Season premiere review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘New York Sour’

“Boardwalk Empire” is back for a new season. I published an overall review of the early episodes on Thursday, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I see the second longest contiguous brick wall in the world…

“I want peace, Arnold. That’s all.” -Nucky

As I said in that initial review, I may be doing shorter reviews most weeks this season for two reasons: 1)Having accepted the more novelistic approach “Boardwalk” takes to each of its seasons, the show isn’t always best-served by extensive weekly analysis; and 2)There’s such a glut of notable Sunday shows this fall that going brief with this and others may be the only way to realistically cover them all. But we’ll see how things go each week. When I tried this approach with “Tremé” last fall, some of the reviews were very short, and some wound up being close to the usual length despite my efforts to stay concise. (This one, for instance, wound up being a bit longer than planned by the time I finished it.)

“New York Sour” picks up well after the events of “Margate Sands.” It’s 1924, Chalky has completed the transformation of Babbette’s into the Onyx Club, which Nucky is also using as a new base of operations, while he now lives in an empty old hotel on the outskirts of town. After Gyp Rosetti nearly killed him and conquered Atlantic City a year ago, Nucky has learned the value of isolating himself, and he finally brokers a peace with Rothstein, Masseria and the rest of New York. (And note that Luciano is now fully with Masseria, leaving Meyer Lansky as Arnold’s number two.) Eddie is mostly healed from his wounds, Gillian is badly addicted to heroin after being injected by Gyp and losing custody of Tommy to Julia Sagorsky. Al Capone remains frustrated to be in Johnny Torrio’s shadow, and has the help of brothers Frank and Ralph (the latter played by Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire”) as he tries to take over Cicero. Eli’s oldest son Willie – played by a new actor, Ben Rosenfield, in a way that initially made me believe this was another son, as opposed to the one who helped Nucky out during the war with Gyp – is enrolled at Temple but not fitting in. And Richard Harrow is traveling through the Midwest, performing several assassinations on his way to reunite with his sister Emma, whom he discussed often with Angela Darmody.

The hour doesn’t have time to catch up with every regular character – there’s no Van Alden or Margaret yet, nor does new castmember Jeffrey Wright appear – but it’s a pretty busy hour with much of an ensemble feel than usual. Nucky often dominates the action, but here we open and close with Richard, and the most notable story involves Chalky having to clean up the mess made when Dunn Purnsley murders a white talent scout who catches Dunn sleeping with his wife. As a fan of both Richard and Chalky, their relative prominence pleased me, and Chalky’s story and new status quo in particular worked very well.

Because of all the gangster storylines, “Boardwalk” only sometimes has a chance to take a broader view of life in the ’20s, and that’s usually through Margaret. But the rise of jazz in this period begins to put black culture in front of white audiences, in ways that aren’t always as marvelous and enlightened as black performers and businessmen might hope for. Nucky’s showgirl date describes the Onyx Club dancer as “deliciously primitive,” and Dickie and his wife have an elaborate, disgusting fantasy life where she has sex with big, dangerous black men like Dunn and he watches. The night ends fatally for Dickie, but not that well for Dunn, who loses track of the wife and then gets hazed by Chalky as they dispose of the one body they have.

Nucky makes peace with New York, and insists to Rothstein that he’s perfectly happy with what he has, while Rothstein talks of how much trouble arises from a man’s inability to sit quietly in a room by himself. If Nucky’s life ever gained a peaceful, quiet equilibrium, there would be no show. Season 4 gets off to a very promising start by having the first spot of trouble originate in Chalky’s corner of this world.

Some other thoughts:

* Not specific to this episode, but I’ll be moderating the “Boardwalk Empire” panel at the first New York PaleyFest on October 6. Terence Winter is definitely on the panel; other talent’s still being wrangled. Details and ticket info here.

* It continues to be bad news to have ever partnered with Van Alden in the Atlantic City field office, as Agent Sawicki gets killed by a booby-trapped shotgun, set up by new partner Knox, who isn’t remotely the country bumpkin he makes himself out to be. Hmm…

* Gillian is not only using heroin regularly, but has become a cheap hooker in a very big and empty house.  We’ll see what effect the arrival of Ron Livingston as Piggly Wiggly executive Roy Phillips has on her.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at