And so begins the long, dark autumn of this gangster chronicle set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition. Former Atlantic City politician Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has officially turned private businessman, but that hasn't stopped him trafficking bootleg liquor. With his wife now out of the picture, Nucky focuses his personal life on his brother, Eli (Shea Whigham) which, this season, is complicated by Eli's son, Willie (Ben Rosenfield), whom Nucky invites into the family business against Eli's wishes.
Willie introduces an intriguing twist in the brothers' already rocky relationship, just like Jeffrey Wright's delicious villain Narcisse gets between Nucky and his ally, Chalky. As in past seasons, the writers script a complex and exciting arc of events that deliver taut drama, plenty of violence (too much at times) and even poignancy. However, the booze and blood is starting to wear on Nucky, and he's looking for a way out that he'll probably explore in the fifth and final season about to air.
The power of the first two seasons lay in Nucky's love/hate battles with surrogate son Jimmy Darmody. Though Wright delivers a note-perfect Narcisse, season four isn't united by a single storyline, but collects several compelling ones that are expertly written and performed. The depth of characterization in Boardwalk Empire exceeds most movies and TV series, and invigorates this series.
The supporting characters of past seasons now stand at the forefront. Gretchen Mol delivers a haunting performance as Gillian, who falls from grace. Michael Shannon's George Mueller (formerly Agent Van Alden) undergoes a transformation from God-fearing christian to gangster that is truly disturbing. Michael Kenneth Williams' Chalky moves front and centre to drive a parallel story contrasting the white gangsters of Nucky and Capone with the black underworld of himself vs. Narcisse. Chalky shows a stunning new depth in season four that firmly elevates him into a series lead.
Despite this, Richard Harrow steals the show. Season four explores Harrow's personal life and inner turmoil deeper than ever. Though he remains a killer-for-hire, Harrow remains sympathetic; the audience roots for this disfigured marksman from World War One. We want him to survive, settle down and lead a straight life. Harrow is one of the most original and haunting characters to appear in television in recent memory and, as the soul of season four, it's fitting that he ends it.
The Blu-ray extras are good, but a little thin. There's about one incisive audio commentary per disc, but there should be more. Add to this some featurettes, the best ones of which are an explanation how the writers and British actor Jack Huston created Richard Harrow and a 30-minute panel discussion that showcases the cast and writers. Another featurette explains building The Onyx Club, a key setting in season four. There's also brief a rundown on the new characters. Next time: more extras and commentaries, please. (HBO)