Here’s a question for yah: is Fargo (the TV show) actually smart?
It’s an odd question to ask at this point, admittedly; starting the fourth season after three seasons’ worth of generally fulsome praise from yours truly, you’d think I’d have a better idea about the answer. But I honestly don’t. Season one, I spent most of my time impressed that such a seemingly terrible idea (a television spin-off of a Coen Brothers movie) actually yielded watchable content. Season two, I was impressed at how series’ creator Noah Hawley expanded his ambitions to tell a funny, sad, and tense story about a pair of warring crime families and the deranged housewife who inadvertently gets caught between them. Season three, well, that was where the doubts started to creep in. It was still the same show, more less, but the tricks were starting to wear thin, and as good as the production and the performances were, it was hard to ignore that, once you got past the tricks… well, what was there? What was all of this about?
Which brings us to season four, and tonight’s double-header: “Welcome To The Alternate Economy” and “The Land Of Taking And Killing.” At slightly over two hours combined even before you add in the commercials, that’s a lot of Fargo content for one evening, establishing the setting and introducing, well, a heck of a lot of characters at once. We get a mission statement in the first episode (“If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?”), and by the end of the second episode, there’s enough conflict and unease coming from every sector that it’s easy to imagine how the show moves forward even if it’s hard to predict any one thread in specific. Goofy shit happens alongside incredibly violent shit. Characters speak in heightened, convoluted eloquence at rough contrast with their behaviors. The pace is sloooooow.
All of which is to say that, yes, this is definitely Fargo the TV show as we have come to know it. We even get the “Based on a true story” disclaimer, although at this point, what charm the artifice once had has pretty much left the building. Which is something you could say about a lot of this, I think. While there is certainly considerable strangeness at play in both episodes, there are few turns or characters who offer legitimate surprises; worse, even the surprises have a familiar ring to them.
Is it bad? Not exactly. But it is kind of dull, and what’s striking is how tentatively the new season seems to be willing to engage in those few elements of its setting that are unique. Set in 1950, the premise is again about two crime families—in this case the Cannon Limited (a Black syndicate led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock)) and the Fadda family (the Italian mob). In the opening of the first episode, we learn about the history of criminal organizations in Kansas City, and how each one was wiped out by some new marginalized community looking to make its mark on the world. The Moskowitz Syndicate, betrayed and murdered by the Milligan Concern, which was in turn destroyed by the Faddas, who now face off against the Cannons.
That’s fine, as far as it goes, but the Moskowitz and Milligans aren’t given enough time to be more than caricatures, and the time we spend with the Faddas and the Cannons in these episodes, while providing more detail, doesn’t precisely add depth. It’s a tricky thing to criticize, because on the one hand, any show working with marginalized groups has an obligation to avoid or address stereotypes about those groups, with the understanding that said stereotypes are reductive products of racism. But without having a feel for either groups’ respective cultures, you risk losing what made them distinct, the lack of authenticity rendering any point you might be trying to make moot.
That’s a difficult needle to thread: to portray Italian or Black Americans in a way that at once acknowledges how their personhood was flattened by the narrow view of what they could be, while at the same time understands and values what their specific cultures brought to the country at large. So far at least, Fargo’s fourth season doesn’t even seem to try. The Faddas play like a collection of surfaces drawn from other shows about the mob, and the Cannons don’t even really have that. There’s an acknowledgement of the prejudice both groups face, but no sense of what makes them unique. It’s possible to come away from the first two episodes with the impression that Italians suffered more from bigotry in 1950s American than the Black community did, and while I doubt that impression is intentional, it’s still an odd angle of approach.
You could argue that the show is trying to present these stories in a new light; you could also argue that expecting a new season to cover such large swaths of complicated, baggage-heavy territory in two episodes is being pretty unreasonable. It’s possible that the narrative will get sharper over time, but for right now, the detached-irony approach that Fargo takes for all its stories (probably the greatest debt the show owes to the Coen brothers movie it continues to riff on) doesn’t really seem to serve the material all that well, covering every moment in a patina of quirk that makes it that much harder to see the real people underneath.
Of course, that was always a feature, not a bug, and in earlier seasons, the detachment served to make both the tense and melancholy elements of the show hit harder. This season, though, it all just feels kind of rote. Take the scene in “Welcome To The Alternate Economy” where Donatello Fadda is accidentally shot in the neck with a child’s BB gun. The juxtaposition of whimsy and shocking violence is one of Fargo’s signature moves, but the show isn’t content to simply leave it at that; it has to precede the shot with Donatello suffering a gastro-intestinal ailment that presents as a heart attack before resolving in a giant fart. The fart is what forces the other people in the car with him to open the car windows, which makes the BB gun shot possible, and it’s all done in the context of tensions with the Cannons. But it doesn’t leave much impression beyond the acknowledgement that yes, isn’t it strange how comedy and tragedy can be intertwined. There’s no real surprise beyond the immediate “Oh, I guess that happened.” It doesn’t build to anything.
