The Coen Brothers make movies about quirky characters, but it would be nice if Noah Hawley and the team behind the Fargo TV series would remember that there’s more to those movies than the quirk. In adapting both the Fargo movie and borrowing several other beats from the Big Book of Coen, the Fargo TV series leans heavily on the quirkiness, and season 4 practically goes overboard, populating this latest installment with a collection of individuals who all behave like visitors from another planet. That’s not to say Fargo season 4 is without its charms.
At the center of Fargo season 4 is a crime story as American as apple pie. As one character, a mob boss played by Jason Schwartzman, notes: “You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story.” It’s 1950 in Kansas City, and to avoid an all-out war, the local Italian crime family, the Faddas, makes a deal with the local Black-run syndicate, headed by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock). The youngest sons of each family will change places, so that Loy is raising the youngest Fadda, and the Faddas take hold of Loy’s boy Satchel (Rodney L Jones III). As we learn in a lively, funny, ultra-violent prologue, this is a practice that has been going on in the world of Kansas City crime for years.
It’s also something that apparently never really works because inevitably, the gangsters end up breaking their truce and going after each other. Sure enough, soon after peace has been declared between Loy and the Faddas, the specter of war looms, hastened by the arrival of the constantly furious Gaetano Fadda (Salvatore Esposito, chewing scenery so hard it’s amazing he didn’t crack a tooth) from Italy. Gaetano’s brother Josto (Schwartzman) can’t stand his brother and isn’t itching for a war, but staying out of the fight won’t be easy.
Had Fargo season 4 focused entirely on the two different crime families and their ever-mounting tensions, the end result could’ve been potentially fantastic. There’s a lot of talk here about immigrants and the American dream – “If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?” is a question asked at one point. And the tensions of being Black in America – especially in the 1950s – are ripe for exploration, especially now.
But Fargo isn’t content to settle. Instead, it has to take an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach and throw a bunch of crazy crap our way. In addition to the mob war, we have: two lesbian convicts (Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille) who escape from prison and start up a new crime spree; a nervous crooked cop (Jack Huston) suffering from OCD; racist Mormon U.S. Marshal Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant); a funeral home in debt; a serial killer nurse (Jessie Buckley); a teen girl (E’myri Crutchfield) narrating part of the story; and an admittedly creepy ghost that keeps popping-up, unexplained. And oh yeah, there are also a million different subplots about various members of the respective gangs, including the noble Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw), who was once traded to his father’s enemy just like the Fadda and Cannon boys. So, good luck keeping track of all of that. You might want to take notes.
Many of these characters are dialed up to 11, with the performers going all-in, some of them practically screaming their lines. Most of these characters don’t work, either. Crutchfield’s performance as the teen girl is strong, but the character feels completely out of place. And Olyphant is leaning way too hard on his character’s aloofness. He looks like he’s having fun, though, so that’s something.
In fact, the only subplot that truly succeeds is the one about the serial killer nurse, and that’s primarily due to Buckley’s performance. Fresh off her great turn in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Buckley continues to have a great year, and she really sinks her teeth into her “Minnesota Nice” character, Oraetta Mayflower, who proclaims herself to be a good Christian woman but who is clearly rotten to the core. Watching Buckley’s chipper demeanor clash with her often vile actions does indeed make for good TV, even though her character never really syncs up with the main storyline.
Rock has never been what you’d call a great actor, but he does good work here, playing Loy as mostly straight (although he does have a tendency to monologue in a way that would be right at home in one of Rock’s stand-up routines). But if there’s one stand-out this season other than Buckley, it’s Glynn Turman, who is just fantastic as the wise Doctor Senator, Loy’s consigliere. Turman plays his character as if he’s the only smart person caught in a world of idiots, and the gravitas he brings to the role is just aces. I wish the entire season were about him.
And, as usual, there are plenty of Coen references. Miller’s Crossing is the obvious one, with the gang war and all. But there are also nods to The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, and a shot lifted directly from No Country For Old Men. That stuff will delight some, and distract others. And if you’ve stuck with Fargo the series this long, you’ll probably be fine with this season’s eccentricities and weird diversions. But as for me, I think I’m just going to stick with actual Coen Brothers movies.
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