After a very long wait (only some of it due to the pandemic), Fargo is finally back. I reviewed the fourth season earlier this month, and I have specific thoughts on this week’s two episodes, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy” and “The Land of Taking and Killing,” coming up just as soon as I send a warning to the other rat…
“Here’s the thing about America: The minute you’re relaxed and fat enough, somebody hungrier is gonna come along, looking for a piece of your pie.” —Ethelrida Pearl Smutny
“But remember: We’ll be back. Because y’all just got here yesterday. But we’re part of this land, like the wind and dirt.” —Doctor Senator
Welcome back, Fargo. You’ve been terribly missed.
It has been three years, three months, and six days since the crime anthology’s third season ended. It was something of a disappointing season, particularly regarding its two central characters, feuding brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. But it also closed very strongly. And though it took place in the early 2010s, its use of David Thewlis’ mendacious crook V.M. Varga felt very much like a commentary on the current state of America, where the rich and powerful can tell any lie out in the open and suffer no consequences for it. Fargo creator Noah Hawley said at the time that he wasn’t sure if he had a good enough idea to merit doing another season, and spent the next few years focusing on other projects, like Legion, his feature film directorial debut Lucy in the Sky, and a script for a long-gestating Star Trek movie.
Inspiration clearly struck him at some point, with a season that, in these two episodes, feels like an amalgamation of elements from prior seasons, even though we’ve traveled farther back in time and relocated from Minnesota to Kansas City. At the center of the narrative at this point is Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, whose cleverness — and the refusal of authority figures around her to acknowledge and celebrate it — evokes a bit of our old pal Molly Solverson. The series of gang wars is, of course, reminiscent of the main plot of Season Two. (As we’ll discuss in a bit, this season also feels like a not-so-stealthy origin story for one of that year’s most memorable figures.) And, as in Season Three, we have a period piece that is also unmistakably about the current state of life in America.
There is an awful lot going on here in terms of plot, character, and theme — perhaps too much. We’ll have to see how this all comes together by the end to know what’s essential, what’s a colorful enough flourish to justify its presence anyway, and what’s just pointless extraneous quirkiness. But “Welcome to the Alternate Economy” is so packed with people and mythology that it has to be presented as part of Ethelrida’s report. Her narration helps untangle a lot of the mess that will play out over the season, while also laying out the season’s major questions about what it means to be an American, and how minority groups are encouraged to fight one another rather than the system.
We begin in 1950, then quickly bounce back five decades for the arrival of the Moskowitz Syndicate. There were, indeed, many Jewish gangsters in the first half of the twentieth century (Meyer Lansky essentially invented modern organized crime as we know it today), but in this fictionalized Kansas City, they stayed in power only until the Irish arrived. Because this is Fargo, land of a thousand colorful names, the Moskowitz Syndicate must come up against not the Milligan Gang, but the Milligan Concern, and it is during this 1920 war that one of the season’s core ideas comes into place: The heads of the respective families will trade their youngest sons to keep the peace(*). A nice concept in theory, but the Irish prove more ruthless on this score, and the boy who will grow up to be called Rabbi Milligan betrays his new Jewish family to appease the father who traded him away — and who, at the tail end of a massacre of Moskowitzes, turns young Rabbi into a murderer, forcing him to shoot his counterpart in the rival family.
(*) The idea of taking/trading hostages in this manner has roots throughout various conflicts of the Middle Ages. Though it’s just as likely that comic-book fan Hawley was inspired by the plot of Jack Kirby’s Seventies New Gods comics, where the noble Highfather and the evil Darkseid agree to raise each other’s sons (respectively, Mister Miracle and Orion) to end their larger conflict.
As Ethelrida notes, the system was set up to keep new arrivals out of legitimate businesses (the Milligans no doubt were greeted in this country with store signs saying “NINA,” short for “No Irish Need Apply”), and whoever’s newest off the boat comes into conflict with the group who preceded them. So, soon, the Milligans are dueling with the Fadda Family, until another trade is arranged, with poor Rabbi again exiled from his own clan for the sake of the deal. Only this time, a fed-up Rabbi betrays his biological family rather than his adopted one, killing his accursed father and forever throwing in his lot with the Faddas.
Which brings us to our present conflict, between the Fadda Family and the Cannon Limited, named for budding black godfather Loy Cannon. As played by Chris Rock, he’s much cooler and more calculating than Donatella Fadda — or, after Donatella dies late in the premiere, his son Josto (Jason Schwartzman) — but he also has the built-in disadvantage of being part of a minority that even the other minority groups of the time looked down on, let alone the WASP establishment. When a friendly alderman gets Loy a meeting with local banker Clayton Winckle, Loy pitches him on what we know would make an early adopter rich beyond the dreams of avarice: the credit card. Winckle dismisses the notion of encouraging people to live beyond their means, then preying on them when they fall into debt, as “not what banking is all about,” but you get the sense that it is the messenger that he objects to more than the message.
Loy is able to cause enough trouble for Donatello that another trade is arranged, this one involving Loy’s son Satchel and Donatello’s boy Zero. And for a while, peace reigns. But a series of calamities — first Donatello being accidentally shot in the neck by some kids playing with a pop gun(*), then the smug Dr. Harvard refusing to treat someone who does not seem a “respectable American,” then unpredictable nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley) deciding to euthanize the old man — takes Donatello out of the picture and leaves Josto and his Italian-raised brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito from Gomorrah) battling for control of the Family, which may have to be achieved by first establishing dominance over the Cannons.
