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HBO's Boardwalk Empire begins its fourth season slowly, quietly after bloody gangland war

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In Nucky Thompson, character actor Steve Buscemi has found a well-deserved starring role.

HBO / HANDOUT Enlarge Image

In Nucky Thompson, character actor Steve Buscemi has found a well-deserved starring role.

After an all-out war, there must necessarily be peace.

That can only come as welcome news for Nucky Thompson, who in Boardwalk Empire's explosive -- literally -- third-season finale barely survived a bloody and nearly successful attempt by rival Gyp Rossetti to take control of Atlantic City's crime empire.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether an uneasy end to gangland hostilities is also good news for the HBO drama's loyal fan base. With peace comes calm, and with calm comes a decided downturn in the action level after such a frantic finish to last season's run.

6When Boardwalk Empire returns (Sunday, Sept. 8, on HBO Canada; check listings for time), eight months have passed and Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is trying his best to maintain a low profile, having moved to nondescript digs at the far end of the Atlantic City boardwalk while working quietly to reconfigure his business interests.

Having been betrayed by some close allies during the attempt to unseat him, Nucky has strengthened his ties with black gangster Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), whom he has elevated to partner/manager level in a new nightclub venture.

The arrangement seems to be going smoothly, until a bloody misstep by an underling introduces a new player into the power game -- Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a charismatic but ruthless figure from Harlem who spouts biblical verse and cultural philosophy while keeping his focus clearly on using this opportunity to grab a percentage of Nucky's finances.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, upstart mobster Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is counting on the support of his brothers, Frank and Ralph (Morgan Spector and Domenick Lombardozzi), as he not-so-quietly seeks to influence the political future of that city while expanding his own power base.

Disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), having left a trail of corpses in his wake, has returned home to visit his widowed and pregnant sister and finds that after revisiting his roots he no longer has a stomach for violence.

These and other storyline developments are rolled out at a pace that some viewers will applaud as meticulous and thoughtful but others might find frustratingly slow. The pacing of the early episodes of Season 4 is a very interesting choice; clearly, the intent is to give the narrative a bit of breathing room as it sets its course for the latter half of the 1920s, but a handful of episodes in, there's little indication that things are getting ready to wind back up.

Momentum concerns aside, Boardwalk Empire remains a beautifully crafted period drama whose multi-layered plotlines give each member of its large cast lots of opportunities to shine. Buscemi is still a force, and it's still great to see a veteran character actor of his calibre given a well-deserved starring role.

Williams' bumped-up stature in the ensemble is a welcome development, as Chalky's transition to a higher-profile kind of power challenges both his intellect and his leadership ability. And Huston's exploration of Harrow as a ruthless killer suddenly plagued by conscience and doubt could develop into one of the most fascinating aspects of the new season.

Along with Wright, who's a scene stealer from the moment the velvet-tongued Dr. Narcisse arrives, notable cast additions include Ron Livingston as a travelling businessman who becomes entangled with former madam Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), and Patricia Arquette as an ambitious Tampa saloonkeeper whom Nucky encounters on a fact-finding trip to Florida.

Even if you find the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire to be a bit of a plodder at the outset, there's enough in the early storyline developments to suggest that it's worth sticking with it until things start to unravel again. Peace, after all, seldom lasts as long as those who reluctantly forge it wish it will.

Watch the trailer for Season 4 of Boardwalk Empire here: http://wfp.to/LqQ

 

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2013 c6

History

Updated on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 7:11 AM CDT: adds video, adds photo, changes headline

10:33 AM: Replaces photo

September 6, 2013 at 10:47 AM: Corrects date

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