Parents are used to being asked impossible questions by their kids – years later, I’m still struggling to find an answer for “Dad, what’s the point of the letter X?” But the toughest for me would probably be: What’s the best season of “Fargo”?
Between 2014 and 2017, the first three seasons of Noah Hawley’s anthology series were breathtaking, audacious works of art – as long as you accepted the fact that blood and violence were part of the package in this frequently savage thriller.
The first season, of course, was based on the Coen Brothers’ award-winning 1996 thriller. But the further removed the show became from the source material, the more it excelled at creating its own mythologies and legends.
More than any other show currently on television, “Fargo” is a series told by a master storyteller. It’s also awash with an embarrassment of memorable characters. Just off the top of my head there’s Allison Tolman’s lovable cop Molly Solverson and Billy Bob Thornton’s psychopathic Lorne Malvo from Season 1; Jean Smart’s fearsome matriarch Floyd Gerhardt and Bokeem Woodbine’s book-smart thug Mike Milligan in Season 2; Ewan McGregor’s feuding brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s street-smart grifter Nikki Swango in Season 3 – and I could just as easily have picked another dozen characters from the series.
Thanks to daring plotlines that are impossible to second-guess (UFOs? Robots roaming the planet for millennia?) and, of course, the strongest collection of Midwestern accents ever assembled on television, “Fargo” ranks alongside “The Leftovers” as the best and most cinematic American show of the past decade.
But the 2010s feel like a lifetime ago right now, so how does the fourth season compare to its magnificent forebears?
Well, there’s no mistaking we’re back in “Fargo” territory and there are still things to admire here. But so far – and I write this only four out of 11 episodes in – I’m a little disappointed that the new season is merely “good” rather than “out-of-this-world brilliant.” True, I’d feel less underwhelmed if this were a new show called “Kansas City,” but this is “Fargo” – begetter of universes and televisual wonders – so disappointment it is.
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Good vs. evil
A quote from David Thewlis’ villainous V.M. Varga character in Season 3 encapsulates what “Fargo” is about: “The problem is not that there’s evil in the world; the problem is that there’s good – because otherwise, who would care?”
The show has always excelled at placing “good” folk at the center of malignant clashes between those who fervently believe that might is right. Our guide is often a hickish law enforcement officer, but in Season 4 it’s 16-year-old Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), a racially abused student in Kansas City, Missouri, at the turn of the 1950s.
In Jim Crow-era America, she’s very much an outlier: the daughter of a black mother, Dibrell (Anji White), and white father, Thurman (Andrew Bird), who run the King of Tears Mortuary. In other words, a place that’s sure to be experiencing a boom now that “Fargo” is in town.
Ironically, given current events in Washington, “Fargo” Season 4 is about the transition of power. I’d say the show diverges from D.C. because it’s concerned with crime syndicates, but on reflection maybe things aren’t so dissimilar.
In a brilliant opener, Ethelrida explains how different immigrant groups have controlled the city’s underworld since 1900. First it was “the Hebrews” (the Moskowitz Syndicate), then in 1920 the Irish (the Milligan Concern), then in 1928 the Italians (the Fadda Family).
“What does history tell us?” Ethelrida asks rhetorically. “Peace doesn’t last for long.” The minute you relax and fatten up, she warns, “somebody hungry is going to come along looking for a piece of your pie.”
Sure enough, as the ’50s arrive, the latest ravenous group is the Cannon Limited, a Black gang led by Lol Cannon (Chris Rock) and his trusty lieutenant Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman).
So far, so “Fargo” – with echoes of Season 2’s epic clash between the Gerhardt family and the Kansas City mafia. But the big difference this time is that very few of these new characters truly connect with the viewer (though Rock fares better than most).
The vital ring of truth that even the most outlandish of tales requires is sorely lacking here, especially in the power struggle at the top of the Fadda family. While Jason Schwartzman’s weedy Josto Fadda (imagine Eric Trump with a mustache) feels like he’s been parachuted in from a Wes Anderson movie, younger brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) is an amoral brute who fought alongside Mussolini in the war before seeing which way the wind was blowing and switching sides.
Italian Oliver Hardy
“Fargo” is normally fantastic at giving us memorable villains, but it gives us two real letdowns here. Esposito is constantly rolling his eyes and overemoting in a way that suggests an Italian Oliver Hardy in a silent movie; I was reminded of Roberto Benigni’s performance in Jim Jarmusch’s “Down by Law” – and that’s not a compliment.
Then there’s Jessie Buckley’s Oraetta Mayflower, a nurse who’s definitely not following the Nightingale Pledge with her bedside activities. I’m a big fan of Buckley’s; she’s terrific in both “Wild Rose” and Charlie Kaufman’s recent Netflix film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”
But here she’s way the wrong side of credible, complete with silly shuffling gait and lines like “Oraetta Mayflower has no intention of sweating out eternity at the end of the Devil’s pitchfork.” It’s all too forced, too theatrical, too much.
And the problematic quirks don’t end there. A couple of escaped convicts offer a lesbian twist on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (minus the singing and pomade). Then there’s Odis Weff (played by Jack Huston), a police officer with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that involves him knocking on a doorframe four or five times before exiting a room. (Are we really meant to laugh at that in 2020?) And a U.S. marshall, Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), is a Mormon who rolls into town in pursuit of the convicts and is presumably meant to provide the comic relief. (“I can safely say you blasphemy more than any man I’ve ever met – and I’ve been to Cleveland.”)
The saving grace so far is Ben Whishaw’s Rabbi Milligan. The son of an Irish mob boss, he was traded with the Italians (and before that, the Hebrews – hence his name) as part of a local tradition in which the bosses swap sons in order to maintain the peace. As you may have ascertained, that plan is not going so well.
Milligan is now charged with looking after Loy Cannon’s youngest son, Satchel (Rodney Jones), in the Fadda home, offering the viewer a welcome respite from the over-the-top shenanigans elsewhere in the show.
“Fargo” has never been afraid to lean in to its quirkiness, of course, but here it feels way too labored. It’s also surprisingly unsubtle, exemplified by several scenes involving the kind of flatulence rarely heard since the days of “Blazing Saddles.”
It’s tempting to blame it all on Hawley’s hectic workload; after all, he’s being pulled more ways than a North Korean prisoner. In between “Fargos,” he’s worked on two seasons of “X-Men” spin-off “Legion,” the Natalie Portman film “Lucy in the Sky” and a potential “Star Trek” movie – oh, and a couple of novels. The sense is he’s stretched himself too thin, especially as this is still very much his show.
Hawley’s not ruling out a Season 5, either, and I wouldn’t bet against him returning to form at some point. Until then, while it may be impossible to pick a best season of “Fargo,” it’s now very easy to identify the worst.
“Fargo” is on Hot HBO on Mondays at 9 P.M., and is also available on Hot VOD and Next TV. It airs on FX in America on Sundays.