“The rule in ‘Fargo’ is: It doesn’t have to be true, it just have to feel true.”
Noah Hawley, the showrunner, writer, director, and creator of FX’s scripted adaptation, often cites this edict. After all, it’s an important clarification. Each episode of his award-winning anthology starts with the title card, “This is a true story” — even though what follows is not. Just like the film it’s based on, each season of “Fargo” is a work of fiction, but it’s grounded in a distinctly American reality, from the snowy Midwestern plains to the passive-aggressive politeness.
Typically, that truth extends to a simple form of symbolism. Amid the many shady criminals running around “Fargo,” there was always one beacon of light fighting an imminent force of darkness. Police Chief Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand) represents goodness in the Coen brothers’ movie, just as Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) embodies the encroaching evil. For Hawley’s first season, Deputy Molly Solverson (Alison Tolman) squares off against Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton); Season 2 travels back to the late ’70s to track Molly’s father, State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), as he seeks to stop the villainous, Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan), or, if you prefer, Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), or even Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell). Season 3 pits another police chief, Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), against the nasty corporate entity known as V.M. Varga (David Thewlis).
No matter the big bad, every version of “Fargo” employed a cop as its moral compass. Sure, there were also doofus cops (like Bob Odenkirk’s Bill Oswalt) or supportive law enforcement partners (like Olivia Sandoval’s Winnie Lopez), but the leading “good guy” of these “true stories” was always a member of the police department.
“There was [an] evolution in thinking about this year’s story,” Hawley said in an interview with IndieWire. Key factors included Season 4’s time period (1950), main characters (African Americans and recent immigrants), and considering how the show’s standard “moral bar graph” might be altered to better reflect a new perspective.
“In ‘Fargo,’ you have a Marge Gunderson, and you have a Peter Stormare, and one is so clearly all good, and the other is so clearly evil,” Hawley said. “And for better or worse, the last three seasons, that ‘all good’ role has been filled by a cop. But if you’re telling a story about Black people and immigrants, that is not necessarily their experience of the moral spectrum.”
Matthias Clamer / FX
So in Year Four, the cops are more sidelined than ever. Most prominent is Odis Weff (Jack Huston), a WWII veteran and detective in the Kansas City P.D.; Odis suffers from an anxiety disorder that sees him drinking far too much nerve tonic, while seeking further stress relief from working a bit too closely with K.C.’s rival gangs. Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant) arrives a little later, and while the U.S. Marshal’s Mormon faith may prevent him from sharing a nip of whiskey with local criminals (or looking the other way when they steal some of their own), ol’ Brigham Young was still guilty of the era’s more acceptable sins.
Or, as Hawley put it: “We’re not breaking new ground, necessarily, in telling a story set in the Jim Crow era in which there is racism and xenophobia, right?”
Still, Hawley and his writing team were careful not to paint their characters with too wide a brush.
“The problem is once you begin to use racism as the catchall — this sort of shorthand for evil,” Hawley said. “Just the fact that a character’s corrupt doesn’t mean he’s also racist. […] You can be bad in some ways and good in others. That is the moral spectrum, unfortunately.”
Yet there is one character whose moral range remains resolute. Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (played by Emyri Crutchfield) is Season 4’s new force of good — all 16 years of her.
“I would say not only is she inherently good, but she has to be good, as well,” Crutchfield said in an interview. “One, her mom instills morals in her. She’s a church woman, she works in a funeral home, she’s very stern and by the book. So that’s the inherently good part. But then living in a society where it’s very segregated, she had to be good as well, because of her skin color.”
“This idea of this young girl came to me very early, in a ‘Rear Window’ kind of way,” Hawley said. “This was a girl who saw something, and her moral character wouldn’t allow her to just ignore it, even though — given her station in life as a young biracial girl of 1950 — she knew that she had no power, and no one in authority would really listen to her. That seemed like a dramatic place to put a character.”
Crutchfield, now 20 years old, landed the part in traditional fashion. She submitted a tape from her home in New Orleans, and then flew out to Los Angeles for an audition with Hawley. Feeling nervous both naturally (“Literally every audition feels like my first-ever audition”) and because there were more actors there than she’d expected, Crutchfield honed in on one line from the character breakdown to find Ethelrida’s voice — and she kept it with her throughout the shoot.
“‘Ethelrida is someone who marches to the beat of her own drum,'” Crutchfield recalled. “That’s what stuck with me. And she does. Nothing discourages her.”
Resilient virtue in the face of unfairness is a classic trait of “Fargo’s” “all good” leads, and Ethelrida exhibits her own steadfast integrity in the season’s opening scenes. She’s punished regularly and unjustly, be it for showing up a teacher or looking at a classmate, and she takes her administrator’s overeager abuse without the faintest whine.
“The biggest thing I kept in mind while playing Ethelrida was that it was set in the 1950s,” Crutchfield said. “Nowadays, a kid might talk back to a teacher or feel comfortable catching an attitude, women were much more conservative during that time frame. I couldn’t be too expressive because I’m a young lady — I have to act a certain way and be polite, even if I don’t want to be polite. And then with my skin color, I have to be extra polite.”
Even though Ethelrida is just a girl, she’s not immune to the violence that pervades “Fargo.” Her punishments, simply for being a young Black woman in 1950s America, are limp-inducing lashings with a heavy paddle. Hawley is honest to that experience, but he was careful not to overindulge in scenes featuring racially motivated brutality.
Elizabeth Morris / FX
“I really tried to avoid, as much as possible, creating new injuries,” Hawley said. “I did not want to create moments of racism to make a point or to create any artificial drama. Because as much as we use drama to show what the past was like, you also have to be aware that, by creating new situations of violence or racism or xenophobia, you’re, in some ways, creating it yourself.”
Hawley said you won’t find a scene where Chris Rock’s character, Loy Cannon, is pulled over by the cops and harassed, demeaned, or worse. Similar scenes already exist throughout popular culture, often to reflect the discrimination Black Americans still suffer from today, but adding them here felt extraneous. Racism is ever-present in “Fargo” Season 4. Ethnic slurs consistently fly from one character to the next, sometimes out of fraternal love, sometimes out of the most deep-seated hate. It’s a sign of the times, and those signs are clear enough.
“You tend to see a lot of moments that are so awful, which are being used for dramatic purposes, but I just don’t want to create those. I don’t want to put those images in an audience’s head if I don’t have to,” Hawley said. “I wasn’t going to go out of my way to say, ‘Oh yeah, cops are racist here.'”
Which brings us back to how “Fargo” Season 4 will be received in 2020. Originally scheduled to premiere in April, the pandemic held up the last days of production until August and caused the release date to be pushed until September. Now, the season will roll out in a time when America is reeling from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protests over racial injustice and police violence persist, and cities look to reassess the purpose and power of their local law enforcement.
Will this season’s shift in perspective help audiences see “Fargo” differently, and perhaps the country it depicts?
“That might depend on your race as the viewer,” Hawley said, “because it’s not like these stories are new.”
That, in itself, is the point. Maybe some people who’ve been made more aware of the dangerous and oppressive nature police officers play in the lives of Black Americans will recognize modern fears in this period story. Others who’ve always seen it, whether or not TV emphasizes their perspective, will simply see the truth.
“Fargo” is a true story, after all, and Season 4 respects its characters enough to recognize theirs.
“Fargo” Season 4 premieres its first two episodes Sunday, September 27 at 9 p.m. ET on FX. New episodes will air each week at 10 p.m.