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I saved so much time and anguish with my bullet-point review of True Blood season that I’ve decided to give Boardwalk Empire season four the same treatment (partially because I’m running really late on this review). This brief rundown of what did and didn’t work for HBO’s gangster period drama contains a number of spoilers and will be followed with the usual critique of video, audio, and extras.

 Boardwalk Empire Season 4
Things season four got right:
  • Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) saved Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) skin at the end of season three and is awarded with the rebuilt ‘Onyx Club’ (formally Babette’s, until it blew up) for his efforts. His new status and relationship with Nucky puts him in a key story position for season four – a stark contrast to his usual place as the cool guy that occasionally gives the audience a brief glimpse of life for black Americans during the Prohibition era.
  • The season’s big bad, Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) is a complex villain unlike any of the cutthroat goons that have been pitted against our protagonists in the past. His evil is shaded and brilliantly convoluted by his progressive stance on the betterment of black society, which gives him important historical significance that helps make up for lost time with Chalky in other seasons.
  • All the stuff with Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty), J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) and the blossoming of what would eventually become the FBI is also historically interesting, even if it sometimes feels like an afterthought.
  • Nelson Van Alden’s (Michael Shannon) failed attempts at personifying his new identity as ‘George Mueller’ continue to be entertaining, despite his story and every other story taking place in Chicago feeling like a part of a different show. His work as one of Al Capone’s (Stephen Graham) heavies is a bit stagnant in comparison to the previous season, though, and I fear that he’s going to be left entirely on the sidelines for the fifth and final season.


 Boardwalk Empire Season 4
Things season four got wrong:
  • As the main character, Nucky is drawn thin. The writers move him around too often in an awkward attempt to attach him to too many story threads. Either the writers should have centered the season more on his personal issues, thus cutting a number of plotlines, or they should’ve been more willing to detach him from these stories.
  • In contrast to his growth throughout season four, Richard Harrow’s (Jack Huston) death is emotionally manipulative in a lazy way when he accidentally kills Chalky’s daughter and is shot in retaliation. Following the hero’s death he almost had at the end of season three, this pitiful act of accidental evil feels like a cheap shot and would’ve fit better in the perpetual nihilism of Game of Thrones.
  • Boardwalk Empire has always struggled to find a purpose for its female characters. Season three was an improvement in terms of giving the two major surviving women, Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) and Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), something to do. The writers gave both characters nice exits, too. But the events of season four seem to indicate that both of the characters’ arcs were finished, at least in relation to Nucky. Margaret flounders in a boring situation that vaguely connects her to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg, who isn’t really important this season anyway), while Gillian’s screen time is wasted on a lame, cruel long-con that lands her in prison – where she should’ve been since the end of season three (edit: according to the second episode of the latest season, she’s actually in some kind of sanitarium).
  • Speaking of weak roles for women, season four’s new female lead, Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), is completely wasted. Her presence helps extend the show’s geographical reach to Florida and offers Nucky a more compatible love interest, but her story puts the brakes on a number of more interesting plotlines and offers very few narrative rewards.


 Boardwalk Empire Season 4

Video


As per their ongoing modus operandi, HBO wastes no disc space and has spread the 12 episodes across four discs, instead of the usual two discs that most companies stick to. The series continues to be shot on Super 35mm film, leading to yet another filmic transfer that is glistening with fine grain. The biggest hindrance to perfection continues to be the show’s inherent darkness (something that seems to increase every subsequent season). This is problematic for standard definition (and the HD streaming versions on HBO GO), but, in 1080p, fine textures and background patterns are perfectly clear, assuming they aren’t meant to entirely disappear in the shroud of moody darkness. Like many dark HD transfers of 35mm film, darker reds and browns can appear a bit chunky and bandy. There are not, however, any noticeable issues with edge enhancement, even along the crisper edges. The warmer colours are rich, despite occasional noise, and do not bleed into the deeper black levels.

Audio


Boardwalk Empire comes fitted with another subtle, but full-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. This time around, the dialogue tracks are sometime awkwardly mixed in terms of overall aural consistency. Once again, it appears as though quite a bit of dialogue was added in ADR and that some of these tracks were mixed at higher volume levels. In better news, the surround channels are busy wherever crowd/street noise is concerned and action-heavy sequences (gun fights, fisticuffs) feature plenty of directional enhancements. Subtler ambient effects remain realistic, wide, and deep-set. The series’ use of almost exclusively period source music, instead of traditional score, continues to impress in terms of dynamic stylistic deviations – sometimes, the music comes full force through the front channels, while, other times, it leaks softly from a single channel, due to some kind of on-screen source, like a phonograph.

 Boardwalk Empire Season 4

Extras


  • Commentaries:
    • Episode 1: New York Sour with executive producer/writer Howard Korder, executive producer/director Tim Van Patten, and Steve Bucsemi.
    • Episode 4: All In with creator/executive producer Terence Winter, writer David Matthews, director Ed Bianchi, and actor Michael Stuhlbard.
    • Episode 5: Erlkonig with Korder, Van Patten, and actors Anthony Laciura, Brian Geraghty, and Gretchen Mol.
    • Episode 8: The Old Ship of Zion with Korder and actors Erik LaRay Harvey, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Margot Bingham.
    • Episode 11: Harvre de Grace with Korder, director Allen Coulter, and actors Williams and Bingham.
    • Episode 12: Farewell Daddy Blues with Winter, Van Patten, and Buscemi.
  • Boardwalk Chronicle Picture-in-Picture options for each episode – These pop-up text items and branching videos include further discussion on characters, locations, historical facts, and footage from behind the scenes with location manager Audra Gorman.
  • PaleyFest: Made in NY Boardwalk Empire Panel (Disc 2, 26:10, HD) – A panel discussion with Winter, Korder, and cast members Gretchen Mol, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Jeffrey Wright that took place after a screening of episode 5.
  • The Onyx Club: A Step Back in Time (Disc 4, 9:10, HD) – A look at the new Onyx Club set, from historical significance to production design, costume design, and set decoration.
  • Becoming Harrow (Disc 4, 7:40, HD) – An interview with actor Jack Huston about the origins, story arc, and evolution of character Richard Harrow.
  • New Characters (Disc 4, 6:00, HD) – Introductions to Dr. Narcisse, Roy Phillips, Agent Knox, Sally Wheet, Frank & Ralph Capone, and Daughter Maitland.
  • Scouting the Boardwalk (Disc 4, 23:10, HD) – These are the branching video pods from the Boardwalk Chronicle option, all in one place.


 Boardwalk Empire Season 4

Overall


Boardwalk Empire season four is one of the series’ strongest when focusing on the three-way chess game between Nucky, Chalky, and the new villain, Narcisse, but almost every other narrative diversion proves flat and faulty. Overall, it feels like the writers were biding time and I’m kind of glad the series is wrapping up sooner rather than later. That said, it’s still a wonderfully crafted show and one that looks and sounds beautiful on this Blu-ray collection. The special features don’t delve quite as far into the historical context as I might have preferred, but still feature a number of informative commentaries and entertaining featurettes.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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