Fargo season 4 has a lot of nothing to say about America: Review
FX's anthology returns with its own True Detective season 2.
The 23-minute prologue for Fargo’s fourth season (debuting Sept. 27 on FX) unfolds a 50-year history of crime syndicates in Kansas City. The Moskowitz Syndicate, the Milligan Concern, the Fadda Family, the Cannon Limited: Jewish, Irish, Italian, and Black syndicates, respectively, all squabbling for domination of the underworld.
This delicate balance of power plays out onscreen with all the cultural specificity of a Street Fighter 2 character select screen. Dueling mobs choreograph simultaneous arrivals at diplomatic ceasefires, and stomp their feet for dramatic collective percussion. Important characters are introduced with chyrons and mugshot smash cuts, the kind of hyperlink editing Guy Ritchie ruined 20 years ago. The montage covers half a century, and everyone is a parody. The first time the Irish crime lord (Ira Amyx) talks, he hands a little boy a whiskey flask: “Put some hair on your bollocks!” That is certainly something the Irish say, I guess, when they’re not escaping the pesky kids who are always after their Lucky Charms.
“To keep the peace,” a narrator explains, “The boss of each family gave offer of his youngest son in trade.” It’s a Medieval arrangement with a hat tip to Jack Kirby, and the first thing that ruins this frantic season is how absolutely no one takes the unlikely arrangement seriously. The prologue moves through generations of swapped princelings and criminal backstabbery before arriving in 1950, where aging godfather Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno) and rising kingpin Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) exchange sons. It’s a peace offering, yet all conversation promises imminent bloodbath. “We should move on them already,” says Donatello’s preening son Josto (Jason Schwartzman). Redcoated Mafia enforcer Calamita (Gaetano Bruno) looks ready to shoot everyone anytime. Across town, Loy’s wife Buel (J. Nicole Brooks) demands to know when her son will come home. “As soon as I see their throats,” Loy swears.
The narrative goal here, I think, is constant tension: A sense that any wrong move will start a war. That’s certainly true when Josto’s brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), an unblinking manhulk, flies in from Italy. He loves his mama, and gives an introductory speech about how he used to work with Mussolini until he executed Mussolini. You may be getting the sense this fellow is Italian, so that initial feeling of loud parody continues even as the pace slacks into interminable loquacious pondering. At a certain point, every gangster scene is two characters in a room threatening each other for a few minutes. Sometimes there are three characters.
On Fargo, criminals seem to make money by standing around talking about all the killing they’ll soon get around to. That relentless swagger asphyxiates any other dramatic possibility. None of the characters have interior lives, believable family dynamics, or even notable hobbies, unless you count “murdering in unique ways.” The traded children should be focal characters — aristocrats from opposing enclaves crossing racial lines in Truman’s America! — but they’re both cute ciphers with barely any dialogue. And after that “throats” line, it takes five episodes for Loy to talk to his wife again, almost halfway through this 11-part season.
That conversation ends, by the way, with Loy explaining that Buel should be grateful for all the luxury his hard work affords her: “Now take off your damn coat and get me some f---ing coffee!” I suppose you could say that scene complicates our view of Loy, who otherwise gets the typical prestige-antihero treatment. He worries over his absent son, soliloquizes the history of racial economic injustice, and appears to invent the credit card. Then he goes home and yells Cartmanisms at his (otherwise little-seen) wife. This could be what passes for complexity in the contemporary TV drama. Or maybe it’s a sign that Fargo creator Noah Hawley writes about gender dynamics the same way he writes about racial animosity: Terribly.
The aforementioned narrator of the prologue is Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (Emyri Crutchfield), a teenager who lives in a funeral home. Her parents, Dibrell (Anji White) and Thurman (Andrew Bird), are an interracial couple. Ethelrida could be our guide through the racial borderlands of midcentury America. The show certainly hopes so. “If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?” she narrates, before noting “Here’s the thing about America: The minute you relax and fatten up, somebody hungry is gonna come along, looking for a piece of your pie.”
