Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire

Is Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson turning over a new leaf?

As the HBO drama enters 1924 and the Jazz Age, Atlantic City  gangster Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is looking to make peace with his fellow crooks in New York whom he bloodied during last season's war with Gyp Rosetti. He's able to do so with a bag full of cash and the simple promise that he's no longer concerned with expanding his territory or operation.

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"Nucky is really keeping a much lower profile," creator Terence Winter tells TVGuide.com. "Instead of being the glad-handing politician who's on the boardwalk with his red carnation, he's now living where the boardwalk doesn't even reach yet — at a defunct hotel called The Albatross. He's really keeping out of the public eye and certainly doesn't want a repeat of the incidents from last season."

Like the audience, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), one of the New York mobsters Nucky double-crossed particularly hard last season, has reason to doubt what Nucky's saying. "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room by himself," Rothstein, channeling Blaise Pascal, tells Nucky early in the Season 4 premiere. And indeed, Nucky doesn't sit quietly very long. "Nucky knows intellectually it would make a lot more sense for him to lay low, but he is first and foremost a criminal," Winter says. "Temptation gets the better of him. Sometimes things are presented to him that he just can't resist."

That includes a land deal in Tampa that Nucky suspects from the beginning might be more trouble than its worth. But then he meets speakeasy owner Sally Wheet (guest star Patricia Arquette). "Something about meeting Sally really makes him throw caution to the wind," Winter says. "There's something about this woman that he finds very intriguing. He plunges in when he probably knows that he shouldn't, but he decides to roll the dice."

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Perhaps one reason Nucky is so taken with Sally is the fact that his wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) is completely absent from the show's first five episodes after vowing to stay in Brooklyn and not take any more of Nucky's money.  "We are making good on the promise at the end of Season 3," Winter says. "For those two characters, that sort of felt like an ending. But they have a very deep connection based on the history and the children that Nucky was a father to. She definitely does come back into this season at a psychologically relevant time for Nucky."

But all of Nucky's problems aren't of his own choosing. Nucky's nephew calls on his uncle for help when a college prank goes awry, something that certainly won't sit well with Nucky's brother Eli (Shea Whigham). And after giving Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) his own club on the boardwalk, Nucky will be pulled in to mediate a beef between Chalky, Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) and Harlem's Dr. Valentin Narcisse (guest star Jeffrey Wright), an arrogant, well-spoken businessman who thinks he could run the club better. "Narcisse is much more intellectual; his insidiousness is really in the sense that he is a psychological warrior and not an in-your-face gangster," Winter says. "He's certainly violent, and we'll see that as the season progresses. But he is much more of a chess player than gangsters we've seen in the past."

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And Nucky isn't the only person struggling to balance good intentions with reality this season. Former lawman Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) becomes more and more comfortable in a thug's skin as he gets dragged deeper into the battle between Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Dean O'Bannion (Arron Shiver) in Cicero. And  Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the taciturn hitman with half a face, tries once again to give up his killing ways by reconnecting with his sister Emma (Katherine Waterston). 

"That leads Richard back to his roots, back to his family farm, his sister," Winter says. "Richard has been denying himself the life that he deserves to have: love, a family, those things. He needs to confront the fact of who he is and what he's done but also not let that define him for the rest of his life. ... But you can't run away from your past, and it comes to visit him at the farm in a very big way."

Although Nucky & Co. might not be able to truly turn against their criminal natures, their activities will be challenged this season with the introduction of a young J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) and the fictional Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty), a bulldog of a G-man intent on proving to his boss that organized crime is real. Will that pressure wreck the newly negotiated peace between Nucky and his rivals?

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"I think there's always bad blood," Winter says. "When you read the history of these gangsters, so many of them went back and forth trying to kill each other and then continued doing business with each other despite that. ... I think they always have one eye on, 'One day I'll get my revenge, but as long as you're making me money, we'll be friendly enemies.' Whether or not these guys completely bury the hatchet and move on without holding grudges is a completely different story."

Boardwalk Empire premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.