Over three seasons, all ranging from very good to outstanding, the mostly disconnected stories of “Fargo” have been unified by a simple battle: good vs. evil. Typically, one or two characters embody the virtuous side of things — like Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) in Season 1, her father Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) in Season 2, and Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) in Season 3 — while another character represents an encroaching, destructive evil. (From Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo to David Thewlis’ V.M. Varga, these villains are as malicious as they are memorable.) Many more characters are caught somewhere in between: Some are tempted by the darkness, others are too innocent to protect themselves from a painful world, and still more are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to avoid the merciless wood-chipper tearing through America’s heart(land).
But in examining the not-so-United States through a new prism — namely, racism and how our country’s original sin stains every facet of the American dream — Season 4 offers a grim twist on the series’ fundamental premise. The violence and destruction brought on by greed and prejudice come from everywhere you look; there’s not one big bad, but many bad men. They’re not all evil, but they share the same hateful flaw, which not only warps their common goal of financial success, but casts an inescapable cloud of bigotry over the Kansas City sky. Meanwhile, our sole beacon of hope isn’t even old enough to make a living, let alone fight back; Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (played by E’myri Crutchfield) is just a 16-year-old girl, living in a mortuary, trying to do what’s right even when she’s punished for it.
In expanding his traditional conflict beyond two clear representatives, showrunner Noah Hawley makes the story a bit slower, his arcs a bit wider, and the overall tone less cheeky. Another exemplary cast elevates wordless gestures and already witty lines into exciting entertainment, with Jessie Buckley and Glynn Turman being the overall breakouts, but this version of “Fargo” feels bleaker than any that preceded it — which, in 2020, feels exactly right.
Ostensibly, the 1950s-set Season 4 centers on a slowly escalating gang war between two American minorities: an Italian crime family trying to extend into the Midwest and a local Black mafia looking to hold onto their territory. The two groups are only the latest to barter for control over the local area’s lucrative illegal trades. The pilot, written and directed by Hawley, shows a regular exchange of power, as The Moskowitz Syndicate of the early 1900s loses out to The Milligan Concern of 1920. These Irish lads are soon pressed by The Fadda Family in 1934, and they attempt to broker a peace deal by swapping their youngest sons. With each family raising the other’s boy, one would think the businessmen would be able to set aside old beefs for the prosperity of all.
But this wouldn’t be “true” American story if unfounded intolerance and gluttonous appetites didn’t spoil a fair partnership. Soon, The Fadda Family is in charge, and soon after, another family begins to threaten their bottom line. The Cannon Limited, led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), end up striking a similar bargain to the one that failed the Faddas and the Milligans: a son for a son, in the hopes of peace and prosperity. That’s where “Fargo” Season 4 really starts, as Loy’s widening business interests and the Faddas’ growing family start to rub each other the wrong way.
Elsewhere in Kansas City, not too far removed from the controlling crime rings’ respective reaches, Ethelrida Smutny is trying to get through school. Her (white) instructors punish her for anything they can, be it questioning her teacher or getting too many correct answers, and her parents are too busy trying to keep the family business afloat to offer much more than meals. While it may sound a bit odd for a mortuary in “Fargo” to be hurting for bodies, peace between the mafia bosses means slow days for the Smutnys — so lucky for them, there’s a homicidal nurse living across the street!
Enter Season 4’s scene-stealing star, Jessie Buckley. The actress of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “Wild Rose” fame (who also had a recurring role in FX’s Tom Hardy drama, “Taboo”) sinks her medical scalpel into a Nurse Ratched-esque nutjob who thinks of herself as an early adopter on mercy killing, but who’s really only interested in the “killing” part. There’s endless delight in dissecting Buckley’s juicy scenes, but perhaps the most fun for “Fargo” fans is her well-honed Minnesotan accent: The malevolent madwoman is the exact opposite of “Minnesota nice” — in a season that’s the furthest from both — yet she’s the only representative of the land of 10,000 lakes. Even though her story can feel extraneous from everything else going on, you have to trust these telling indicators (and her proximity to our young heroine) will pay off in the final hours.
After a wobbly start, “Fargo” gets better and better over the nine episodes given to critics. Rock, as the de facto lead, follows a similar trajectory. The stand-up comic is still a bit stilted in scenes requiring more casual conversation, but as the pressure builds and fury mounts, Rock turns Loy into a potent force. Jason Schwartzman, as the eldest Fadda brother, balances an odd concoction of befuddled privilege and commanding tough talk, while Salvatore Esposito (“Gomorrah”) and Gaetano Bruno (“La Porta Rossa”) play off their boss’ impudent demeanor with exaggerated wickedness. Turman, as Loy’s right-hand man, is a captivating presence every time he comes onscreen (though his character follows and all-too-familiar path) and, as a true testament to Ben Whishaw’s talents, the voice of Paddington bear even makes for a convincing Irishman. Also, Timothy Olyphant plays a cop. This is always a good thing.
Season 4 may not go down as the best year of “Fargo.” The structure lurches a bit, episode to episode, and the cast can’t collectively hit the highs of prior seasons’ players. (In part because they’re not asked to, given the dour tone.) But Hawley’s choice to evolve beyond his established structure is as necessary as it is invigorating. When looking at America’s history of racism, a similarly easy set-up of “good vs. evil” is no longer appropriate. By 1950, the divisions were well-established, and everyone is culpable. America’s future (economic or otherwise) won’t be determined by a clear-cut battle, but by acknowledging our collective mistakes and trying to move forward, together. That sounds… unlikely, given our current state of affairs, and “Year Four” emphasizes the burden placed on future generations to fix the mistakes of the past, while acknowledging that such an ask may be impossible to fulfill. But as “Fargo” reminds us, it’s always been like this. So we have to keep trying.
“Fargo” Season 4 premieres its first two episodes Sunday, September 27 at 9 p.m. ET on FX.