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Boardwalk Empire Premiere Review: The Times Are A Changing

Marshall Lemon | 8 Sep 2014 08:00
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So what do we see? Charlie "Lucky" Luciano finally makes his big break, turning on Joe Masseria and inducted into Salvatore Maranzano's Mafia families. That's a big deal if you follow Mafia history: Luciano ultimately became one of the most powerful mobsters of all time, so after four seasons of hardship, this marks his crucial turning point in New York's criminal underworld. Margaret Schroeder/Thompson/Rohan also returns as a main cast member, digging up Arnold Rothstein's old records after her job with the bank is dramatically threatened. Her scenes drive home the stark economic change from previous seasons, and the question of what she plans to do is an intriguing mystery. Still, for such seemingly significant moments, these are tiny bit parts set against Nucky's main story.

I fully expect the issue to be resolved next week, but after the jam-packed episodes of season 4, the slow burn is jarring. With only eight episodes and so few original cast members remaining (you're deeply missed, Richard Harrow) it would be nice to spend more time with the few characters we have left. We've already lost Michael Stuhlbarg's terrific Arnold Rothstein between seasons, thanks to the character's murder in 1929. As a consolation, Boardwalk Empire usually pulls off a satisfying slow burn, so I suspect any time spent away from these figures is building to something impressive.

What we have instead is a promising stylistic change: an extended flashback side plot introducing a young Nucky Thompson. Set in a sepia-toned 1884, we finally see the environment which drove the Thompson brothers to corruption and crime, complete with poverty, an abusive father, and a sickly sister. This is also when Nucky first meets the Commodore, who teaches him that honesty and goodwill never get one ahead in the world. It's not a perfect sequence: the new Commodore actor isn't quite as memorable as Dabney Coleman, and we've already seen the "Nucky-sacrifices-his-innocence" plot countless times. But the juxtaposition of young and old personas works pretty well, and future flashbacks could address other chapters of Nucky's life that we haven't seen yet. Especially his relationship with his first wife.

Otherwise, things are as much the same as any Boardwalk Empire episode. The costumes are fantastic and period-appropriate. The music is catchy and highlights the opulence or poverty of its characters. The action sequences are unexpectedly gory. And the acting is top notch, including the young Nucky Thompson, giving perhaps the best child actor performance Boardwalk Empire has seen.

All told, it's a serviceable premiere, lacking in familiar faces while setting up a dramatic end to prohibition. I wasn't certain that Boardwalk Empire would bring Nucky to the end of the Volstead Act at all, let alone via a dramatic time jump. Regardless, now that we're here, I find myself excited to see how everyone's stories will end.

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