One hallmark of crime drama is that people die, and then detectives and private detectives and forensic detectives and DAs swoop in to find and then prosecute the killer.
And every now and then, victims really matter. “Homicide: Life on the Street” never quite solved the rape/murder of little Adena Watson. The entire first season of the U.K.’s “Prime Suspect” centered on the death of prostitute Della Mornay.
But when it comes to gangster drama, people also die, but they expire in large numbers and with such rapidity and with a near-complete lack of remorse (or even much emotion at all) from the killers that they become mere punctuation marks in stories of political maneuvering, economic competition and homicidal psychosis.
Given time, a show like this can bleed out its humanity, becoming little more than violence porn.
As aired on Sunday, Sept. 8, the season-four premiere of HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster drama “Boardwalk Empire” — set in February 1924, about seven months after the mob bloodbath that closed out season three — racked up a large body count.
It started right at the beginning, with a pair of thugs — one of whom bears an odd resemblance to former Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) — in a roadhouse in Warsaw, Ind. They appear to be on their way to Columbus, Ohio, but they don’t get farther than their car before they meet with the knife and then the gun of disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who has turned into an efficient assassin and appears to be on some sort of a pilgrimage of slaughter.
Rolling through the episode, Harrow also kills a sobbing “middle man” who begs for a reprieve to sign a card on on a wrapped present (“probably roller skates”). Instead, he writes information for Harrow, but winds up dead anyway.
One of black crime boss Chalky White’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) associates, Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) , gets involved in a sick sex game with a perverted booking agent (Jeremy Bobb) and his lovely but equally unsavory wife (Jo Armeniox) and winds up smashing a bottle into the man and then nearly decapitating him with it.
A bit later on, Federal Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) and his partner, the bribe-seeking Agent Stan Sawicki (Joseph Aniska), go to a liquor warehouse. There Knox lets Sawicki open a booby-trapped door and take the full blast of a bomb that kills him slowly, while Knox knocks back some bootleg whiskey.
No tears are shed over any of these deaths, and odds are good that nobody doing the killing will suffer from the law.
So, in a story where almost everyone’s a villain, who’s the audience supposed to root for?
Crooked-politician-turned-gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) doesn’t kill anyone in the episode — and he does have a family dinner with fellow crook and brother Eli (Shea Whigham) that doesn’t end in fisticuffs. He also doesn’t kill gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlberg), with whom he has a meeting.
But, Nucky has a lot of dead-man notches in his belt, and there’s no reason to think he won’t rack up more.
Meanwhile, madam Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) is fighting in court for custody of her grandson, Tommy (Brady and Connor Noon), but the fact that she was raising him in a mansion-turned-brothel (now for sale) is used against her.
Later on, it appears she’s selling herself as much as the house and taking drugs to dull the pain.
It might be tempting to have sympathy for Darmody, if you’re willing to overlook that she had sex with her own son, the late Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and later drowned a young lover in one of the brothel bathtubs.
And, before the episode’s over, she’s found a new admirer — and perhaps a new sugar daddy — in the person of businessman Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston), who’s looking to bring Piggly Wiggly supermarkets to the area.
Finally, while we all know what he later becomes, young gangster Al Capone (Stephen Graham) kills no one in the hour. He does acquire some new prostitutes for his Cicero, Ill., operation and gets his vanity tweaked when a reporter misspells his name.
Together with his brothers (Domenick Lombardozzi, Morgan Spector), he subsequently intimidates but does not harm said reporter.
It’s a strange gangster drama when Al Capone provides the comic relief.
As the episode closes with Harrow arriving at the home of his sister, Emma (Katherine Watson) — she points at gun at him at first but doesn’t fire — it’s hard to figure out exactly who is supposed to be the hero of this story anymore.
Most of the appealing characters from early seasons — such as troubled war hero Jimmy Darmody and abused wife and mother Margaret Schroeder Thompson (Kelly MacDonald) — are either dead or not in Atlantic City at present.
Perhaps Margaret will come back, and one can only hope she’s still a sympathetic character by the time that happens.