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‘Fargo’ Season 4 Wanted to Talk About Race, but Had a Big Communication Problem

The FX show has seemed out of its range when addressing racism because it’s been more committed to telling than showing

FX/Ringer illustration

In homage to its feature-length inspiration, FX’s serialized adaptation of Fargo concerns itself with society’s thinly veiled ugliness. The trademark eccentricities, dark sense of humor, and violent panache add up to a scathing indictment of the world. Fargo sees the worst in people, because even though evil is deeply embedded into society, you don’t have to dig deep to unearth it. The bad people are your neighbors. Unspeakable things occur in the places you pass every day. And the Midwest setting is deliberate: These are definitely not small-town problems—they’re America’s. Racism is one of America’s most dangerous invisible evils and Fargo’s fourth season, which concludes this Sunday, has made it explicitly clear from the beginning that it wants to talk at great length about race in America.

Make no mistake, race is in everything. It influences how people are socialized and treated. It impacts how they see themselves. And regardless of whether or not some folks are willing to acknowledge it, it’s fundamental to how America operates. Fargo’s fourth installment deviates from the show’s typical approach, which pits small-town cops against criminals, to examine the strife between immigrants in the underworld as they fight for legitimacy in 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, and, of course, America. Organized crime is volatile by nature, so changes in power and violence were constants for the first half of the 20th century. The Moskowitz Syndicate ran things first. They were supplanted by the Milligan Concern, who were overthrown by the Fadda Family. By late 1950, Cannon Limited stepped up to contend with the Faddas in an effort to expand their operation. In order, these are Jewish, Irish, Italian, and Black gangsters who were ruthless in their pursuit of equality. Where previous seasons of Fargo exposed the foul nature of America, the latest stresses that people assimilate by playing their hand and adjusting to nature. America is a dirty business—criminal or otherwise—and you have to get dirty to survive it. But one group will never be able to fully blend in as they attempt to climb the ladder—a reality Fargo has emphasized this season.

Racism has never been a central theme to Noah Hawley’s interpretation of Fargo, but it has reared its head before. In the second (and strongest) season, Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine, in one of the series’ best performances to date) is warned that he was advertised as different from “the other darkies” by a Kansas City mob boss. Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), the Native American enforcer for the crumbling Gerhardt family, goes rogue after being treated like a pet by the very people who adopted him. But in Fargo’s current attempt to confront the overt and insidious racism essential to American history, it has leaned all the way in. The Italian Faddas experience discrimination, but have still convinced themselves they’re superior to Cannon Limited purely because of race. Polite racism is part of a murderous nurse Oraetta Mayflower’s (Jessie Buckley) “Minnesota nice.” A smug U.S. marshal (Timothy Olyphant, going places Justified’s Raylan Givens wouldn’t) describes Black skin as unattractive while explaining his Mormon faith. There has been no shortage of discussion about what America is or how racism factors into that, but none of it has been particularly insightful. In a season with a bigger cast and greater ambitions than usual, Fargo has felt out of its range when addressing racism because it’s been more committed to telling than showing.

This season’s teenage narrator, Ethelrida Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), has been a consistent bright spot. It’s Ethelrida who details the history of organized crime in Kansas City and carefully considers everyone’s place in the hierarchy while struggling to find her own place in the world. Despite her youth, she’s often the smartest person in the room and often pays the price for it because her intelligence is perceived as a threat. She’s constantly being dragged to the principal’s office and spanked for essentially being “too smart for her own good.” The world has never been receptive to women who challenge the status quo and is uniquely hostile toward Black women.

From the beginning of the season, Ethelrida struggles to shrink herself as an act of self-preservation because it doesn’t align with her ambitions. Alas, she’s been conditioned not to take up too much space as a survival tactic: She’s the product of an interracial marriage who has to hide during the white services in her parents’ funeral home. Oraetta Mayflower takes a disturbing interest in her, but their relationship turns adversarial after Ethelrida discovers and tries to expose Oraetta’s killing spree. As a true testament to Oraetta’s white privilege, she dares Ethelrida to do it because she knows whom the authorities are more likely to believe. Ethelrida is a fascinating character who, despite being presented as the show’s conscience, is too often pushed to the margins of the sprawling narrative. Ethelrida is exceptionally insightful for a 16-year-old, but Fargo missed an opportunity to fully explore her heightened sense of self-awareness that comes from being biracial. There was also an opportunity to explore the Smutny family’s racial dynamics and how Dibrell (Anji White) and Thurman’s (Andrew Bird) marriage is viewed by society nearly 20 years before the outcome of Loving v. Virginia that’s been lost to other story lines. Instead, the Smutnys spend the overwhelming majority of the season indebted to Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), who—as he is wont to remind anyone within an earshot—is fighting a very specific uphill battle.

Loy, like many Black entrepreneurs, is limited by society’s visible and invisible barriers. His outfit is run better than the Faddas’ because he is a superior leader and businessman. Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), his wise consigliere, is spot on when he characterizes the Faddas as “boys making a mess.” But, as Loy knows all too well, it doesn’t matter: Black people can be exceptional, but they’ll never be white. Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) is able to use institutional racism to undermine Loy’s operation. Loy’s early credit card concept is rejected, then stolen by the bank he pitched it to. And Loy’s concern with positioning comes from the awareness that losing ground to the Faddas could likely mean the demise of his business and family. He’s nuanced, but he’s no antihero: He is oppressed as a Black man living in the mid-20th century, but he’s also an oppressor who punches down as his own circumstances grow more dire. These moments give way to some of his more exhaustive speeches.

As this season’s lead, Loy has ample opportunity to soapbox about the struggle of being Black in America in 1950: that America is just a revolving door of people looking to fleece you, that he’d never sacrifice his life for a country that doesn’t value it anyway, that the war he’s fighting is against a mind-set. This all might resonate better if it were implied rather than stated ad nauseam. Other speeches about how racism functions feel too much like modern-day reflections retrofitted for the time period. Josto, speaking to a jail cell full of Loy’s men whom he’s schemed to incarcerate, tells them point blank that people who surface as white can get away with anything. “I can take all the money and pussy I want and still run for president,” he says. He might as well have just quoted Donald Trump directly. Fargo has always been rich in peculiar dialogue as a tribute to the many Joel and Ethan Coen films it pays homage to, but the reliance on these monologues to communicate surface-level analysis on racism hasn’t been effective. Fargo is now a style—a summation of the Coen brothers aesthetic—in addition to a series, but so many of the signature idiosyncrasies have further diluted commentary that was already less than illuminating. Racism is far more than a thematic element to experiment with, and Fargo would have benefited from a sharper approach to highlighting how the underworld is as exploitative and racist as every other layer of society.

Kansas City connection aside, Fargo’s fourth season is a callback to its second in terms of showing the futility of assimilation for Black people in America. All Mike Milligan—who the show has hinted is an adult version of Loy’s youngest son, Satchel (Rodney L. Jones lll)—got for his success was a middle management position within the mob. Hanzee had to change his name and have major cosmetic surgery to become Fargo mob boss Moses Tripoli. Season 4’s message is very clear: Playing the game only gets Black people so far, and others near society’s bottom rung enjoy feeling superior to them. The season isn’t a failure, but the swing Fargo took would have connected if it utilized a better way of communicating this.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.