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FX's Fargo Returns with an Ambitious But Underdeveloped Interrogation of the American Dream

Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” returns after a pandemic-related delay for its fourth self-contained season, exploring the escalating tension between two rival crime families in 1950 Kansas City. Per usual, the production design is exceptional, the casting is inspired, and Hawley’s scripts hum along, every so often delivering bursts of poetic complaints about the promises and failures of this country. But the strain of all this effort is beginning to show, and this latest “Fargo” installment suffers from too much muchness. There are isolated scenes of excellent melodrama, some thoughtfully pointed questions about the decay of the American dream, and a few standout performances that rival those of Allison Tolman in season one, Bokeem Woodbine and Zahn McClarnon in season two, and Ewan McGregor in season three. But with more characters than backstory, some particularly predictable turns, and a certain simplistic approach to its questions about race, this fourth season of “Fargo” sometimes feels like a tornado: all bluster and destruction, but with hollow emptiness at its core. 

Set in 1950 in Kansas City, Missouri, “Fargo” (the 11-episode season of which begins on Sept. 27 on FX), begins under the guise of a history report. 16-year-old Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), a straight-A student at school who suffers regular paddling from the principal (“The moment our feet touched American soil, we were already criminals” she says to explain how often her teachers and other students come up with reasons to punish her), reads her report as opening narration for the premiere’s 24-minute cold open. First the criminal underworld in Kansas City was run by the Jewish syndicate, who were threatened by the Irish; to keep the peace, the families devised a plan. Each side would offer their youngest son to be traded as a gesture of good faith: “The thinking was, by raising your enemy’s offspring, an understanding could be reached, and peace maintained,” Ethelrida explains. 

But principles go out the door when there are profits to be made. From 1900 to 1950, the son-swap process is soaked with the blood of double crosses, and by the time Cannon Syndicate leader Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) meets with Italian Mafia patriarch Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno), there’s more suspicion than trust to the exchange. Still, Cannon sends his tween son Satchel (Rodney Jones) against his will, and Fadda offers up his youngest, Zero (Jameson Braccioforte), and the result should be increased monetary opportunities for all. With the approval of their New York overseers, the Italians make some room: The Black crime family will take over the slaughterhouses, and maybe the stockyards. As Ethelrida’s narration points out, “None of ‘em were white. They were Dagos, Nagros, a mix, all fighting for the right to have been created equal. But equal to what? And who gets to decide?”

Those queries about America’s long, racist history shape much of the tension between the two crime families: Between Cannon and his crew, living in the time of segregation, corralled in neighborhoods on one side of town, yelled at when they don’t use the “right” Colored doors, and the Faddas, who still remember fighting against the Americans in World War II, who are stereotyped as “swarthy Lotharios” and “Guineas” wherever they go, who deal too with prejudice and hatred. But it is the nature of America, Hawley has his characters tell us over and over again in first contemplative and then decreasingly impactful speeches, for capitalist ambition to cause a competition that cannot be contained. The Italians are rejected by white Americans—who deny them access to their hospitals and their schools and question their motives with white women—and then continue that discrimination against Black people. “Look, the boy thinks he is a man,” laughs Donatello when Cannon offers his palm for a blood oath. “We’re the goddamn Roman Empire. They were born in huts,” seethes Donatello’s oldest son Josto (Jason Schwartzman); other Italians refer to Cannon and his comrades as “animals.” “We’re both in the gutter together, like it or not,” points out one of Cannon’s men, but that’s not what the Italians want to hear. They came to this country for the American dream, and they’re not going to let the already-disenfranchised stand in their way. 

Hawley allows the feuding criminals ample opportunities to tell us about America (one episode includes not one, but two lengthy “You know … ” speeches about the American psyche) and the result is overdone. One of the highlights of season two of “Fargo,” which followed the Kansas City crime family’s takeover of the Gerhardt operation in Minnesota, was the observations offered by Woodbine’s character regarding the corruptive nature of power and the pursuit of capitalist excess. Every so often his Mike Milligan, in Woodbine’s beautifully sonorous voice, would extoll on the brutality needed for success; those speeches were a delight not just because of their precise content, but because of their infrequency. This season, however, nearly everyone is pontificating about American weakness or American bigotry or American faith, and while some of those diatribes include pithy observations (“In America, people want to believe. They got that dream. And a dreamer, you can fleece,” Cannon says), the result is that many of these characters are so busy talking about the world around them that they barely discuss themselves. It’s a particularly glaring issue for Cannon and the characters in the Cannon Syndicate, whose only shading and development comes as a response to racism.  