That initial narration presents as an essay Ethelrida is writing for school. It also prepares you for this season’s god-awful dialogue. Consider playing a drinking game every time someone says America. “When first I come to America,” says mafia consigliere Ebal (Franceso Acquaroli), “on the streets I hear this phrase, you know this phrase, ‘American values.’ And I think: What does it mean?” If only there were a show brave enough to answer that question! “You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story,” explains Josto, who will also command his immigrant allies to “Speak American!” Right before a troubled assassin holds a gun on someone, he talks with great nostalgia about first seeing “the big yellow American sun.” Around the middle of the season, too many Loy’s scenes become TED talks about something or other, delivered by Rock with an I’m-being-serious-now blank deadpan. Example:
“Every country has its own type of criminal. In America we got the confidence man. Snake oil salesman, grifter! He don’t rob you so much as trick you into robbing yourself. See, ‘cause in America, people wanna believe. They got that dream. And a dreamer, you can fleece.”
Did you drink twice? Based on the nine episodes released to critics, I have concluded that Fargo thinks America is a troubled place full of people who are different from each other. This will certainly come as a shock to some kindergarteners. Rich characters, unexpected plot turns, or bold stylistic decisions could dramatize this perspective. Three strikes and you’re out, as they say in baseball — which isn’t the real American pastime, y’see, because the real American pastime is crime, y’see.
After her initial prominence, Ethelrida becomes an audience surrogate, playing confounded second fiddle to various eccentrics. She enters the orbit of Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a nurse who lives across the street and keeps an orgy of criminal evidence in an unlocked closet. She falls hard for Josto for no apparent reason; her last name isn’t “America,” but it’s darn close. Buckley’s an up-and-comer who just appeared in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and she’s the only performer here exuding the Minnesota Nice grotesquerie that used to define Fargo.
Oraetta is also such an obvious loon that the bad thing she does in the premiere isn’t shocking. Earlier iterations of Fargo drew a lot of their power from a wide ensemble of curious people. Here, every introductory quirk is immediately annoying. A local detective named Odis (Jack Huston) obsessive-compulsively knocks on doors five distinct times before entering, an astoundingly grating character trait that only gets worse when you hear his two tragic backstories. Odis is a corrupt cop, so he’s the worst possible partner for visiting U.S. Marshal “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant). Casting Olyphant as a Marshal is a nice nudge to FX history, but the character’s endless yammering sent me on a spiral back to the immortally modest charms of Justified, where the speeches were funny and not always telling you the thing about America. The Marshal’s chasing a pair of escaped prisoners, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille), who wear elaborate costumes on the way to regularly scheduled gunfights.
I haven’t even gotten to Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw), the lone Irishman in the Italian crew, who’s tasked with watching Loy’s son Satchel (Rodney Jones). Putting sad-eyed Whishaw in a wiseguy role could be sharp casting, if Fargo were interested in challenging its characters’ monumental self-regard. (Suffice it to say: Trust cute gangsters to do the right thing.) And Loy’s consigliere Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) gives a three-minute speech about the time he met Hermann Göring as a roundabout way of explaining his own experience of American bigotry.
Racism as a defining theme is something new for Hawley. When he first remixed the Coen Brothers’ Fargo back in 2014, Hawley honored the film’s depiction of the Minnesota-Dakota landscape as a Caucasian neverwhere, halfway between sweet home nostalgia and end-of-empire self-implosion. In the deliriously fun second season, Bokeem Woodbine played a bemused outsider from Kansas City, while Zahn McClarnon made his Native American enforcer a gaping wound swallowing everyone around him.
Both characters were explicit outsiders in white-as-snow criminal communities. This season, Hawley aims for a macrocosmic perspective on the American experience: Immigrants and their children, slaves and their descendants. Whatever his honorable intentions, that all comes off as the TV writing equivalent of a kid driving dad’s car without realizing cars have brakes. All the details are wrong in every direction, either over the top or unbelievably absent. The Mafia goons are hysterical cliches. “You know what’s wrong with this country?” Gaetano says at one point. “Your Jesus looks like a lady and everyone thinks they’re going to be President one day. I’m Italian, and in Italy, they had to nail our Jesus to the cross.” Confirmed: This fellow is Italian.
Meanwhile, too many of Loy’s accomplices are respectful nobodies, waiting to shoot or get shot. Loy’s credit card scheme in the season premiere prepares you for some kind of wonk-ish financial recontexualization of Black organized crime — and then it barely ever comes up again. Zelmare and Swanee have their own thing going on, a Black and Native American duo with a zest for life on the run. They’re a force of violent unleashed id, yet the season reduces them to well-adorned chesspieces.
