Fargo's legacy will endure even if Season 4 falls well short of Coen Brothers classic and Season 2 peak
Those expecting the new instalment of Fargo to reach the heights of Season 2 should certainly temper their enthusiasm.
Like the Coen brothers had imagined it, Fargo was more than just a city in North Dakota. It was an aesthetic, a mood. It was a world where madcap schemes can snowball into murder and mayhem between a "darn tootin'" and an "oh, geez". Heck, all you needed was a briefcase full of money to expose its everyman's capacity for villainy, hidden underneath all that Minnesota niceness.
In its afterlife as a TV show, Fargo became Americana viewed through an episodic fever dream. Across three seasons, creator Noah Hawley paid tribute to almost the entire Coen catalogue. At the same time, he used their template to build his own expansive tapestries of narrative and thematic threads.
After a three-year wait, the FX anthology series returns with a new story, which cannot quite capture the spirit of the original film or its better instalments. So, those expecting it to reach the heights of Season 2 should certainly temper their enthusiasm. Hawley's open world treatment takes us outside the usual snow-coated settings of North Dakota and Minnesota to Kansas, Missouri in 1950. The prologue educates us on its "alternate economy" and the power shifts between different crime factions, courtesy an oral report from a Black high-schooler named Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E'myri Crutchfield). Like Molly Solverson, Ethelrida is the personification of incorruptibility. When we first meet her, she is waiting outside the principal's office for a spanking. Her offense: being a "student of exceptional virtue and high achievement," which as she says is worse than being a "disreputable" one in the eyes of white authority figures.
Many of the conversations today about racism and immigration inform the ideas explored this season. Ethelrida wonders, "If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?" Like gangster dramas of past, Fargo traces the origin of criminal syndicates to early 20th century, when Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants were treated as second-class citizens in a nation built on the backs of slavery and immigration. Being denied the American Dream, they took an alternate route to realise it: they joined forces with their other newly-arrived comrades to create neighbourhood gangs, which engaged in bootlegging, burglary, and loan-sharking, often preying on their own communities. It's the true story of Paul Kelly and Al Capone. It's also the inspiration for fictional stories of Little Caeser and Vito Corleone.
Back to Ethelrida’s oral report: Since the turn of the 20th century, Joplin's Department Store has been the control centre for Kansas City's underworld. First, it was held by the Jewish Moskowitz syndicate, then the Irish Milligan Concern, and now, the Italian Fadda family. To maintain peace, the warring factions would exchange their first-born child and raise them as their own. As Ethelrida reminds us, if history has taught us anything, "peace don't last for long." By 1950, the Faddas control most of Kansas City's alternate economy. That is until the burgeoning Black crime syndicate led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) enters as a new contender, demanding a bigger share of the pie. As tradition dictates, Cannon trades his youngest son for the Faddas' youngest. But the unexpected death of the Fadda family boss in the most bizarre circumstances (a freak BB gun pellet) creates a power vacuum, which the more intimidating younger son Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) exploits to take control from his more irresolute older sibling, Josto (Jason Schwartzman).
Hawley again showcases his great eye for casting peripheral characters. Jessie Buckley kills, literally and figuratively, as Oraetta Mayflower, a nurse as wretched as Ratched and as miserable as Annie Wilkes (the Lizzy Caplan rendition in Castle Rock Season 2). She is also the only Minnesota born-and-bred, kinda funny-lookin' character in this Kansas-set season so far. Ben Whishaw is Rabbi Milligan, a man whose public and private identity, and the motivations behind his loyalty aren't clear yet. But what is clear is they will have potentially huge implications in the bad blood between Josto and Gaetano, and the Faddas and the Cannons. Glynn Turman plays Cannon’s senior adviser Doctor Senator, who despite his name is neither one of them. He's just one of this season's many Fargoisms.
Others include a pair of lesbian fugitives, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille), who rob Cannon's bookmaking operation the same day as Gaetano orders a hit on his oldest son Lemuel. That coincidence will surely have larger implications of its own. On their trail is Timothy Olyphant's US Marshal Dick Wickware (aka Deafy, on account of his penchant for selective hearing), who will surely please the Justified fans. But the cops this season are not of the usual good-to-the-core Solverson variety. For instance, Jack Huston plays Odis Weff, an OCD-plagued Kansas City cop on the Faddas' payroll. Sucked into the orbit of this tragicomedy of errors are the good guys, like Ethelrida and her family who are in debt to the Cannons. Her white father Thurman (Andrew Bird) runs a funeral home where he handles the white clients, while her Black mother Dibrell (Anji White) takes care of the Black clients.
In the season premiere alone, we witness at least two instances of the marginalisation of Black people and Italian immigrants, who were assigned an intermediary racial status. Despite being a Mafia boss, the elder Fadda is refused treatment at a private hospital. Loy Cannon and Doctor Senator pitch an idea of a credit card to a white-owned-and-operated bank, but prejudice has made them too stupid to realise it's a billion-dollar idea. Episode 3 reveals how Deafy, though a US Marshal, could be shot on sight in Missouri for being a Mormon, and it would be legal. So much for the country’s foundational ideal that “all men are created equal.”
It is the parables and anecdotes, written as monologues, that make the characters of Fargo (and all Coen brothers' movies) so damn unforgettable. Often, they help flesh out the story's narrative skeleton and build on the larger Fargo mythology.
This season, however, they almost feel like non sequiturs, jumping off on tangents which provide little meaning to the story around it, if at all. Monologues aside, the Coens often build tension by sustaining silence to a point when the character does speak, the viewer is at the edge of his seat eager to hang on to every word. The same cannot be said of the new season.
With his new pan-Fargovian experiment, Hawley attempts to gene-splice The Godfather, Miller's Crossing, Gangs of New York, and Boardwalk Empire with more cutting and timely subtext. In the three episodes aired till now, it feels like the beast may have escaped from his grasp. Whether he will be able to recapture it requires a let's-wait-and-see approach.
Fargo Season 4 is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India, with new episodes every Tuesday.
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