After three years away, Noah Hawley’s Coen Bros.-inspired FX anthology series returns with a star-packed season featuring Chris Rock, Jason Schwartzman, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw and many more.
There’s an immediate rush that comes from the opening minutes of a new season of FX’s Fargo, intensified by the three-years-plus since Noah Hawley’s adaptation/expansion of the Coen brothers’ classic last aired.
It’s a charge that comes from Hawley’s love of archaic and convoluted language; from Jeff Russo’s playful circling of Carter Burwell’s haunting score for the original film; from another eclectic cast stepping into characters with instantly evocative names like “Ethelrida Pearl Smutny” or “Constant Calamita”; from the reminder that “This is a true story.”
If the show’s distinctive brand of yarn-spinning entrances you, it can carry you past some bumpy patches, like the first couple of episodes of the third season. And there are definitely bumpy patches in the first nine episodes of season four that were sent to critics (out of 11) — mostly flaws of ambition as Hawley attempts to capture nothing less than the history of racial, religious and cultural assimilation into the melting pot of America. Or, as one character puts it, “If America’s a nation of immigrants, then how does one ‘become’ American?”
It’s a period drama featuring two dozen (or more) main and guest characters. Yet even with those moments in which Fargo loses track of who was supposed to be the story’s heart or which narrative threads have the most urgency, when the show works — when its vision is realized entirely — very little on TV can compete.
The new season, launching with a pair of episodes written and directed by Hawley, begins with the history of 20th century organized crime conflicts in Kansas City. A narrated prelude explains that Jewish gangsters have ceded power to an Irish syndicate, which in turn has been overtaken (in inevitably violent fashion) by the Italians. (It isn’t entirely clear how far back some of these characters’ roots go in America; there is a lot of Italian spoken, but also accent-less English.)
As we pick up the story in 1950, the Italian mobsters, led by Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno) and hot-headed son Josto (Jason Schwartzman), are under threat from a Black criminal organization led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) and his sage right-hand Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman). The Faddas and Cannons are engaging in a strange ritual by which each family trades a son to be raised by the other family; it’s meant to foster cultural understanding and also create a kind of peace-keeping leverage (as in, “Don’t mess with us — we’ve got your son”). So Loy’s son Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III) is being raised by the Faddas, while Donatello’s son Zero (Jameson Braccioforte) is being raised by Loy. Intentions aside, bloodshed is inevitable.
There’s a lot happening in this Fadda/Cannon conflict, which includes an untold number of vicious lieutenants plus the arrival, from the old country, of Gaetano Fadda (Salvatore Esposito), a sibling so unhinged he makes Josto seem reasonable. But that’s barely scratching the surface of a season that also features politely psychotic nurse Oraetta Mayflower (a deliriously odd Jessie Buckley); the aforementioned high schooler Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield); Ethelrida’s escaped convict aunt Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and her girlfriend Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille); Mormon lawman “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant); and OCD-plagued local cop Odis Weff (Jack Huston).
And it’s even more complicated than that, because as Loy — who has ambitious ideas of making his business legitimate in a way that calls to mind both The Godfather and season three’s menacing businessman V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) — puts it, “I’m not just fighting a few Italians. I’m fighting 400 years of history.” It’s a lot for Hawley and a writing team featuring the likes of Stefani Robinson (Atlanta) and playwright Lee Edward Colston II (The First Deep Breath) to handle.
At first, the sheer volume of storylines and cultural explorations is dazzling, and FX has allowed Hawley to take over an hour (without commercials) for some episodes in order to feel out his potential protagonists and antagonists. Somehow it still isn’t enough. Rock is the cast’s biggest name and it often feels like Loy should be the series’ hero, but even with his performance of cleverly coiled intensity, he’s just a piece of the larger tapestry. As Josto, Schwartzman effectively blends foppish indignation and unexpected cleverness, matched by Esposito as a wonderfully wild-eyed antagonist, but it isn’t really their story either. Olyphant arrives a couple of episodes in and commands immediate attention, but his latest tenure with a cowboy hat and badge never quite moves beyond Justified/Deadwood fan fic. Ethelrida narrates the first episode and Crutchfield generates quick empathy, but in a story dominated by shootouts, poisonings and darkly comic menace, it’s hard for a teenage everygirl to break through. Personally, my attention was most drawn to Turman, bringing ardent decency to Doctor Senator, and to Ben Whishaw, ominously mournful as Rabbi Milligan, who’s ethnically Irish but has been swapped over to the Italians (and is not, despite his name, Jewish).
Even with supersized episodes, there are figures listed as cast regulars whom I’m not sure I could identify, which causes a problem when one of those figures suddenly and unexpectedly is treated as if they’ve been important the whole time. An escalating body count offers increased clarity in later episodes, yet there’s still a real challenge in saying whose story Fargo season four actually is — unless you’re willing to just say that the hero is “America,” with all of its contradictions, aspirations and flaws.
If you happen to remember that Bokeem Woodbine was a second-season standout as a Kansas City enforcer named Mike Milligan, that points to one potential piece of Fargo overlap in what is generally a stand-alone story. The Coen brothers echos are more blatant with the 1950s backdrop offering Hudsucker Proxy nods, the retro crooks inviting Miller’s Crossing comparisons and winks to The Man Who Wasn’t There, Raising Arizona and A Serious Man popping up.
Pastiche is, ironically, a major part of what makes Fargo unique and the season’s ninth episode, a Michael Uppendahl-directed road trip into Kansas that can’t help but salute The Wizard of Oz as well, is a quirky, reference-filled delight, benefitting from a pared-down ensemble; it’s one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen this year. And even though I wasn’t always feeling episodes with my heart, there was never a moment when Hawley, his team of directors and lead cinematographer Dana Gonzales weren’t dazzling me with breathtaking visuals captured in the show’s new Chicago filming locations. They’re aided by production designer Warren Alan Young, costume designer J.R. Hawbaker — the wardrobe for Gaetano Bruno’s Constant Calamita is Emmy-worthy on its own — and some of Russo’s most haunting music to date. I also love the way the editing, often working in split screens, brings a redolence of Blue Note jazz album covers, also felt in the soundtrack.
I’m such an appreciator of the show’s eccentric style and rhythms that I’m overjoyed to have Fargo back; even when it isn’t peak Fargo and despite being weighted down by ambitions that aren’t fully realized thus far, there are sweeping swathes of greatness here.
Cast: Chris Rock, Jason Schwartzman, Salvatore Esposito, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley, Jack Huston, E’myri Crutchfield, Andrew Bird, Anji White, Gaetano Bruno, Glynn Turman and Timothy Olyphant
Created By: Noah Hawley
Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX starting Sept. 27.