As scenes to include in your season premiere, the least expected of all might be Sunday evening’s Boardwalk Empire sequence in which African-American gangster Chalky White’s right-hand man, Dunn Purnsley, is forced at gunpoint to have sex with Cora, the wife of a dodgy music promoter (whose name, fittingly, is Dickey). “Act like a nigger,” the promoter snarls at Purnsley, insisting that he loves jazz music and flash dancing, but that ultimately Dunn can only expect one kind of treatment from his ‘betters’. As a capsule dramatisation of the relationship between white promoters and African-American performers during the Jazz Age, it’s apposite if heavy-handed. As an illustration of Purnsley’s character and its distinctions from that of his boss – impetuosity against calculation, confidence against grudging caution – it’s perfect, and sets up a season’s worth of tension nicely. But, with Purnsley fooled into bed by a coquettish flapper, and then humiliated by a masturbating bigot, it’s an ambiguous statement of intent for the HBO drama’s fourth season.
One of Boardwalk Empire‘s features (or bugs) has long been imbalance. In its first season, there was an evident uncertainty as to how to fit in the variety of characters and locations with which this ambitious chronicle of 1920s gangsterism had landed itself. Set largely in the Atlantic City of treasurer-turned-bootlegger Nucky Thompson, the series also dots between the Chicago of Johnny Torrio and the New York of Arnold Rothstein. Part of the show’s trajectory involves the emergence of the next generation of gangsters – Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano – and the second season shocked many by killing off Thompson’s own heir apparent, protagonist-turned-nemesis Jimmy Darmody. The dizzying success of that supremely ballsy second season quickly toppled into the occasional grand guignol excess of its third, in which the unhinged hatchetman Gyp Rosetti cut a deranged swathe through Atlantic City, destabilising each of the show’s increasingly atomised metropolises.
Still, it took five episodes for season three’s imbalance to reach the stage of a sex-and-violence scene remotely comparable to Purnsley’s: Rosetti, engaged in erotic asphyxiation with a prostitute, was interrupted by assassins hired by Thompson, and forced to use the woman as a human shield whilst he scrabbled, hindered by the leather noose around his neck, for cover and his gun. Boardwalk Empire had built over three seasons to such a scene of blackly absurd abandon; season four feels little need to regain our trust. The show excels at scenes which are almost impossible to watch in their ruthless tension; the placement of this scene might have had a touch of hubris about it, but it is born of real confidence in an increasingly complex, unstable milieu.
It can be difficult to know what to make of this boldness: on one level, season four’s opening episode was relatively quiet, putting pieces in place in the way of these sorts of instalment. Dry humour is drawn out of even the grisliest scene: Purnsley, forced to bury Dickey’s body (whom, predictably, met a gruesome end) is teased and troubled by White, and Thompson’s bag-man brother: needling punishment for what is nevertheless a serious infraction (the promoter, of course, was well connected in New York, with whose crime families Thompson had only a few scenes earlier finally made peace). Similarly, the explosive Al Capone (joined, in a good sign for the balance of Chicago’s storyline this year, by his two brothers), storms into a hapless journalist’s office with apparently murderous intent, only to teach the terrified word-smith how to spell an Italian name correctly.
Despite several vivid deaths – the damaged war veteran and expert murderer Richard Harrow, having spent eleven episodes of last season failing to be the cause of a single corpse, here starts early, in the episode’s atmospheric teaser – ‘New York Sour’ also makes a virtue of quiet. In another gutsy move, the show’s main character, Thompson himself, is a diminished figure, reduced to paying off New York gangsters, and skulking around in a dingy hotel on the edge of town, having withdrawn entirely from the gilded life that made him so visible a target in the past. But that arresting scene of cuckoldry lies at the heart of the episode, underlining the impossibility of moving in the circles of Thompson, White or Capone and avoiding violence: smart or stupid, hasty or slow, someone’s will to power will come get you.
Long before he died, Jimmy Darmody told Nucky Thompson that it is impossible to be half a gangster. It might feel, recursively, as if Thompson, hiding away and considering Florida land deals whilst others distil liquor on his behalf, will need to be taught that lesson yet again this season. It is a repetitive prospect which leaves Purnsley’s ordeal seeming, too, like a sort of instinctive attempt rapidly to rekindle past, er, glories. On the other hand, the theme of retreadings was made almost explicit in a conversation between Nucky and his nephew: like Darmody of old, this college boy is trying to impress the big man with his bright ideas and an eager young face. One hopes, then, that all this is prelude not to the same lesson as last season, but to another – that the gangster’s life is a grind, an endless rerun of the same degradations, whomever holds the whip.
We will see whether the show’s aversion to balance is of a piece with its characters’ incapacity for it. In Purnsley’s violent retribution is the seed of a movement revolutionary enough to throw the show’s world even further out of kilter: with he and Chalky newly prominent, power dynamics are set to change. Beautifully shot and carefully written, Boardwalk Empire remains, after all, one of the slickest, smartest and most addictive series on television. Controlling imbalance is a far craftier art than simply enforcing equipoise. Boardwalk Empire teeters on the edge, and that is part of the point.