat rehash of what he went through last year.)

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at