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Should Noah Hawley’s ‘Fargo’ Quit While It’s Ahead?

In its fourth season, the once-inspired show struggles to make an impact

FX/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

As this week’s backlash to an upcoming Black Narcissus miniseries shows, it’s rarely a good idea to adapt an already peerless work of art. (Black Narcissus, Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, was already made into an Oscar-winning film of the same name in 1947.) The bar for such an adaptation is insurmountably high—higher than a remote convent in the Himalayas, you could say. But while I’m almost certain that FX’s Black Narcissus miniseries will disappoint and quickly fade into obscurity, we have to give the prestige network credit where it’s due: At the start of the 2010s, the boldness of trying to create a miniseries out of Fargo was met with similar derision.

I mean, how do you even go about crafting a 10-episode series out of a lean, 90-odd minute Coen brothers classic? Well, in the hands of then-unproven showrunner Noah Hawley, the Coens’ Fargo was less the inspiration for a straight-up remake than the work that established a set of moral principles and Minnesota Nice intangibles that would carry over to the TV series. In the (sorry) Fargo Cinematic Universe, there are protagonists with unshakable goodness (Marge Gunderson in the movie; Molly Solverson in Season 1), encroaching forces of chaotic evil (Gaear Grimsrud; Lorne Malvo), everymen whose genial personas slowly give way to malicious cowardice (Jerry Lundegaard; Lester Nygaard), a bunch of characters whose moral compass lies somewhere in the middle, and more than a few unfortunate souls caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, of course, wintry upper Midwest backdrops filled with overly friendly folks saying things like “you betcha!”

It’s within this flexible but nevertheless risky framework—good luck appeasing die-hard fans of the Coen brothers!—that Fargo went from a miniseries to an anthology series, as Hawley produced two fantastic seasons of television in 2014 and 2015. The first two installments of Fargo had a bit of everything: clever connections to the original film; actors like Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst giving some of the best performances of their careers; UFOs (but actually??); feuding mafiosos; cheeky Easter eggs for Coen obsessives; and bizarrely creative deaths by way of asphalt pits and frozen lakes. It really can’t be understated: It’s incredible that Fargo the television show not only worked but was good enough to stand on its own.

But the problem with such high expectations is that even minor subsequent missteps are subject to intense scrutiny. Fargo’s third season from 2017 is by no means bad, but compared to its two excellent predecessors and an all-time-great film, it felt like a missed opportunity. The Fargoian intangibles were there—the great Carrie Coon was coming off The Leftovers to be the show’s new moral center, David Thewlis was simply repulsive as the human embodiment of capitalism with rotting teeth, and Ewan McGregor got to play feuding (!) twins (!!)—but all of Hawley’s exciting components didn’t entirely cohere. For all the season’s highlights, including a Coon-led detour to Los Angeles, Hawley’s Fargo was beginning to feel too beholden to the strict rules imposed by its universe. With familiarity comes predictability.

Perhaps sensing that the series could use a proper shake-up, Hawley has returned from a four-year hiatus with a premise as un-Fargo-like as Fargo can possibly get. In Season 4, which arrives on Sunday, Minnesota and North Dakota have given way to Kansas City—rest assured, it still takes place during a miserably cold winter. It’s the 1950s, and the Italian immigrants that comprise the Kansas City mafia are barreling straight into a war with a Black crime syndicate led by Chris Rock. (As with previous seasons the cast is stacked: Joining Rock are Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Timothy Olyphant, Andrew Bird, Glynn Turman, Jack Huston, and so on.)

The only real tether to the upper Midwest comes in the form of a nurse, played by I’m Thinking of Ending Things standout Jessie Buckley, whose Minnesota Niceness belies something far more sinister. (Hint: Her name might as well be Nurse Ratched.) And instead of a clear delineation between good and evil, Fargo is trying to tackle how racism and the American immigrant experience make enemies of us all. (Brush up on your history if you aren’t familiar with how Italians were treated by this country in the ’50s.) A line from the season premiere might as well be the season’s thesis statement: “If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?”

Hawley’s trying to do with Fargo what Damon Lindelof achieved with his Emmy-winning adaptation of Watchmen: using the story to reflect modern anxieties around America’s ugly and ongoing history of racism. The problem for Fargo Season 4 is not the concept, however, but the execution—all the variations of characters rhetorically asking What Is America, Really? only underscores the fact that they don’t have anything meaningful to say. Most of the time these statements are delivered with the placid enthusiasm of a TED Talk. Fargo has always had its dark and disturbing moments, but it also has sillier sensibilities engrained in its DNA: Chris Rock is playing so against type that he’s devoid of any charisma. At least Olyphant, playing a lawman in a nod to his Justified days, gets to interrupt serious conversations by chewing on carrot sticks he carries around in his jacket pocket.

Fargo could’ve used more of that casual weirdness, and Hawley could’ve used a win. The universal acclaim of Fargo’s first two seasons looked poised to turn him into one of Hollywood’s most exciting up-and-coming creators, and the early returns were promising. The first season of Hawley’s Legion, a psychedelic series ostensibly about mutants from the X-Men universe, was filled with lurid visuals, an iconic heat check from Aubrey Plaza, and a thoughtful depiction of mental illness. Unfortunately, Legion’s latter seasons didn’t have a compelling story to match their dazzling imagery; for someone who is a noted fan of David Lynch, Hawley sure struggles to experiment narratively as much as he does visually. And prior to Fargo Season 4, Hawley reached his nadir with 2019’s Lucy in the Sky: a limp feature-film debut loosely adapted from the real-life downfall of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, which failed to include the story’s most salacious detail (it involves adult diapers) and bombed at the box office. It’s been a rough streak for Hawley, whose Star Trek reboot was recently put on hold by Paramount. Restoring Fargo to its former glory would be a good reminder of just how great he can be.

But while the back half of Fargo Season 4 teases potential links with the rest of the (again, sorry) FCU, Hawley’s project feels more hindered by the association, rather than emboldened by it. Season 4 is caught between sticking with the built-in limitations of making something true to Fargo and the fresh inventiveness of an anthology crime series like HBO’s True Detective, which provided creator Nic Pizzolatto more creative leeway (sometimes to Pizzolatto’s own detriment; see: the incredible disasterpiece that was Season 2). If Hawley is so keen to make a crime caper with scant connections to the aw shucks Midwest, he might as well go for it. It’s OK to leave Fargo behind, for real this time. That the anthology series worked as long as it did is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself.