The new season of Fargo is so handsome, convoluted, and stately in its pace that it almost feels as if writer-director Noah Hawley were taking the series on a long detour. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The works that inspired the series — both the landmark 1995 Coen brothers film of the same name and to a lesser extent their entire filmography — represented a kind of darkly hilarious Coen-Hawley mind-meld. Now with the new season, he’s headed into a Hawleyverse of interesting but somewhat ponderous dignity.
He’s even moved the show’s action from the icy prairies of Minnesota and the Dakota states to a mid-century Kansas City that looks not unlike the urban locales from Miller’s Crossing (1990), another Coen crime epic about warring criminal syndicates. Once again, purporting to be “a true story,” this season is set in 1950 and concerns the latest in a series of turf wars between the Italian mob run by the Fadda family and a black syndicate moving up from the Jim Crow South, run by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock with graying hair and a nicely dangerous glitter in his eye).
The title of the first episode, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy,” spells out a classic gangster trope on how those shut out of opportunity because of race, ethnicity, and/or immigrant status will be pushed toward criminal byways toward the “American Dream.”
The rival gangs start off with an uneasy power-sharing truce — but it’s clear from the start that it can’t last. We know it can’t, because the first episode opens with a swift rundown of the bloody history preceding it, first featuring Jewish gang vs. Irish gang, and then Irish vs. Italians. As a way of preserving the peace, the syndicates trade youngest sons, who are offered up as a guarantee of good-faith dealings, a kind of citywide foreign exchange program. If, for example, the Italians are raising the Irish boss’s youngest son, and the Irish are raising the Italian don’s youngest son, surely nobody will want to start trouble, knowing that the sons would be sacrificed immediately, right?
Wrong. From the first son-trade, we’ve already seen it can’t work. Instead, the sons are urged to become spies planted in enemy territory, a warlike maneuver that goes exactly the way you’d think it would. There’s a great performance by Ben Whishaw as “Rabbi” Mulligan, the sad-eyed Irish son who was traded away twice by his ruthless father — the second time when he was by no means young anymore, and towered over the Italian son counterpart. There are, uh, consequences to trading away the Irish son twice. This storyline has a nice fable-like quality and is, so far, the best of Season 4’s complex plotting.
I wonder what the Coen brothers think of the son-trade plotline, if they think of it at all — which they probably don’t. The brothers agreed to lend their names as executive producers based on Hawley’s Season 1 pilot script, which ultimately became the first of the series in 2014. The Coens’s friend, producer John Cameron, who’d worked on many of their films and now produces Fargo the series, was appalled when he heard the Coens were thinking of signing on:
“I called them and I was like, ‘What is going on? You guys don’t even own televisions, what are you doing?’ And all they said was: ‘Read the script.’ And like them, I was blown away,” Cameron says.
“It was such a bad idea,” Hawley says. “It made no sense to green-light this project, for all that could go wrong. But they saw something in the script.”
That something is presumably a compelling way of looking at Midwestern regional history and culture with raucous humor, wild plotting, and above all, a rogues’ gallery of American oddballs in the best tradition of Mark Twain.
My favorite this season is Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), a Mormon US marshall from Utah. He doesn’t come on ‘til the third episode, so you have to be patient and wait for him. Rawboned and countrified, chewing distractingly on a bag of carrots he carries around with him, frequently mistaken for a chump by big-city police and crime lords, Wickware galumphs around in heavy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, saying he’s called “Deafy” because he has a hearing condition. It apparently prevents him from hearing any of the frequent insults directed at him. He leans forward, saying, “What’s that you said?” in a way that makes no one want to repeat the insult.
I love Olyphant, and I’m still bitter he never became the big star he should’ve been. I thought Doug Liman’s Go would’ve made him a star back in 1999. Though at least we can be thankful for his lead roles in the legendary TV series Deadwood and Justified, both of which attest to his gifts. So handsome, so talented, so humorous, and possessing the most mellifluous voice since Ronald Colman, Olyphant’s scenes in Fargo are all gold. The only problem is there are too few of them. He really captures the Coen tendency to unite the formidable and the comical in a single unlikely personality.
But if you don’t like that character, performance, or plotline, there is plenty more to go around. Wes Anderson stalwart Jason Schwartzman plays high-strung Josto Fadda, who takes over the Fadda crime family when his father dies, but has plenty of trouble with an ultraviolent, crazy-eyed brother from the old country. He gets involved with an eccentric nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley from I’m Thinking of Ending Things) with a chirpy line of moralistic patter who’s secretly an “angel of death” serial killer.
The frame story of the show is provided by Ethelrida Smutny (E’Myri Crutchfield), a smart, striving black teenager whose classroom report on Kansas City history leads into the long flashback on the city’s mob wars. She suspects her parents, a mixed-race couple who run a mortuary, have borrowed money at ruinous interest from the Cannon syndicate. But this is only the beginning of the Smutny family troubles, which will include the arrival of an aunt and her partner, freshly escaped from prison and looking to start new careers as bank robbers.
There’s a lot more, but you get the idea. It’s a lavish and overstuffed take on class, crime, and racial and ethnic tensions in 1950s Kansas, but if you stick with it, it has its rewards.