By JASON MARTIN (@JMartRadio – September 27, 2020)
EPISODE 1: WELCOME TO THE ALTERNATE ECONOMY
EPISODE 2: THE LAND OF TAKING AND KILLING
I’m geeked… I’m geeked for a number of reasons lately, but make no mistake, Fargo‘s return on FX is near the top of that list. Whatever you believe to be the best television of the century, Noah Hawley’s consistent gem should be among those shows. As an anthology series, each season has been different enough to stand alone, but with enough feel to fit the universe.
Season 4 is the show’s boldest direction yet, and while the first two hours offer far more questions than answers, the deftness with which Hawley and his team introduce us to 1950 Kansas City isn’t just worth the price of admission, it’s worth the high cost of DVR space in a crowded landscape. The opening 20 minutes, the equivalent of a VERY lengthy cold open for the season, is absolutely exquisite. Hawley throws us backwards to get us back to the present, but accomplishes it all before ever heaving the show title on the screen for the first time.
We’re used to the familiar statement at the beginning of a Fargo episode, but here, he told us a story first. Hawley wrote both the first two episodes without a co-writing credit attached, and let’s just face it, this dude is really good. While Legion was definitely a hit or miss show and not for every audience, Fargo is a series that outside of a little gore, some language, and some tough content, I’d recommend without hesitation (and have) to virtually everyone I’ve encountered that’s asked for a great show to watch.
Usually I would start to break things down from the beginning, but I actually just want to go straight to my main takeaway from the first two episodes, namely this:
Jessie Buckley is freaking amazing as Oraetta Mayflower. This is Emmy nomination stuff without a doubt. Just unreal.
I am stunned and compelled every second she’s on screen, and I’m still not exactly sure what her role is going to be later in the season. She’s the thing that feels both the most Fargo and also the most interesting, with the actual Fadda-Cannon struggle still sort of finding its footing. I’m more interested in the people involved rather than the events unfolding, though I trust Hawley to shift my feelings on it going forward.
If there was a critique to make about the otherwise stellar first season, it was a middling complaint, one that also popped up in the second season, namely that the finale was a little too clean and happy. Season 3 remedied the problem with a wonderfully crafted open-ended moment between David Thewlis and Carrie Coon. Noah tells such a great story, sometimes he almost makes it look too easy when we get to the end game, but we’re way away from getting there.
The narrative device to show us 1900, 1920, and also the manner of introducing us to characters with nameplates and rap sheets on screen as graphics is just one of those little touches that lets you know you’re watching something of the highest quality. This stuff matters. It adds real power and style to the proceedings, in much the same way this time around as Watchmen did last fall for Damon Lindelof. While the two shows are divergent from there, design choices of that sort click in a big way for me, and I imagine now that you’ve seen them, you’d concur.
So, the characters, with leads played by the aforementioned Jessie Buckley (though she isn’t a “lead” in a traditional sense), Chris Rock, and Jason Schwartzman. This season isn’t quite as loaded with named talent top to bottom, but those two are big time names with big time resumes. Schwartzman would be completely miscast as Italian mobster Josto Fadda, except that THIS IS FARGO, so it works, just as it does when Vince Gilligan selects Bob Odenkirk or Bill Burr.
It fits because these two showrunners know how to make it fit within the confines of their stories. Schwartzman is talented, but I see him, not Fadda, and still it works. It’s tougher to pull off for the uber-skilled Rock, only because his face and voice are so recognizable as they’ve been part of our cultural fabric in comedy and A-list celebrity for the past 20 years. But his Loy Cannon is believable and feels layered as a character. While I never forget I’m watching Chris Rock, that’s not his fault. It’s actually a compliment to his star power, and his performance is strong from the outset. He’s also, at this point, without doubt the character we’re rooting for of the adults in the series.
What have we learned so far. We know about the arrangement between organized crime powers in Kansas City dating back to the turn of the century, first the “Hebrews” striking a deal with the Irish, when they arrived… Irish then killed most of the Jewish, and the same happened to them when it was time for an Italian double cross from the Fadda family, and then Cannon and his crew show up, and that’s the current covenant in 1950. The interesting twist is that each group sends its leader’s son (or one of them) to the other family as some sort of human collateral, where that child is then raised by the rival group.