(*) We often think first of the whimsy of Fargo, but Hawley and his collaborators are awfully good at suspense, too. The editing of the entire sequence where Donatello is shot is incredibly tight and tense, as it seems clear that violence is imminent, but not exactly who the victim will be, and how. (And even then, there is room for a joke, as Gaetano first appears to suffer a heart attack that is instead a brutal bout of flatulence.)
Framed by Ethelrida’s report, the whole violent affair seems utterly pointless. As she notes while describing all these warring factions, “None of them were white. They were Dagos, Negroes, mixed. All fighting for the right to be created equal. But equal to what? And who gets to decide?” Hawley says he tries not to get too cute with the names, but it’s hard not to notice that the two sides of this war are basically named Cannon and Fodder. Everyone looks down on everyone else. Dr. Harvard kicks the Faddas out of his hospital, and Josto in turn demands that Donatello’s South Asian physician be replaced by “a real doctor.” Mayflower is fascinated to realize that Ethelrida is biracial — or, as she puts it in the less kind parlance of the day, “the product of miscegenation” — and seems to hold herself above her. But all of their people came from somewhere else — whether in relative prestige like Harvard’s ancestors, in steerage like the Faddas’, or in chains like Ethelrida’s. The character with the clearest claim to being the kind of real American everyone keeps talking about is a relatively minor one so far: Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille), the half-Native American would-be bank robber who busts out of prison with Ethelrida’s aunt, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge), and who casually recalls being forced to attend white schools where they were mostly concerned with “raping the native out of me.” Whatever pain Swanee once felt from those assaults has been shrugged off, because she seems to understand the same thing that Loy tells Donatello: that “you think part of being an American is standing on my neck.”
As the various characters make moves and counter-moves — Josto attempting to murder Dr. Harvard as revenge for his (lack of) treatment of Donatello, Cannon consiglieri Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) stealing a small business out from under the Faddas, and Gaetano for the moment stealing it back — the season has room for a pretty wide range of performance types. On one end is the understatement and commitment of Rock and, especially, Turman, who monologues as well as anyone who’s ever been on Fargo before. (Turman is always a pleasure to watch, and Doctor Senator, Esq was almost instantly my favorite character through the sheer charm of his performance.) On the other is probably Salvatore Esposito, who seems like the bully out of a Charlie Chaplin movie who was always grabbing the Little Tramp by the scruff of the neck. And there’s a wide range in between. Not all of it’s working at this stage, whether in part or in concert with others, but it’s also possible that many of the pieces are meant to seem mismatched. As a Minnesota transplant representing what we usually think of as Fargo country, for instance, Jessie Buckley seems to be in a slightly different show from everyone else, but it’s also clear quickly that Oraetta Mayflower has a wildly different agenda from the others. Jason Schwartzman’s not exactly playing subtle, but he sure is compared to Esposito, which only underlines the clash between the Fadda brothers.
The two-night premiere concludes on that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, when the usual overeating seems on the verge of interruption by a few dozen cops approaching the mortuary where Ethelrida and her parents live (and where Zelmare and Swanee have been hiding out). Imminent violence in the middle of a celebration of how settlers first arrived? Seems about right for a start.
Some other thoughts:
* While watching Loy speak so loquaciously to the white banker, I couldn’t help thinking of Season Two’s Mike Milligan, the similarly talkative gangster from Kansas City played so spectacularly by Bokeem Woodbine. And that, in turn, made it hard not to think about the fact that Loy’s son Satchel is currently being cared for by Rabbi Milligan. All the seasons are connected in some way; could this violent mess turn out to be the origin story for our favorite prog rock group, Mike Milligan and The Kitchen Brothers?
* For your future reference, I made screencaps of the scene showing the names of all the Fadda and Cannon soldiers. There may not be a quiz later, but in many cases this will be the last time you hear some names (sadly, I don’t believe the phrase “Banjo Rightway” is ever said in dialogue), or the last time it’s clear who’s who. There are several characters on both sides who had some significant material very obviously left on the cutting-room floor of later episodes.
* There’s arguably no such thing as “too quirky” when you’re talking about Fargo, but I think that Odis Weff, the crooked cop and OCD sufferer played by Boardwalk Empire alum Jack Huston, qualifies.
* The Fadda and Cannon soldiers have relatively consistent looks, though there are subtle tweaks here and there, like Doctor Senator’s scarves or Gaetano’s cap. Still, there’s much more variety in the clothes of the show’s female characters, from Oraetta’s crisp nursing uniform to Zelmare and Swanee stealing the wardrobes of, respectively, a well-to-do white lady with a fur coat and a smug cowboy.
* Finally, among these episodes’ many hat-tips to the works of the Coen brothers: Hawley has said that Ethelrida’s history report was inspired by the opening narration of Raising Arizona; at the slaughterhouse, a cattle kill gun is used for its intended purpose, rather than how Anton Chigurh deployed it in No Country For Old Men; Nurse Mayflower bakes a pie with ipecac as the secret ingredient, when vomit is a recurring motif in Coen films; several of the brothers’ movies (including Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) feature unusual prison breaks, like Zelmare and Swanee emerging from the tunnel.