A Too Crowded Boardwalk: Narrative Sprawl in Boardwalk Empire

                So Boardwalk Empire came back for a Fourth Season. I’m happy about this, because Boardwalk Empire is a show that I seriously enjoy. As you can tell from reading my books, I love anything to do with the 1920s. If a movie, book or TV shows features a fedora and maybe a tommy gun, the odds are that I’ll probably enjoy it. Boardwalk Empire has tons of fedoras and several tommy guns. Naturally, I enjoy it quite a bit. I enjoyed the first episode of Season Four. There’s nothing like watching Richard Harrow murder people to guarantee a good time. However, I’ve started to notice a problem with Boardwalk Empire and shows like it and I can see that problem seriously hampering this season. That problem is narrative sprawl.

                A short definition of narrative sprawl? Too many characters, too many plot lines and a lack of focus. Boardwalk Empire certainly has too many characters. Let me try and count them all. You’ve got Nucky and Co in New York — including Chalky White who occasionally gets episodes devoted to him and his family. You’ve got the historical gangsters, Meyer Lanksy and Lucky Luciano in New York. You’ve got Van Alden in Chicago. You’ve got Richard Harrow murdering people, Gillian Darmody having sex with people and Al Capone (now with the Capone brothers) intimidating people. That’s a lot of characters — and doesn’t even count Margaret Thompson, who could be doing something unfortunately uninteresting involving hospitals, Irish immigrants and feminism.  Boardwalk Empire kills its characters pretty regularly, but it seems to generate them at a great rate too. This episode had a new Prohibition Agent who seems like a cool character, but I can’t quite remember his name and a guy who works for Piggly Wiggly — and Richard Harrow’s sister (is it wrong that I expected her to have half-a-face too?). That’s a lot to keep track of. And Boardwalk Empire features lots of locations. You’ve got Atlantic City, New York, Chicago, random rural places in Michigan (perhaps the infamous Purple Gang will be involved?), and apparently Harlem, Florida and the Caribbean with its rum-running trade this season. The storyline doesn’t really expand. Instead, it sprawls.

                Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if there was a coherent and focused narrative. The Wire also had a ton of characters — but they remained in their own factions and only featured as they affected the greater story and the struggle with crime in Baltimore. Marlo’s gang in The Wire had plenty of members, but you only got to know two of them, his brutal enforcers Snoop and Chris — and you only saw them conducting Marlo’s business. That’s not to say they were shallow characters. You spent plenty of time with them and got to know them, but only as they pertained to the greater story. You didn’t get an episode about Snoop’s home life, but she was still important and had depth. When she killed people, it mattered. When she (spoilers) is killed by another named character who we’ve spent a lot of time with, it matters.

                Boardwalk Empire wants to give almost every character an arc and a separate story. The result? The show flashes back and forth between characters. You get five minutes of Nucky, five minutes of Gillian, five minutes of Harrow, then back to Nucky and then to the Capone Bros and so on. They all get a maybe ten or fifteen minute story, told within an hour of the show. Their separate stories never interact and feel small and underdeveloped by themselves. This also leads to some characters getting short shrift. Want to know what Van Alden and Margaret are up to? Well, I guess you’ll have to tune in next week, where maybe Gillian or another ‘important character’ will be ignored. It also leads to a lack of development for characters could be cool and interesting.  You know that guy who killed Gyp Rossetti? Yeah, I don’t know anything about him either. His betrayal could have been a cool moment, but there was no time for the build-up and he became nothing more than a perfunctory plot device.  Same with thin-moustache-corrupt-Prohibition-agent-who-I-thought-died-with-Owen-but-really-died-this-episode. He could have been a great character, or at least a character with some traits and charm to him like the great  Manny Horvitz. Instead, he’s a dude with a memorable mustache and nothing else.

                There is something cool about a sprawling show with tons of characters and locations. It helps to sketch a fully developed world, with stories taking place all the way across the map. But the sprawl needs to be in service of a focused narrative. I think the second season of Boardwalk Empire, with its clear conflict between Nucky and his protégé gone bad Jimmy Darmody is probably the high point of the show. Season Three, with its the ultra evil Gyp Rossetti taking on Nucky, seemed to be a good follow up but the driving conflict became a start-stop affair with frequent digressions to Margaret Thompson’s adventures in hospitals before finally ending in the all-out, climactic war that we were promised. What’s the central conflict this season? I couldn’t tell you. It will probably involve the murdered, perverted talent agent and the new Dr. Narcisse character, but it’s only the most setting-up of set-ups in this episode and that’s a shame.

                I still love Boardwalk Empire, for its fantastic action, great acting, production design and attention to historic detail, as well as its social commentary on race, class and gender in the Twenties — but the narrative sprawl only hurts it. Game of Thrones features a similar sprawling world with tons of characters, but has so far avoided this problem with a focused Westeros Civil War and power struggle remaining the driving conflict. Plus, they have the good sense to murder characters as soon as they introduce new ones. Hopefully, Boardwalk Empire will get its act together and craft a story as good as the actors and costumes. In the mean time, I’ll keep watching (especially with the great Dennis Lehane, who knows a thing or two about bootleggers in Florida, writing episodes). After all, I’ve still got my fedoras and tommy guns.

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