The third season of “Boardwalk Empire” achieved such operatic highs — and featured such an assortment of twisting alliances, along with a truly menacing villain — that the slow start to the current campaign is perhaps to be forgiven. Granted, there’s still a lot happening, and plenty of violence in and around Nucky Thompson’s booze-running world circa 1924, but the larger picture has yet to coalesce, offering enjoyable moments but, five episodes in, no driving through-line. Fortunately, the show has enough heft to remain one of TV’s most compelling dramas, if a cocktail that’s understandably a tad strong for viewers with weaker stomachs to comfortably consume.
New Jersey mobster Nucky (Steve Buscemi) managed to weather last season’s challenge to his bootlegging empire from Gyp Rosetti (RIP, Bobby Cannavale’s character), but not without plenty of collateral damage. This has left him warily circling a return to normalcy after having been essentially abandoned by gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his cronies during that showdown.
Those events, however, did strengthen Nucky’s ties to African-American gangster Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, whose expanded role is one of this season’s most welcome developments). The germ of a new threat, meanwhile, presents itself in the form of the erudite Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), who speaks of a larger purpose for the black race (or Libyans, as he calls them) in a stiff, foreboding cadence that recalls Joseph Wiseman’s Bond villain Dr. No.
Amid “Boardwalk’s” dizzying array of characters, there are also interesting threads involving Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the disfigured World War I vet; and Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), the Madam who embarks on a new path but still sees sexual services as the short-term solution to practically any predicament.
In a sense, the new season relies heavily on the show’s rich mood and atmosphere, inasmuch as series creator Terence Winter and his crew appear content to ease back into the proceedings while hitting the reset button. While that makes sense after the full-scale war that erupted, it also means the jury remains out on whether this latest arc will reach the same heights. (That said, the show continues to top itself in terms of scenes that are positively gruesome.)
To admirers, “Boardwalk’s” omission from this year’s best-drama Emmy race (Netflix’s newcomer “House of Cards” nabbed its slot) is a crime all its own, especially since the third go-round might have qualified as a highlight in a series that — overcoming the ostensible glut of mob-related movies and TV shows — has already delivered plenty of them.
Still, if “Boardwalk” is heading toward the back end of its run in terms of such accolades, the show will continue to have plenty of well-deserved loyalists. Besides, as any student of Prohibition can attest, nothing good — or bad — lasts forever.