BOARDWALK EMPIRE: SEASON 4 RETROSPECTIVE

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Richard: I will see you in 3 days.
Julia: Or I will hunt you down and drag you to Wisconsin.
Richard: I promise.

Richard Harrow was a quiet, sad, internal, in many ways broken man when he returned home from the Great War. Broken not only emotionally, but physically as well. Missing half his face, unable to speak with any great conviction, and always concerned of frightening those around him. When he met Jimmy Darmody, he began to find his place in the world again, but it was never without difficulty. Then, when his only friend in the world was killed, we had to wonder, what is next for Richard?

Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire saw Richard Harrow in some very dark and lonely places, including an entire, beautiful episode showing us Richard’s isolation and his thoughts of suicide. But his life found a purpose as the season played out, first, as caretaker and father figure to Jimmy’s son, Tommy, then as a love interest to the daughter of a fellow war vet, Julia. But the finale of season 3 gives us Richard at perhaps his very darkest. In order to protect and rescue Tommy, Richard goes on an amazing, nearly unbelievable killing spree, which shatters him to his very core. He delivers Tommy to Julia, getting him away from his monster of a grandmother, but being more broken than ever before, he leaves. He leaves Atlantic City, he leaves Julia, and he leaves Tommy.

From his introduction in season 1, Jack Huston’s performance as Richard Harrow quickly showed itself to be one of the best of Boardwalk Empires truly special ensemble, and even one of the very best on all of TV. In fact, Richard Harrow likely was the character that I looked forward to spending time with most each year (yes, including Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Jesse Pinkman, Kenny Powers, Raylan Givens, Boyd Crowder and the enter Gallagher family). Huston’s performance was always so small, but ever powerful. He was never given a ton of screen time, but his screen presence more than made up for it. His quiet determination and devotion to his best friend’s son was truly touching, and Richard died at the close of season 4 of Boardwalk Empire to again protect Tommy.

That being said, I suppose if I want to call this post a season 4 “retrospective,” I should do something other than talk about 1 character. Here’s the thing about Boardwalk Empire though: it remains one of the most beautiful, complicated, well written, marvelously acted, and criminally under watched shows on TV. My guess is that people attempt to ignore this show because they can’t “buy” Steve Buscemi in a leading role, but that’s ridiculous. Yes, Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson is the “center” of this show, but it is an ensemble in the same vein as many of the great ensembles of this Golden Age of TV, such as LOST, The West Wing or Mad Men.

As each season that came before it did, season 4 started slowly, with many seemingly disconnected stories, ranging from Wisconsin to NYC to Chicago to Atlantic City to Florida. But as always, by the time the season came to a close, each story beautifully intersected with the other. The fact that people still try to doubt the brilliance of Boardwalk astounds me, but moreso than that, the fact that it is so overlooked, even by people who watch good TV, is the true disappointment for me.

In a season defined by some intense and heart wrenching deaths (Agent Knox, Chalk’s daughter and obviously Richard), the most important deaths going forward are likely the one’s that didn’t happen. That neither Dr. Narcisse or Chalky White died in this finale was not only surprising, but also very exciting for the story going forward. The addition of Dr. Narcisse (played magnificently by the great Jeffrey Wright) was a welcome sight for many reasons. It’s not only good for the show because it added one more incredible performer to this ensemble. It was also fascinating for what it added in terms of the race discussion of Boardwalk Empire. Terrence Winter showed us over the previous 3 seasons how Chalky dealt with the white community, specifically Nucky, but this year, we got a chance to see him deal with internal race relations with Dr. Narcisse. And whatever anyone may think of Chalky (that he’s a criminal, a bootlegger, a murderer), he has always had the interests of his family, and his community at the forefront. The same cannot be said of Dr. Narcisse. Though we are presented with a man who claims to be a spokesman for his community, by the end of the season, we see that he is nothing more than a pimp and a peddler, and he’s not half the man that Chalky White is.

Going forward without Richard is a sad proposition for me, as I said, he was probably my favorite character on all of TV, but his death came at the right time for the show. And this is a show, unlike many (I’m looking at you Sons of Anarchy), that is always honest about it’s characters, and honest to its story. If the story calls for a character to die, no matter how painful it might be, the show makes that move. I believe Boardwalk is in as strong a position as ever, and I can’t wait for next September and season 5.

Season grade: 9.5/10

–CJ