Cannon is ostensibly the hero of this story, and yet, we don’t know much about him. We know about the interfamily drama within the Faddas, and the difference between the children who grew up in Italy and fought in World War II and the first-generation children who grew up in the United States and didn’t, and what it was like to be a prisoner of war, and about the pressures caused by marrying into a white American family. The Faddas are fully rendered, from Donatello and Josto to their advisers and enforcers and assassins. (The only 2D person on their side is Josto’s younger, power-grabbing brother Gaetano; actor Salvatore Esposito’s bug-eyed depravity gets old quick.) But the Cannon Syndicate members don’t get that depth. They are dignified, and they are smart, and they are very obviously wronged—by banks that turn down their ideas, by businesses that turn down their partnership, by police officers that ignore or abuse them—and Hawley’s scripts work in references to lynchings, the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and segregated schools. Practically every non-Black character that Cannon and his crew encounter is a racist, which seems historically realistic to this time and this place, but that monotony also flattens the Cannon Syndicate themselves. They’re not given the same fully rounded treatment as the Faddas, and although many of these performances are solid, they feel in service of a superficial imagining. A poignant example of this is how Ethelrida’s mother’s family discusses being haunted by a demonic, ghastly figure who appears to portend doom; we’re meant to despise a character who tells Ethelrida that Black people are “more in touch” with their spiritual side, but isn’t the show portraying the exact same cliché? 

As Cannon, Rock turns his brand of brusque humor into a weapon, making the crime boss a sly, wary operator who runs the Cannon Syndicate with a tight grip and exercises no hesitation in mocking men whom he finds ridiculous. When detective Odis Weff (Jack Huston, giving a wonderfully layered and impressively physical performance, his best since “Boardwalk Empire”), who was a minesweeper during World War II, asks Cannon whether he served, his answer precedes the legacy of Muhammad Ali (“Why would I fight for a country that wants me dead?”) before antagonizing Weff with a yelled “Boom!” In another scene, he sarcastically says, “I can’t remember the last time a white man tried to make my life easier,” a line that could have come from Rock’s own standup. In one of Cannon’s few interactions with his wife (one that feels quite familiar for romantic pairings on Fargo), he underscores his role as head of the family: “We’re supposed to get rich and stay rich how, by saying our prayers? … Now take off your damn coat and get me some f**king coffee.” Rock gives the character recognizable anger and regret, and his performance is countered well with Glynn Turman as his quieter, more calculating second in command, Doctor Senator, who insults the Italians with the dismissive “Y’all just got here yesterday, but we’re part of this land, like the wind and dirt.” Rock and Turman are wonderful together and feel like they’re offering something new for us as viewers. In contrast is Schwartzman; the Fadda storyline is filled with so many homages to his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy that it’s not a stretch to say Schwartzman is doing his own version of Fredo Corleone here, crossed with the petulant brattiness of his “Scott Pilgrim” villain Gideon Graves. The performance is familiar for Schwartzman, but still effective. 

On the female side of the cast, Jessie Buckley’s portrayal of the nurse Oraetta Mayflower is imbued with cheery menace (I shivered when she said to Ethelrida, “I decided to make you one of my special projects”), although her overall characterization feels like a dumping ground for titillating quirks. Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille (replacing Amber Midthunder and again playing a Native American character, despite the ongoing controversy regarding her actual connection to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribe) are compelling, if underwritten, as outlaws who say things like “All we want is to live while we’re alive and die with a gun in our hands.” In contrast to these increasingly campy performances is Crutchfield as Ethelrida, whose curiosity about the seemingly incomprehensible choices made by adults around her is winningly persistent. She is the closest thing this season of “Fargo” has to a “normal” character, and she provides the stability the show needs so it doesn’t spin entirely out of control.

But even with Crutchfield’s steadying presence, “Fargo” often leans this season toward spectacle instead of story. To be fair, the direction, from Hawley himself, along with Dearbhla Walsh and longtime collaborator Dana Gonzales, is crisp, stylish, and adventurous. Particularly well-done is a whip-pan-style shot that switches our perspective from perpetrator to victim and back again during a drive-by shooting, and the staging of a heist that involves a ring of fire and a hot gun barrel pressed against a man’s face. Hawley’s split-screen adoration holds firm, with one of its best iterations depicting a cache of guns, the Cannon Syndicate preparing for battle, and the stars and stripes of the American flag. But there are also allegations of pedophilia that are thrown around for no discernible narrative purpose; the forced eccentricity of a character who dances around to opera only he can hear while murdering people; and BDSM-tinged sex scenes that feel superfluous to the main narrative. Add that to episodes that drag (one in which war is declared no fewer than three times, and yet nothing much happens) and scenes that don’t make sense within "Fargo"'s own world (a fight in which one man with two six-shooters somehow scares away a half-dozen men with semiautomatics). “Fargo” has always been a little off-kilter, but those elements stand out as particularly indulgent or egregious this season, when its overall storytelling approach is so uneven. 

Hawley’s ambition is admirable: He’s taking on no less than systemic racism, entrenched xenophobia, the allure and failure of the American success story, the ego of individualism, the failures of our health care system, and the way communities can prey on their own members. Certain lines of dialogue capture various aspects of all this: “We live with the choices we make—consequences,” says Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw), who is caught between the feuding families. In rejecting the Mormon-inspired racism of U.S. Marshal Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), Odie says, “Not everyone darker than a Norseman is running around with sin in their heart.” And Ethelrida, in her history report, writes, “That’s how it worked. Whoever was last off the boat, finding the door of honest capital closed, rolled up their sleeves and got to work, getting rich the old-fashioned way.” But Hawley’s inability to give these lofty questions the depth they require, and the show’s mistake in believing that showing racism is the same thing as interrogating it, make this season of “Fargo” technically impressive but ultimately unfulfilling. 

Nine episodes screened for review.

Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi is a film, television, and pop culture critic. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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