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‘Boardwalk Empire’: In and out of greatness

Jeffrey Wright (right, with Michael K. Williams) joins the cast as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, an intellectual gangster from Harlem.
Jeffrey Wright (right, with Michael K. Williams) joins the cast as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, an intellectual gangster from Harlem.Macall B. Polay

It may just be my imagination, which has been spending far too much time in the land of “Breaking Bad” lately. But the first episodes of season four of “Boardwalk Empire” seem to move more slowly and deliberately than in past years. The scenes are longer, so that the actors can stretch out the beats. There are silences, as well as extended nightclub dance sequences. That “slow drama” approach is one of the trademarks of “Breaking Bad,” and I wonder if “Boardwalk Empire” creator Terence Winter has decided to try it out.

And it works, for the most part. HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” returns on Sunday at 9 p.m. and it has a more measured pace, which brings needed realism to its heavily costumed period atmosphere. By letting the scenes breathe, Winter and his directors prevent the series from becoming a too-perfect — and soulless — re-creation. When Richard Harrow — played with unnerving gentility by Jack Huston — threatens to murder a man, and the man desperately bargains for his life, a fly caught in a spider’s web, the moment elongates into a painful eternity.


One or two other things have also changed this season, and that’s a good thing. “Boardwalk Empire” has struggled with go-nowhere plotting and oppressive 1920s artifice over the years, particularly after Michael Pitt’s brooding Jimmy Darmody was killed. For all the commanding acting by Steve Buscemi and all the unexpected plot turns, the drama has never found a consistent overall groove. It goes in and out of greatness, as the ferocious gangster material sometimes devolves into confusion and the intriguing personal stories fail to build.

The most promising addition this season is Jeffrey Wright. He plays a fierce, intellectual gangster from Harlem with the provocative name of Dr. Valentin Narcisse who has contempt for white people and for black people who are subservient to whites. When he sees Chalky White, played by Michael K. Williams, getting patted on the head — literally — by white customers at a nightclub, he sneers. It’s a complex dynamic at a point when black thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance were pondering the way forward, and it’s an excellent way to pull Williams into the show’s forefront. Wright makes everything Dr. Narcisse says take on the air of scripture. He gives a rich performance.


So does Stephen Graham, the British actor who plays Al Capone. Graham, who was also fantastic earlier this year in HBO’s “Parade’s End,” brings every scene he’s in to life, and he is in more scenes than ever this season. His Capone is a prankster and a hothead, except when he’s moved by his son, and then he can be a sad puppy. At this point, Capone is seduced by his own notoriety and trying to craft his image in the media. He’s like a contemporary rocker on the rise, snorting cocaine and savoring his new power, toggling between charm and volatility. While Michael Stuhlbarg plays Arnold Rothstein as a low-key strategist with a ghoulish face, Graham’s Capone is all heat and passion. Capone’s brother Frank — played by Morgan Spector with a wry expression that’s like a roadblock — is the more sensible one.

There are scenes in the first five episodes — which, by the way, don’t include Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret — that are remarkable for their rawness. In the premiere, Dunn (the riveting Erik LaRay Harvey) is seduced by a white woman, but the seduction takes a few turns that put him in a corner. It’s a well-written subplot that symbolizes the position of black men at that moment in American history, and it is part of the season’s emphasis on black characters. Almost every scene with Harrow is compelling, with his half mask and his half-hidden sweetness. At one point, he is asked to shoot a dying dog and, despite his long list of homicides, he can’t do it.


What doesn’t work in the first five episodes? Winter has decided to give Nucky Thompson’s butler, Eddie (Anthony Laciura), a bigger role. Laciura, with a German accent, has generally brought an air of comic relief to the show; it’s awkward watching him trying to become dramatically sound. Gretchen Mol’s Gillian Darmody is an interesting character, and her descent into demented drug use continues to be spellbinding. But she doesn’t quite fit into the network of characters now that Jimmy is gone, and her new connection with Ron Livingston’s businessman doesn’t address that problem. And a story line involving Nucky’s nephew Willie (Ben Rosenfield) is too contemporary for the show, a strained effort to bring in a youth-oriented subplot.

And so “Boardwalk Empire” moves from strength to strength, and from flaw to flaw. It’s an ambitious work that is always fascinating, if not always successful. When all is said and done, “Boardwalk Empire” may be TV’s best uneven series.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.