Fargo’s Latest Installation Shows How Far We Haven’t Come

BTW, The Return Of One of the Greatest Shows In History

Even though there were only three seasons, it didn’t take much reasoning for me to consider FX’s Fargo one of the greatest series of the 2010s. With some of the most memorable villains in television history, from Billy Bob Thornton’s force of destruction Lorne Malvo to David Thewlis’ subtly venomous V.P. Varga, the series has show all levels of crime, indestructible forces, family business giving way to the corporation, the utter inevitable of the invisible hand. We’ve also seen some forces of ‘Minnesota nice’, as creator Noah Hawley has called it — the forces of good trying to find a solution to the horror that unfolds. We’ve had to wait more than three years since the end of Season 3, but looking at the first two episodes of Season 4, it’s more than worth the wait.

Creator Noah Hawley has always said that he comes to each season of Fargo with a single vision in his mind, and I have an inkling what that image might be. What if two warring crime families, in order to bring about peace, agreed to exchange the eldest children of the leader of the family? And what if though the result were inevitably slaughter, the tradition continued. In the opening sequence, we see it done with an Irish family and a Jewish one. Then after the Irish win, they trade with the Italians — the Fadda family. And now the Faddas have been at war with the African Americans in Kansas City, they do so with the head — Loy Cannon.

I don’t know what casting director had the idea of Chris Rock playing Loy, but this may be the best single decision they’ve made — and their casting has always been perfect. Cannon is not a typical mobster in the sense that any of the previous syndicates have been — he’s an entrepreneur with dreams of going legitimate. In one of the early sequences, he goes to a band with his second in command Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman in one of his greatest roles) about the idea of a new idea for purchasing: the credit card. It’s a perfect pitch, but you know from the moment they go in the door that no bank is going to take any idea from ‘a Negro’. Cannon is basically the earliest edition of Stringer Bell and Lamont Bishop, wanting to be legitimate but having only ‘the alternate economy’ open to him.

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The irony is, in the world in which Cannon lives, none of his fellow criminals are considered any more legitimate. This is made clear in a stunning sequence where Donatello Fadda is shot and is driven to a hospital. But this is a ‘respectable hospital’ and they will not admit a criminal no matter how bad his condition. This leads them to St. Bartholemew, where Josto (Jason Schwarzman, twisting his comic persona just enough) has a conversation with a chipper nurse named Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley). The conversation is fueled by drug, so its hard to tell whether Josto is being serious about his desires. But Oraetta, who we’ve already met and we know is clearly not really there, takes him seriously, and by the end of episode one, Donatello is dead and Josto is in charge.

Those of us who’ve been watching Fargo long enough know that the real problem in this world isn’t violence or sex, but impatience. Josto is now in a job that is clearly to big for him, and is facing threats from without and within. Loy wants to keep up the peace he has with Josto, but his brother, back from Italy, has no patience for anybody. Loy wants to protect his family, and he believes he can do this by becoming more powerful. We all know that never works.

It’s still a little early to try and figure out where the characters will land and where. Somewhere in the middle is Ethel Smutny, the child of a mixed race family who doesn’t know where she fits in the world and who has found the eye of the very bigoted and crazy Oraetta. There’s ‘Rabbi’ Milligan (Ben Whishaw) who was traded himself between the Irish and the Italian and is therefore closer to Lon’s predicament than anyone else. And all around are these characters that seem like they’re just for color but always promise more. There’s the corrupt detective who suffers from Tourette’s (Jack Houston), Ethel’s convict aunt and her apparent gay lover, who just broke out of prison. The Mormon marshal determined to track them down (hello, Timothy Olyphant). You might think these characters are just there for atmosphere, but we know how Noah Hawley, much like David Simon once did, makes all the pieces matter.

Like every other installment of this show, Hawley starts Fargo with the subtitled lie: ‘This is a true story. In fairness to the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it happened.” A tribute to the Coen brothers, we know. But just as how Watchmen demonstrated last year and Lovecraft County did earlier this year, we know how much the story that Hawley is telling is particularly relevant. Ethel knows it herself, as she is the narrator who seems to be telling a report about history as she goes to and from the principals not so much because she is disrespectful, but because she is smart. When her mother tells her to go to her room, she listens. The question is: when won’t she?

Of course, you can decide to ignore the parallels between Hawley’s 1950 Kansas City and our present, and just be entertained by the extraordinary directing, writing and acting in one of the greatest achievements in the history of the medium. It was robbed of being released for this year’s Emmys because of the conditions of the pandemic. That won’t stop it from dominating a lot of award shows for the next year. Fargo is why we watch television in the first place.

My score: 5 stars (you betcha!)

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