How A History Lesson Linked One of TV’s Greatest Shows
Warning: This story contains spoilers. At the request of the survivors, the names have changed. Out of respect for the dead, everything else from the last four seasons of Fargo will be told exactly as it happened.
Last week, the announcers on FX said that yesterday’s episode of Fargo would be the final one. Not the season finale, the final one. Understandably, I was really upset to hear this and hoped that they were just referring to the end of Season 4. But after the credits rolled, I realized there was a very good reason as to why Noah Hawley not only would choose to end his saga of Midwest noir here, but why he chose this story in the first place.
To review, Season 4 dealt with the closing of the war between the Cannon family and the Fadda family. Ethelrida, the child of the owners of the morgue that Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) ended up taking over because of the bad decisions of the Smutny family, came to Loy and told him how to end his war. She handed over to him the ring that Oretta Mayflower had stolen after she murdered Donatello Fadda. Cannon seemed to thwart one last power grab, coming from family who betrayed him, and in the new capo from New York confronted Josto (Jason Schwartzman) with the information that Oretta had murdered his father at his request.
Now, to be clear, I have never been fully convinced how serious Josto request was. He seemed really determined to murder the head of the hospital who had turned his father away after he had been shot (a revenge he carried out at the beginning of the episode) But in a sense, Josto is as much a victim of the changing ways of America as so many of the characters in this series are. “The family business was for the old world,” the new head say. “It doesn’t work here.” And Josto was a victim of that.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Josto was a butcher who was willing to kill his own brother to serve his needs and an innocent child to provoke it. But as he faced his end, I still felt more sympathy for him than any of the criminals in this long and complicated saga. Hell, the woman who ratted him out asked him to be killed first so she could watch.
And it’s not like Loy did any better. He was reunited with his son, but he pretty much lost everything else he had been fighting for all season to the same forces that brought down Josto. Organized crime has taken over for the family business, and even the ambitious ones like Loy are still scrambling for scraps. And just as it seemed, he might have lost the world but at least gained his family, in a literal final twist of the knife, he was murdered by his sister-in-law in act of revenge.
But it wasn’t until the final moments that we realized why Hawley chose to end Fargo. Ethel framed the beginning of the series as a history report, telling us of the world that formed the Kansas City crime syndicates. But why this history? Then the credits rolled — and we saw footage of a familiar face: Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) one of the most notorious characters in the series incredible history. And then all became clear. Though he was referred to as Satchel for most of the series, we knew his name was Michael from his mother. And now we he realize how he got his last name — he adopted that of Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw) his protector through his ordeal and given how he tried everything to save him, the only person in the entire series who put a child’s life before his own. Clearly that meant more to Mike than a father who was willing to use him as a hostage to try and gain more power. It may be the greatest twist that Hawley pulled off in four seasons of Fargo, in that it was hidden in plain sight the entire season but even the most devoted fans (of which I am one) couldn’t make the obvious connection.
And in that sense, Hawley created his greatest trick for a series full of them: he managed to link four seemingly separate stories into one epic saga of crime. Mike Milligan isn’t just the link between Season 4 and Season 2; he’s a link between the old way of doing things and the new way. He saw how the family business failed, and after everything else, chose to join the Kansas City Syndicate and help wipe out one of the last remaining family crime businesses: the Gerhardts. I’d like to say that’s a sign he succeeded, but given how innocent he seemed so often and was manipulated so much, it’s kind of tragedy that he ended up following in his father’s footsteps. Given how he managed to finally make out at the end of Season 2, we can’t even say for sure it was worth it.
And from the battle between Kansas City and the Gerhardts, which climaxed in the massacre at Sioux Falls, we find a link to Lou Solverson, who would go on to father Molly, the center of ‘Minnesota Nice’ and one of the few unquestioned purely good people that Hawley ever created. But even though she had a happy ending, it’s hard to argue that her way worked. As we know in Season 3 (which was linked to Season 1 by another characters whose real name we never knew for sure), Minnesota Nice came to an end pretty soon. And the criminal syndicate, which was already showing dents at the end of Season 1, was eaten up by the corporation run by men like V.P. Varga. Did the last remnants of that era, Gloria Burgle triumph over him? I thought so at the time, but given the way the world works, I’m less sure now.
At the end of it all, did Fargo have anything really deep to say? Maybe it was summed up by the poor Josto Fadda: “You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story.” And over the past few years, given everything about our history and that we have torn down far more than we have brought up, it’s hard to argue that point. Our society has always been more dog-eat-dog than the land of the free. Fargo only made it clearer than that.
Is this the end of Fargo? I actually think there is a good argument for it. In this cycle Hawley proved that history may not repeat but it does rhyme. This is a complete story and while there were occasional loose ends (I would like to know what happened to Ethelrida’s robber aunt who managed to escape a gun battle near the end of the season) it was a more complete series than any of the dramas stories I’ve seen these decade, as well as one of the best written, directed and of course, acted. (There will be a lot of awards nominations for this series in the coming year.)
But you never know. Maybe, in the same way he was inspired from every incarnation of Fargo that came out, a few years from now Hawley will have a moment of inspiration and we’ll be back to the blood and the snow and the music. Would I welcome that? You betcha.
Side Note: When I was writing my list of Best shows of the past decade, I wrote down Fargo as number 7. If this current season had been included, I think I would have flipped it with Parenthood and put it in at Number 5. This was a true triumph on every front.