The Smutney household should be the centerpiece dynamic of the season. The family only really appears when the Cannon-Fadda conflict knocks on the door — or worse, when crazy ol’ Oraetta swings over with sweet treats. You never get a clear sense of what it’s like living in a racially mixed household seventeen years before the repeal of Missouri’s anti-miscegenation law. We get one depressing glimpse of that experience in the premiere — Ethelrida has to stay out of sight during white funerals — but the family recedes into a background of straightforward domesticity.
It doesn’t help that, as the two characters with most prominence on their respective sides, Schwartzman and Rock are giving two flavors of bad performance. Josto’s a comic relief goon with only bad one-liners, delivered by Schwartzman with anachronistic snark. “Cain was Abel’s brother, how’d that turn out?” he might say. (Don’t leave us hanging, dude: How?) Rock showed restrained dramatic chops in the secretly melancholy Top Five, but there’s no room for restraint in this cartoon. Erstwhile on Fargo, performers like Billy Bob Thornton and David Thewlis gave hard-edged lines a dissonantly soft touch, and “dramatic dialogue performed comedically” is one okay definition for a Coenesque mindset. Rock delivers threats with bland tough authority, and he responds to the season’s creeping tragedy by stiffening his delivery — with the exception of a ridiculous emotional breakdown that will, I fear, become a GIF on par with the Van Der Beek cryface.
You have to remember that Fargo’s first two seasons arrived when the whole form of the TV drama looked little staid. There was an epidemic of graygrim shows about sadsacks investigating bummer crime. Netflix was reconfiguring the very concept of a “season” into a ten-hour movie with all the fat left in. Whereas Fargo’s debut season built off the success of American Horror Story, pairing that predecessor anthology’s stylistic overload with a decent approximation of the Coens’ middle American strangeness. The appeal didn’t always run deep; entertaining nasties found imaginative ways to end people. You could feel Hawley’s boundless excitement, though, and star Allison Tolman was a heroic discovery as the endearing protagonist. Then Season 2 conjured a whole bizarro rendition of ‘70s America, complete with Bruce Campbell as a Ronald Reagan and an occasional UFO cameo.
Did Hawley change, or did we? Words like “crazy,” “ridiculous,” and “insane” have become mainstream synonyms for “good,” and the world is full of anachronistic genre-hopping dramas that blend rapidfire plot momentum with cheeky ultraviolence and great soundtracks. Deadpool exists, and so many things now are Deadpool. Meanwhile, Hawley got lost in his own X-Men spin-off, Legion, an eventually awful attempt to make a whole show out of full-motion album covers and people saying portentous things in elaborate outfits.
Hawley is an avowed fan of David Lynch, but watching Legion and his third Fargo the same year as Twin Peaks: The Return was the difference between running through sprinklers and swimming in the ocean. Even Hawley’s best material radiates a show-your-work mentality that would never fly in Lynch’s dreamscapes, and this new Fargo is his worst material yet. At one point, Rabbi gets haunted by an in-progress billboard advertising proclaiming an unfinished tagline: The Future Is. It could just be a bit of background tone, but every piece of furniture on Fargo needs its own thematic prose-poem. So Rabbi asks the guy working on the billboard: “The future is what? What’s it going to say?” This is not the only scene where he talks about that billboard. Imagine if Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes could wink.
Lots of scenes end in crisscrossing splitscreens, another effect that was cool the first time you used iMovie. If something dramatic happens, it will probably happen in slow motion. Though there is an early scene where a crime scene tableau shifts from slow motion to fast motion, which was always really hard to render in iMovie. The references to other Coen Brothers movies are now suspiciously Solo-ish in their hyperbole. Keep an eye out for the No Country For Old Men cattle gun, and prepare yourself for the desecration of a key moment from A Serious Man.
I don’t know. This season could appeal to anyone yearning for heavy metal Fargo, with sly off-kilter characterization sacrificed to self-important blather and undifferentiated bulletstorms. “We’ll kill them all!” Loy promises. “You’re all going to die,” Rabbi warns. “Come get it dirty coppers!” one character screams before firing a tommy gun. The only very occasional saving grace is Turman, who infuses a supporting role (officially credited as a guest star) with a sad humor that makes everyone else look overinflated. When a mafioso tries to intimidate him with a typically florid burst of dialogue, his response sums up the season: “You said you were done talking, but then you kept on talking!”
And then they spend a few minutes discussing babies in boxes, Machiavelli, and how much they’re going to totally kill each other. Here’s the thing about Fargo: Its best point is accidental. It turns out America is a place where people talk a lot without really saying anything. D-