That, more than anything, is the real problem with these first two episodes. A lot happens, there’s an undercurrent of rising danger, but little sense of a story or narrative unfolding; it’s most just a collection of scenes which, presumably, will all be relevant to one another if we keep watching. (Or not; Hawley does, after all, have a fondness for using that “Based on a true story” gag as an excuse to just throw in random details, just ’cause.) On the macro level, the plot is simple enough—in attempt to keep the peace between their families, the Faddas and the Cannons exchange sons; Donatello is injured, and then killed (more on that in a second), leaving his son Josto (Jason Schwartzman) to square off against his other son, Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) for control; Loy struggles to convince white-run businesses to invest in his new idea, the “credit card,” while he works to use Donatello’s death to the Cannon’s advantage.
Okay, not “simple,” exactly, but that basic summary at least gives you a sense of what’s at play. The trouble is, none of it seems to matter that much. We spend so much time in the first two episodes introducing these characters, along with several more besides, that even while I can intellectually summarize the narrative, I have little emotional connection to it. There’s no real urgency to any of Josto’s squabbling, or to Loy’s work, at least not right now, and even if the stakes are slowly rising, that doesn’t automatically mean they matter. We’re not given a reason to care beyond the charisma of the actors and the assumption that, eventually, it’ll get more interesting. The slow pace flattens everything out, and the constant quirk has more or less lost all its novelty.
Thankfully, a few bits and pieces manage to stand out from the rest. The first episode opens with a quote from Frederick Douglass, narrated by Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), the teenage daughter of an interracial couple who, so far at least, looks to be serving as the lone sane, decent person in an ensemble filled with varying degrees of disreputability. As with the show’s previous moral center characters, Ethelrida is instantly appealing for her intelligence, her calmness, and her evident decency; even better, for once, the moral center isn’t a cop, and her youth and status make her distinctly vulnerable even as her intelligence sets her apart from the rest.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Jessie Buckley as Oraetta Mayflower. Oraetta is the one ultimately responsible for Donatello’s death, drugging his IV line while he groggily asks what’s going on, ostensibly because she wants to end his suffering. If Ethelrida is the moral center figure, then Oraetta is another series staple, the agent of chaos. The big difference here is that unlike Lorne Malvo or V.M. Varga, Oraetta doesn’t come across as a genius manipulator who uses her willingness to do anything to get what she wants; she’s sharp and determined, and when she’s caught trying to murder another patient in “The Land Of Taking And Killing,” she gets the upperhand against her supervisor by more or less browbeating him into submission—but there’s no sense that she’s using her talents with a larger goal in mind. A pure psychopath can be a useful story tool, but only if her behavior is internally consistent. Buckley’s striking, chipper performance lends the character coherence, and her sudden swerves are as lively as the first two episodes get; the big question going forward is if there will be a clearer method to her madness, or if she’ll remain a cipher.
Characters like Oraetta and Ethelrida are a reminder that, smart or not, Fargo is at its best when it focuses on distinctive, compelling individuals thrust into difficult situations. Even when the show ostensibly tries to take on larger themes, it’s most effective when it sticks to simpler pleasures—interesting folks doing interesting things. I can appreciate and admire the ambition to wrestle with big questions, but that ambition doesn’t automatically lead to effective results. There are flashes of inspiration in these first two episodes, moments that land well and omens of better story to come; but far too much of it comes across as someone clearing their throat for five minutes before announcing “Webster’s dictionary defines ‘prejudice’ as…” Fingers crossed that it gets weirder and wilder from here on out.
- I got so caught up in the review part of this that I didn’t give much of a recap. So: in addition to the struggles of the crime families, we also have Ethelrida’s parents, who own a funeral home and took out a bad loan and may be in some kind of troubled relationship with the Cannons; and an interracial lesbian couple, Zelmare Roulette and Swanee Capp, who break out of jail, steal some clothes, and show up at the Smutnys’ with an eye towards finding work in town (Zelmare is Ethelrida’s mother’s sister). The end of the second episode has Timothy Olyphant showing up with a passel of cops to bust down the Smutny’s front door seconds after Oraetta dropped off an apple pie dosed with ipecac. Kind of a twofer cliffhanger, you could say.
- Good lord, the names in this. On the one hand, it underlines the way American culture forces assimilation by requiring immigrant families to change or simplify their names to better fit in; on the other hand, I’ve had to check and double check the spelling a dozen times already, and I absolutely know I’m going to screw it up at some point.
- The idea of the crime families swapping sons has a nice, fairy tale ring to it, and I get that it’s a tradition, but given that it’s apparently never actually worked to maintain the peace, you have to wonder why they keep doing it. Or why no one acknowledges that it’s not going to work.