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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “New York Sour”

Boardwalk Empire Season 4
HBO

Boardwalk Empire‘ returns tonight on HBO with the season 4 premiere, “New York Sour,” in which Nucky attempts a peace treaty, Chalky opens his new club, and Gillian tries to sell her house. And if that all sounds a bit too cheerful, don’t worry — bubbling beneath the happy surface, it’s still business as usual, with plenty of violence to go around.

There’s no business like show business, and in “New York Sour,” everyone is putting on a big show. For Nucky, that means sealing a peace agreement with Joe Masseria and Arnold Rothstein, two crime bosses who were slighted in the wake of Gyp Rosetti and Nucky’s feud last season. Though it seemed like Rothstein (or “A.R.,” as Lucky Luciano affectionately calls him) was headed to federal court last season as a pawn in Nucky’s maneuvers with the justice system, it’s implied that he’s in the clear now — a bit of convenient plotting, explained away with a simple line, but it allows the narrative to move forward as the stage is set for this season. In the season 3 finale, Nucky was alienated on the boardwalk, ditching his signature red carnation and blending in with the crowd, hinting at a much more reserved and quiet Nucky in season 4 — and that’s exactly where he is now, holed up in the Albatross hotel on the edge of town, secluded from all the bright lights and noise. Nucky needs to get back to business, and a show of peace (along with a bag of cash for Masseria), will help him re-focus his efforts.

Seeing Nucky alone in his hotel with a recuperated Eddie (yay!) reminds us of the whirlwind he’s been caught up in up to now. As great and powerful as he’d become, he was still motivated by what every character on this show is motivated by, in one way or another: greed. And that’s all fine and good, until that greed gives you too much power, and that power goes to your head. Nucky learned the hard way, again and again, that not even he is untouchable, and to see him standing on the balcony of his new home, we get a sense of calm — there’s definitely some humility, but there’s also a man who is more careful and calculated in his decision-making now. When his new lady friend purrs about how she wanted to meet Nucky because everyone in show business knows that the only way Billie Kent made it onto the stage was by sleeping with him, he wastes no time in having Eddie show her the door. It’s undoubtedly cold, but this is the Nucky Thompson that needs to exist — this is the guy who isn’t going to let people use him anymore, even — and especially — women. But I don’t doubt for a second that his new wannabe mistress’ dig at Billie hit him in a spot that’s still pretty sore, and his motivation in kicking her out was two-fold.

Chalky is putting on a literal show, hiring performers for the Onyx club, the New Jersey imitation of the infamous Cotton Club. And things are going pretty well for Chalky, until his boy Dunn Purnsley gets into bed with the wrong woman — the wife of talent agent Dickie, who sends Dunn a crude porn drawing on a napkin to signify her interest in sleeping with him, also implying that Dunn, a black man, cannot read. And so begins a nasty subplot involving some startling racial dynamics when Dickie walks in on his wife having sex with Dunn, then forces Dunn at gunpoint to continue (while Dickie pleasures himself), throwing in some racial slurs for good measure in this elaborate, and incredibly racist cuckholding roleplay. What follows might be the most violent event in the entire episode, as Dunn decides he doesn’t want to be anyone’s slave, and takes a broken bottle to Dickie’s neck — but there’s the catch, as he’s cost Chalky some good business. While Dunn may be a free man, he still answers to Chalky, further elaborated when Chalky chastises him mercilessly as Dunn buries Dickie’s body out in the boonies.

The federal agents even get a bit of crafty plotting, as we’re introduced to newcomer Agent Knox, who seems like a naive, straight and narrow type at first (another bit of show business), but later pulls one over on his partner, Stan, conveniently leaving out a crucial detail when they visit the home of a bootlegger — a detail that gets Stan shot in the face. Agent Knox is definitely one to watch this season.

Gillian is putting on quite the show of her own — and, as assumed, she’s fallen into a pretty heavy heroin addiction following her lethal encounter with Gyp at the end of last season. Gillian is fighting to get Tommy back from Julia and her father Paul, so she’s playing the role of loving, wholesome grandmother in front of the judge, and trying to sell her house so she can take the profits and raise Tommy proper; judging by the track marks on her arms, that money won’t last long. Equally as startling as the Dunn’s porno napkin and subsequent bottle-necking is Gillian’s moment with a prospective buyer, when she tells him, “30 … 40 if you want me to put it in my mouth.” Gillian may be putting on the good ol’ girl show in front of the judge, but back home where it counts, she’s still up to her old tricks — pun intended.

And that’s when we meet Ron Livingston’s new character, Roy, a businessman who has hilariously come to Jersey to open a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, and has offered to be Gillian’s new roommate — unaware that he’s unwittingly stepped into trouble already.

Speaking of the now-defunct Artemis Club, Richard Harrow’s journey of violence continues, as he tracks down the (presumably) last remaining survivors of the bloodbath from the season 3 finale. Once he’s satisfied (so many faces are shot this week!), he heads back home to his sister, Emma. While everyone else in “New York Sour” is concerned with the business of show (including Al Capone, who spends the episode tracking down a reporter to make sure his name is spelled correctly in the future), Richard’s motives are more simple and direct: revenge. And when there’s nothing left, where do you go? Back home, to where you started. Home for Nucky is back to business basics. Home for Gillian is keeping the last vestige of Jimmy — her grandson, Tommy — under her thumb. Home for Chalky is a club of his own, a piece of his own pie. And home for Richard Harrow is a literal home, filled with comfort, free from judgment and those who would take advantage of a lethal man with half of a face; a home where he can put his gun away and just live.

Noticeably absent this week are Margaret and Van Alden, but I suspect we’ll catch up with them soon. Van Alden’s story was more sporadic last season, showing up every other episode or so, and I imagine with Margaret disentangling herself from Nucky’s life, she might be less of a presence this season, too. Time will tell.

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