This story contains spoilers. Do not read it if you haven't seen the season finale of season four of Boardwalk Empire.
In the world of professional television writing, I can't imagine there are many jobs that are harder than trying to write a serial drama. The art of putting together a series of storylines that play out over the course of an entire season and having them all peak at precisely the right moment, usually during the final episode or two, is seldom done well - but when it is, it makes the show much more entertaining, and much more rewarding.
Boardwalk Empire is a show that, I think, is better written than almost any other on television, and most of that comes down to the expert way in which the stories are set up over the course of the season, the way seemingly meaningless lines of dialogue and chance encounters are brought together, converging in the final hour or two.
It must be even harder for showrunner Terence Winter and his team: not only do they have to consider where characters are and what they're doing over the course of an entire season, they have to thoroughly research everything because an increasing number are based on real, well-known historical figures such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and J Edgar Hoover.
The fourth season, which finished tonight on SoHo, is the crowning achievement for the period drama, which stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a powerful bootlegger based in Atlantic City in the 1920s.
The show is set against the backdrop of prohibition, a period of American history that stretched from 1920 until the mid 1930s, during which time it was illegal to make, sell or consume alcoholic beverages. Prohibition movements almost took hold here in New Zealand during the 1920s too, but were always defeated by close results in parliament and referendum.
Boardwalk Empire started as a character piece, documenting Thompson's change from a corrupt politician into a powerful gangster, but this season was much more an ensemble series: the show played out a number of story strands and brought them all together in a fantastic finale, as it has done in seasons past - but this year, it managed to mine some really strong stories from unexplored characters, a few new faces, and from pairings we hadn't seen before.
Chalky White is a perfect example. Over the course of 12 episodes, White - played by Michael K Williams - was deconstructed, taken back to his core elements and put back together as the most basic version of the character: a violent, ruthless gangster who would take whatever he wanted, by force if necessary.
Increasing the focus on Chalky, who found himself engaged in a turf war with moustachioed villain Dr Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), meant that Nucky could spend time making new deals in Florida, which in turn widened the scope of the series and made the escalation of the final episodes that much more dramatic.
Williams did some phenomenal work this season, particularly in the final episode, while Wright was perfectly cast as the devious rights activist Narcisse. And moving part of the action to Florida proved refreshing for the show.
This season also enjoyed a fresh take on the criminal activity taking place in Chicago, as George Mueller - the man formerly known as prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, and played by Michael Shannon - teamed up with Al Capone, the fiery folk hero played by British actor Stephen Graham, who is still enjoying his meteoric rise at the time the show is set. Shannon and Graham played marvellously off each other, often providing the highlights of every episode in which they appeared.
We spent a good deal of time with Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), the brother of Nucky who was forced into spying for the FBI by a rogue agent (played by Brian Geraghty). Eli is another character who we learnt about this season, and the show is richer for it - and the "oh hell yeah" moment when we realized Eli was being banished to Chicago to join Van Alden and Capone has single-handedly made me excited for next season.
Perhaps you could complain that there is just too much going on, but it matters not. The final episode brought all of these stories together in ways that I couldn't even have imagined. Even seemingly disconnected storylines came into play during the finale: we'd spent considerable time with Richard Harrow and Gillian Darmody this season, and both became key players during that last hour. The show is written with such precision and clarity, it is a marvel to behold.
Terence Winter and his writers are doing some fantastic work, helped by Buscemi and the rest of the cast, who are all turning in strong performances and selling the material. This was a brilliant season of Boardwalk Empire, easily its best yet. I think it can now be placed in the upper tier of television dramas; Boardwalk is one of the best things on TV right now.
* Did you watch the latest season of Boardwalk Empire? Do you agree that it jumped up a level or two in quality?