It leads to Loy’s son in the care of an Irishman left over from the Italian massacre we see depicted in the first episode. Cannon’s business is varied, but the portion that captured me most was he and Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) coming up with an idea for a “buy now, pay later…with interest” concept they call a “credit card.” White banks and institutions reject them, but they know they’ve got a winner. Here, Hawley sets us up to be on Cannon’s side, because he knows WE know the credit card’s importance in all of our lives and in society at large, so the whites that say so come across like fools, unless their goal is more nefarious in nature. That means what Loy is concerned about, which is if they see the idea, they’ll steal it if it works and then kill them all as they see Cannon streets paved with gold in their community.
We have the Cannon vs. Fadda problem, and we also have some Fadda on Fadda crime that there’s no doubt we’ll be dealing with before this show exits stage left in a few months. With Josto being cold, but much less violent and far more self-indulgent, it opens up the door for Gaetano, a war-hardened, “murder is business” brother that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with agreements and truces and any attempt to limit bloodshed. “In the land of taking and killing, Gaetano is king.” Fargo has always shined when it comes to just this kind of multiple rivalry, stacked conflict brand of suspense.
Back to Mayflower, she’s an Angel of Mercy that’s just as racist as anyone else in her shoes likely was in 1950, not understanding how Ethelrida Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield) could have learned French, also calling her out in the mortuary for eavesdropping and spying. That’s not anything more than setting the time period, as it doesn’t appear right now to be influencing any of her decision-making. She also has sort of rudimentary Christianity, also apt for the time in its cut and dry heaven and hell nature. She makes it clear she “has no intention of sweating out eternity at the end of the devil’s pitchfork,” which is such an odd phrasing that it feels perfect for this show.
She’s also pretty cutthroat in how she attempts to guilt the hospital administrator and ends up landing two months severance and a recommendation after being caught red-handed in an attempt to murder a patient that may be nearing his end. Her dialogue, how it’s written, is the showpiece of this season so far. I love Loy’s half-conscience, how he speaks to Zero about flesh and blood and looking a man in the eyes on his level, how he prays in that part humble, part anything but humble manner that serves as the final salvo for the premiere. Doctor Senator is more matter of fact, but he has a few highlights as well in the slaughterhouse sequence. Much of these eps, with a pretty large cast, had to be place setting and exposition, and Hawley succeeded in achieving those goals.
We also hear Crutchfield as our narrator in the opening sequence, and she’s great. That character HAS to end up being huge, if not either the crime boss that stands when everyone else has fallen, or the one that breaks the cycle by executing Loy or Josto or Gaetano or some brand of all of them. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to put this much focus on her. She will be left on her feet
What we’re watching is two women’s stories, one an adolescent, amidst a larger story of male-dominated power. That I don’t think is heavy-handed or particularly intentional, but Hawley has always done a good job of writing women in Fargo, from Jean Smart to Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Carrie Coon to Allison Tolman, and we have Buckley and Crutchfield to enjoy this time around. The characters are always great, and often turn out to be the fulcrum of the entire plot.
Crime is everywhere in Kansas City in 1950, and it extends into the police force, with Detective Odis Weff (Jack Huston) calling Josto “boss” and discussing how he can frame a patsy for the drive-by that took out our wealthy socialite. At the VERY end of the second ep, we meet Timothy Olyphant, who is playing a U.S. Marshal on an FX show. Let’s just say I like my chances of enjoying this season.
It’s way too early to say whether this season will measure up to all that came before, because with an anthology, you can’t just assume what it will become. I trust Noah Hawley, and while I’m not as invested in Doctor Senator, Lemuel (Matthew Elam), Omie (Corey Hendrix), and their war with Gaetano Fadda (Salvatore Esposito) and his crew, I believe we WILL increasingly get to that point.
The score and the music choices, as always, just awesome. You have to appreciate Oraetta Mayflower baking an apple pie with Syrup of Ipecac in it while singing along to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. That’s the kind of very dark humor Fargo has always possessed in spades. Without its quirks, it loses so much, but it never fails to bring the eccentricity on top of its bleakness. If there’s a character of hope, it’s definitely Ethelrida, but I’m curious to see how her relationship with Oraetta progresses.
All in all, another promising start to a show that has never even come close to letting me down. I can’t wait to write on it all season, and I’m grateful to FX for providing me the first nine episodes so I can watch and write and watch and write and watch and write, get it all scheduled, and then you can enjoy it each week as the episodes complete. You can watch and come read my thoughts, then have your say with me on Twitter.