Which is better: An unfocused series that sometimes meanders from season to season and appears to lack complete, compelling narrative cohesion - or a program so focused on its destination that it is effectively doomed to repetitively lead its audience to the inevitable edge of its own storyline, only to consistently yank them back and start it all over again?
Truth be told, there are drawbacks and advantages to both of these options (the advantages being readily defended by the show's more ardent fanbase). And while Boardwalk Empire has certainly been pinned as the former, perhaps there is something to be said for the freedom of the 1920s-set picturesque gangland drama's lack of certainty (in terms of its plot and subtext) that allows it to expand and contract its scope without necessarily having to know where things are headed and why.
To a certain extent that's okay: being oblique is a great way for the series to discover something about itself and to allow its characters to be far more flexible and mutable as the season-to-season plot dictates. In fact, it could be argued that by this point, Boardwalk Empire has developed so many characters and separate plot threads (some worthwhile and some not so much) that it has effectively segued into an accomplished ensemble piece, rather than a series led by the permanently pursed puss of Steve Buscemi's Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson.
At the start of season 4, it's clear that Terence Winter and his crew (which now includes famed novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane) have taken that concept to heart, as the series has all but forgotten its humble Atlantic City roots and now spends progressively larger amounts of time in places like New York City (and the various intriguing places it has to offer) and Chicago, to better follow the rise of real-life characters like Stephen Graham's Al Capone, or Vincent Piazza's Lucky Luciano - who has now paired himself with Ivo Nandi's Joe Masseria. Last season, James Cromwell and Stephen Root appeared as Andrew W. Mellon and Gaston Bullock Means, respectively.
On one hand, all of this simply demonstrates how Boardwalk Empire has expanded and grown over the course of three full seasons, and that, in order to tell a more comprehensive story about the criminal element profiting from prohibition, these are the things that must be included. One the other hand, the drawback of all these admittedly superlative additions to the cast, then, is a further dilution of the central concept behind the series – which wasn't too clear to begin with – and the further marginalization of criminally underused (or perhaps misused, is the better word) characters like Kelly Macdonald's Margaret Schroeder/Thompson, who is nowhere to be seen in the season premiere.
Also gone is the rickety tightrope separating the political and criminal ambitions of Nucky Thompson's life, and with it the more compelling push-pull dynamic of balancing legitimacy with criminality. It could be argued that at the end of season 2, which culminated in the death of Nucky's would-be counterpart and proxy for his deceased child, James Darmody, the show gambled away its most compelling element and, perhaps, character dynamic.
Since then, it has filled the void with many of the aforementioned real-life characters – three of whom were featured prominently in season 3 – and one incredibly colorful, borderline cartoonish new character by the name of Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), as a way to rock the proverbial boat on which Nucky's precious cargo rides. Of course, what worked once may well work again, so the compelling addition to this season is that of highly-regarded actor of stage and screen Jeffrey Wright, as Dr. Valentin Narcisse (who will be making his first appearance in the second episode).
Although Narcisse doesn't appear in 'New York Sour,' the threads leading to his introduction are there and they lie within the club that's now owned and operated by Michael K. Williams' Chalky White – which looks to be one of the main focal points of the season's narrative. In fact, much of the action in the premiere is centered in and around the club, as Dunn Purnsley (Eric LaRay Harvey) winds up brutally stabbing a talent scout named Dickie, after being caught sleeping with his wife. The elevated presence of Chalky and Purnsely (as well as the promise of the Harlem-based Narcisse) suggests much of the season's period-specific gaze will be centered on race and the role of black culture in the 1920s and how primarily white audiences viewed it. So far, this has led to a few awkward situations – one stemming from comments by Nucky's showgirl date, and the other involving Dunn Purnsley, a man named Dickie and a broken bottle of booze.
By and large, 'New York Sour' serves as an interesting, if not thrilling set up for Boardwalk Empire season 4. Like season's past, there are more than a handful of plot threads being strung up in the first hour, which will hopefully converge on the central storyline more quickly and concisely than they have before. There's the intriguing Agent Knox who goes out of his way to have Agent Sawicki killed by a booby-trapped garage door, and then there's Ron Livingston's Piggly Wiggly executive who has conveniently made the acquaintance of Gretchen Mol's down-on-her-luck Gillian Darmody. And bringing up echoes of the past is Nucky's nephew Willie, who has gotten a taste of his uncle's business and finds it more compelling than matriculating at Temple.
Early on, Nucky appears to make peace with New York – meaning Arnold Rothstein and Joe Massaria – insisting he has all the power and territory he could possibly want. He wants to convince them he's happy with his lot and being holed-up in the Albatross Hotel, and that he's not looking to stir up or respond to any more trouble. Rothstein says trouble comes from a man's inability to sit quietly in a room by himself, while Nucky assures him that's not the case.
Of course, trouble will come looking for Nucky Thompson, as it always does and that keeps things promising. Boardwalk Empire may not necessarily have designs on precisely where it is going as a series, but that doesn't mean that a slow ride to some vague destination can't be entertaining and very, very nice to look at.
Boardwalk Empire continues next Sunday with 'Resignation' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: