“If America is a nation of immigrants,” asks the voice-over in the opening scene of the latest season of Fargo, “how does one become American?”
“To be an American is to pretend,” one character later posits.
“You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story!” another declares.
“In America, respect is earned,” a third intones.
Noah Hawley, you might have guessed, would like to talk about America.
Hawley’s extended tribute to the Coen brothers’ mid-’90s masterpiece stuck to a fairly rigid playbook through its first three iterations—understandably so, given the beloved source material it risked diluting. That strange mix of caution and audacity paid off. Fargo’s initial crime yarns shared a virtuous cop, an everyday evildoer, a hint of the paranormal, a quirky charm, and a juxtaposition of epic forces like good and evil against the quaint banality of the snowbound Upper Midwest. By Season 3, however, that same setup had worn thin, yielding some noteworthy performances but lacking the delightful surprise of Hawley actually doing right by the Coens. Instead, Fargo felt a little bit like Carrie Coon’s heroine: out of its time, unsure of its place.
For Season 4, Fargo wisely took a few years to regroup, a hiatus further extended by the coronavirus pandemic. (Once slated for an April premiere, production in Chicago stopped in March and wrapped up in September.) This Sunday, the show returned both altered and expanded. In a titanic shift, we’re now in the lower Midwest—Kansas City, a crime hub alluded to in Season 2 but never portrayed on-screen. The fable-like cast of heroes and villains has given way to antiheroes cloaked in shades of gray. And while Fargo has always zoomed in on individual morality in a specific American region, Season 4 pans out to take on the question of America itself.
Fargo’s increased ambitions are reflected in its lead actor. In the past, Hawley has lured in such legends as Billy Bob Thornton, Ewan McGregor, Kirsten Dunst, and Ted Danson, but he’s never worked with anyone quite as outsized in influence as Chris Rock. The comedian takes his on-schedule Serious Turn—complete with a magazine cover story—as Loy Cannon, head of a Black crime syndicate on its way up the Kansas City food chain. Control of Kansas City has passed from one upwardly mobile minority to another through the years: first the Jews, then the Irish, then the Italians. By 1950, Loy hopes it’s his people’s turn at the top of the underworld. But first he has to deal with the Mafia family still in charge, plus the stubborn prejudice he faces that upstart immigrants don’t. America’s melting pot can digest just about anything apart from the people who built it.
Rock is the centerpiece here, but Fargo remains an ensemble at heart, one of many fundamentals that survive the southward transplant. Loy is flanked by the fabulously named Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), though every season of Fargo presents an opportunity for Hawley to outdo himself with faux-folksy monikers. Loy and Doc’s chief adversary is Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman), the Italian heir apparent fending off both Loy and his own brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), a more aggressive and unfiltered creature of the old country. Josto and Gaetano’s rivalry occasions even more chin-stroking about the nature of American aspiration, this time as a debate between the first generation of strivers and their assimilationist offspring. The usual looming dread of some imminent violence (“out of respect for the dead” and all that) is complemented by the lingering trauma of World War II, when many characters fought in different roles and on opposite sides. Fargo as a whole depicts an endless cycle of violence, but this season takes on multiple cycles at once.
Under Fargo’s previously strict moral code, Loy and Josto are the kind of characters who have been allowed to be only the villains of prior seasons, never the antiheroes. Still, they’re flanked by more conventional types, at least by Fargo’s extremely relative sense of convention. Jessie Buckley haunts the margins of the show as a homicidal nurse named Oraetta Mayflower, a chaos agent whose Minnesota accent marks her as a ghost of Fargos past. Timothy Olyphant plays a Mormon marshal named Deafy Wickware, a savvy lawman familiar from both Fargo’s own back catalog and Olyphant’s erstwhile roles. Indie bard Andrew Bird dabbles in acting as funeral owner Thurman Smutny, the obligatory everyman in over his head. Thurman’s debts place him the crossfire between Cannon and Fadda (har, har), as does his interracial marriage with his wife Dibrell (Anji White). It’s easy to imagine their steadfast and inquisitive daughter Ethelrida (E’myri Crutchfield) growing up to be a Marge Gunderson/Molly Solverson/Gloria Burgle type, but here she’s more of a watchful witness than a dogged crusader.
It’s a lot to keep track of—and I haven’t even gotten to the lesbian outlaws or the Irishman named Rabbi. Such a deep bench means Fargo’s stunt casting doesn’t have quite the impact it’s meant to. Rock is engaging, if not revelatory, as a cold-hearted monster who can still be mistreated, an ambiguity Fargo has never allowed itself in the past. My MVP is Buckley as Oraetta, a terror motivated by a baser, less rational instinct than improving her lot. She’s scary, hilarious, and brings just what Fargo needs: unpredictability.
Season 4 is a gear shift, but it’s also a hybrid. There are traces of the Fargo DNA and the stylistic tropes that come with it—split screens, Coen brothers Easter eggs, menacing monologues laden with metaphors that could mean everything or nothing—but they’re spliced with a different, more universal template in the organized crime drama. The Faddas, who take their marching orders from New York, are a Corleone family made entirely of Sonnys. Loy, for his part, is the tragic ancestor of Stringer Bell, an off-the-books businessman whom a racist world won’t let go legit. As Josto reminds him, the Italians can marry up, let time work its magic, and raise their kids in the lap of establishment luxury. Loy, in an absurdist act of hyperbole, is such a visionary he invents the credit card—but he can’t get any white-owned banks to cosign his billion-dollar idea. Merging with the mainstream isn’t an option for the people the mainstream was designed to exclude.
As all of those quotes about America suggest, Fargo isn’t shy about centering these new themes. The Faddas’ enforcer pontificates on the power of the rootless nomad with nothing to lose; the Cannons fire back (there’s that wordplay again!) with a word of caution: “Y’all just got here yesterday, but we’re part of this land. Like the wind and the dirt.” The Fargo-fied version of a Very Special Episode, Season 4 will exhaust the patience of those unimpressed by such novel insights as “whiteness is a construct” and “Black people face a double standard.” But in the context of the show, Season 4 is a sharp enough break to restore faith in Fargo as a concept. Whatever else it may be, this new story isn’t inert. And after such a moribund Season 3, it’s strong evidence the well hasn’t run dry just yet.
Besides, it’s fun to watch. Noah Hawley may be TV’s finest middlebrow stylist—which feels like just as much of a backhanded compliment as “at least it’s different!” But entertainment is hard, as is artful homage. And just as there’s lots to commend in Legion’s straightforward superhero story souped up with stunning effects, Fargo spins its yarn with enough pizazz to make the medicine go down.