Here’s a question for you: is Fargo (the TV show) really smart?
It’s a strange question to ask at this point, it’s true; starting the fourth season after three seasonsYes worthy of generally full praise from you, you’d think I’d have a better idea of the answer. But honestly no. First season, I spent most of my time impressed by the fact that a seemingly terrible idea (a TV spinfrom a Coen Brothers movie) actually produced watchable content. Second season, I was struck by how series creator Noah Hawley has expanded his ambitions to tell a funny, sad and tense story about a warring crime family couple and the deranged housewife who inadvertently gets caught between them. Third season, well, that was where the doubts began to creep in. It was still the same show, more less, but the tricks were starting to run out and as good as the production and performances were, it was hard to ignore, once you got over the tricks … well, what was there? What was it about?
Which brings us to the fourth season and the double match tonight: “Welcome Tor The Alternate Economy ”and“ The Land Of Taking And Killing. “A little over two hours combined even before adding the commercials is a lot Fargo content for one night, setting the setting and featuring, well, a lot of characters at the same time. We get a mission statement in the first episode (“If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become an American?”), And at the end of the second episode, there is enough conflict and unease coming from every sector that is easy to imagine how the show goes even if it is difficult to predict a particular thread. The silly shit happens alongside the incredibly violent shit. The characters speak with intense and twisted eloquence in stark contrast to their behaviors. The pace is slow.
All of which is to say that, yes, this definitely is Fargo the television program as we know it. We also get the “Based on a true story” disclaimer, although at this point, the charm the artifice once had has practically left the building. Which is something you could say about a lot of this, I think. While there is certainly a notable oddity at play in both episodes, there are few turns or characters that offer legitimate surprises; worse, even surprises sound familiar.
It’s bad? Not exactly. But it’s a bit boring, and what’s striking is how tentatively the new season seems to be willing to commit to those few elements of its setting that we are single. Set in 1950, the premise still concerns two crime families, in this case Cannon Limited (a Black of union led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock)) and the Fadda family (the Italian mafia). 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 a new marginalized community trying to make its mark on the world. The Moskowitz Syndicate, betrayed and killed by the concern Milligan, which was in turn destroyed by the Faddas, who now face the Cannons.
Okay, as far as things go, but the Moskowitzes and the Milligans aren’t given enough time to be anything more than caricatures, and the time we spend with Faddas and Cannons in these episodes, while providing more detail, doesn’t exactly. add depth. It is a difficult thing to criticize, because on the one hand any show that works with marginalized groups has an obligation to avoid or face stereotypes about those groups, with the awareness that such stereotypes are reductive products of racism. But without having an idea of the respective cultures of both groups, you risk missing out on what sets them apart, the lack of authenticity that makes any point you might try to question.
This is a difficult needle to thread: portray the Italian or the B.they lack Americans in a way that instantly recognizes how their personality has been flattened by the narrow view of what they might be, while at the same time understanding and appreciating what their specific cultures have brought to the country in general. At least so far Fargo ‘Season 4 doesn’t even seem to try. The Faddas sound like a collection of surfaces from other Mafia shows, and the Cannons don’t even have it. There is a recognition of the prejudice that both groups face, but no sense of what makes them unique. It is possible to exit the first two episodes with the impression that the Italians suffered from bigotry in the 1950s Americans more than the BThe lack of community has done it, and while I doubt the impression is intentional, it’s still a strange angle of approach.
It could be argued that the show is trying to present these stories in a new light; it could also be argued that expecting a new season to cover such large areas of complicated, baggage-laden territory in two episodes is rather unreasonable. It’s possible the narrative will become sharper over time, but for now the detached-ironic approach Fargo takes for all of his stories (arguably the biggest debt the show owes to the Coen brothers movie it keeps riffing on) doesn’t really seem to serve the material that well, covering every moment in a sheen of weirdness that makes it so much more hard to see the real people below.
Of course, that has always been a feature, not a bug, and in previous seasons, the gap has served to make both the tense and melancholy elements of the show more difficult. This season, however, it all seems a bit mechanical. Take the scene in “Welcome Tor The Alternate Economy “where Donatello Fadda is accidentally shot in the neck with a child’s BB gun. The juxtaposition of extravagant and shocking violence is one of them FargoThe signature moves of, but the show isn’t content with simply leaving it that way; must precede the shot with Donatello suffering from a gastrointestinal disorder that looks like a heart attack before resolving into a giant fart. The fart is what forces other people in the car with him to open the car windows, which makes BB gunshot possible, and it’s all done in the context of tensions with the Cannons. But it doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond the acknowledgment that yes, it’s not strange how comedy and tragedy can be intertwined. There is no real surprise beyond the immediate “Oh, I guess it happened.” It is not based on anything.
This, more than anything else, is the real problem with these first two episodes. Many things happen, there is an undercurrent of growing danger, but little sense of a story or narrative unfolding; it’s just a collection of scenes which, presumably, will all be relevant to each other if we keep watching them. (Or not; Hawley, after all, has a passion for using that “Based on a true story” gag as an excuse to add random details, just ‘cause.) At the macro level, the plot is quite simple: in an attempt to keep the peace between their families, the Faddas and the Cannons exchange children; Donatello is wounded and then killed (more on this in a second), leaving his son Josto (Jason Schwartzman) to confront his other son, Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) for control; Loy struggles to convince white-run companies to invest in his new idea, the “credit card,” as he works to exploit Donatello’s death for the Cannon.
Okay, not exactly “simple”, but at least that basic summary gives you an idea of what’s at stake. The problem is that none of these seem to matter much. We spend so much time in the first two episodes introducing these characters, along with many others, that while I can summarize the narrative intellectually, I have little emotional connection to it. There’s no real urgency for any of Josto’s bickering, or Loy’s work, at least not right now, and even if the stakes are slowly rising, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re important. We are not given a reason to worry beyond the charisma of the actors and the assumption that, eventually, it will become more interesting. The slow pace flattens everything and the constant strangeness has more or less lost all its novelty.
Fortunately, some 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, at least so far, seem to serve as the lonely sane and decent person in an ensemble filled with varying degrees of dishonor. As with previous characters from the show’s moral center, Ethelrida immediately appeals for her wit, calm, and obvious decency; even better, for once, the moral center is not a policeman, and her youth and status make her distinctly vulnerable even as her intelligence sets her apart from the rest.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jessie Buckley as Oraetta Mayflower. Oraetta is solely responsible for Donatello’s death, drugging his IV line while he dazedly asks what is going on, ostensibly because he wants to end his suffering. If Ethelrida is the figure of the moral center, Oraetta is another staple of the series, the agent of chaos. The big difference here is that unlike Lorne Malvo or V.M. Varga, Oraetta does not present herself as a brilliant manipulator who uses her willingness to do anything to get what she wants; she is sharp and determined, and when she is discovered trying to kill another patient in “The Land Of Taking And Killing, “takes over his supervisor by more or less intimidating him by subduing him, but it makes no sense that he is using his talents with a broader goal in mind. A pure psychopath can be a useful story tool, but only if the his demeanor is internally consistent. Buckley’s stunning and lively portrayal lends coherence to the character and his sudden swerves are as lively as the first two episodes; the big question for the future is whether there will be a clearer method for his madness, or if a code will remain.
Characters like Oraetta and Ethelrida remind us that, intelligent or not, Fargo it gives its best when it focuses on distinctive and compelling individuals pushing themselves into difficult situations. Even when the show seemingly tries to address broader themes, it is most effective when it sticks to simpler pleasures: interesting people doing interesting things. I can appreciate and admire the ambition to struggle 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 portents of a better story to come; but too much is heard when someone clears their throat for five minutes before announcing “Webster’s dictionary defines” prejudice “as …” Crossing your fingers, it gets weirder and wilder from here on out.
- I was so caught up in the review of this article that I didn’t do a great summary. So: in addition to the struggles of the crime families, we also have Ethelrida’s parents, who own a funeral home and have taken out a bad loan and may have a troubled relationship with the Cannons; and an interracial lesbian couple, Zelmare Roulette and Swanee Capp, who break out of jail, steal clothes and show up at the Smutnys’ with an eye on the search for work in the city (Zelmare is the sister of Ethelrida’s mother). The end of the second episode sees Timothy Olyphant showing up with a passel of cops to break down the Smutny’s front door seconds after Oraetta left an apple pie dosed with ipecac. Sort of a cliffhanger twofer, one might say.
- Good God, the names in this one. On the one hand, it emphasizes how American culture forces assimilation by requiring immigrant families to change or simplify their names to better suit; on the other hand, I’ve had to check and double-check the spelling a dozen times already and I absolutely know that at some point I’ll get it all wrong.
- The idea of crime families swapping children sounds pretty fairytale, and I understand it’s a tradition, but since it apparently never worked to keep the peace, you have to wonder why they keep doing it. Or because no one recognizes that it won’t work.