I first traveled abroad in the winter of 2018-19. My time away from home was not just some weekend-trip across the Atlantic, however. It was an exodus, an international trek of self-discovery that began in Ireland and took me as far east as Ukraine, with several stops in other countries along the way. Gone, as I was, from any system of support or regular source of income that I had ever known, my journey was budgeted with cheap, overnight stays in hostels.
These establishments were hardly anything like an Eli Roth movie, and in most instances I would describe them as “dormitory hotels,” but every now and then I was lucky enough to stumble upon one with a very distinct personality and communal energy. Though fleeting, the relationships I made abroad were very impactful to my character, but hardly ever could an international friendship begin without somebody asking: “Where are you from?” When my answer of “America” didn’t suffice for specifics, I would usually say “Minnesota.” Though not my state of birth and upbringing, it was where I had just completed college and had lived for about three years.
Here in the US, we often deride Minnesota among several others as “fly-over” states. They’re no big deal, and have nothing of renown. But, when I was introducing myself to foreigners far away from home, I cannot tell you how many of them beamed at the mention of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, this supposedly insignificant little patch of earth. This excitement of theirs at the word “Minnesota” was usually followed by one more additional question:
“Have you seen Fargo?”
First airing in 2014 and loosely based on the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo had no doubt, with its first three seasons, earned this international reputation. Showrunner Noah Hawley and his team have defined the show with its striking visual styles, fantastic scores, ironic dialogue and themes, and memorable characters performed by ensemble casts. In nearly every aspect of filmmaking and television production, then, Fargo had proven itself to be a cut above the rest.
But that was the first three seasons.
Season 4, on the other hand, is a mess, and only its fantastic last two episodes save and stop it from ending up a complete and total disaster. Where exactly it all goes wrong shall be discussed here. Spoilers below:
The basis of Fargo season 4’s failings is, I believe, its lack of the traditional Fargo “inciting incident.” Usually, a season of Fargo will begin with its varied and distinct groups of characters, all coming from different points of Midwest society, converging over some mishap or misunderstanding. In season 1, it is the multi-city rampage of hitman Lorne Malvo, whose mayhem inspires meek insurance salesman Lester Nygaard to strike and kill his wife, the investigation of the both of them coming to involve both the local police and the authorities from Duluth. In season 2, it is the hit-and-run cover-up of delusional Peggy Blumquist and doting husband Ed, whose eventual self-defense killing of Fargo crime prince Rye Gerhardt will involve not just the state and local police, but Rye’s own family, who are under threat of annexation by the Kansas City Mafia. And in season 3, it is parole officer Ray Stussey’s murder of Maurice LeFay, an ex-con whom he hired to steal a treasured heirloom from his brother Emmit (who incidentally has been swallowed up into a vast criminal conspiracy), that inspires determined small-town police chief Gloria Burgle to bring down all the evildoers after Maurice mistakenly murders her step-father in place of Emmit. So, yes, there’s usually always been this “gimmick” to Fargo. A little formulaic, maybe, but it has always been a part of the series’s soul.
Season 4, however, does away with this. Taking place in 1950 Kansas City, all this entry’s many groups and factions (and trust me, there are A LOT of them), are never quite all tied up together under this same bow. There are the two warring crime outfits, the Fadda Family and the Cannon Limited, who are currently in the midst of a decades old tradition of child swapping for the sake of peace and treaty. Then there are the Smutnies, a biracial family that owns and operates a local mortuary. There’s the police angle, involving an unsympathetic detective with a nervous condition who’s in on the take, and a sanctimonious Mormon US Marshal. There’s a homicidal nurse and I guess her boss. Oh, and there’s also a lesbian criminal-power couple that just escaped from prison. What do all these characters have to do with each and every one of each other? Nothing. At least, not at first.
The closest thing that this season has to the typical inciting incident would be the murder of Fadda boss Donatello at the hands of Miss Mayflower, the aforementioned murderess. Indeed, in the exceptionally exhilarating finale (that is, exceptional for the expectations of this season), it is this act that ultimately proves to be several characters undoings, and generates the most plot development in the course of this entry of the series. But, the murder itself occurs in episode 1, and for anyting to come of it won’t happen until episode 11. When Mayflower does kill Donatello, no alarms are sounded. The Faddas don’t suspect the Cannon Limited of being involved, and they continue about their respective businesses (which were already butting heads). So, Mayflower’s murder in this way contributes nothing to the plot! And, if it did, then it ostensibly does not involve the Smutnies, the police, or the lesbian duo. Again, it is not until ten whole episodes later when this all begins to connect, and the in-between is hardly interesting to watch. In this way the entire season just feels like… prologue. And not a good one at that.
Then, of course, there are the characters and the performances, and how exactly they just guck everything up. In spite of the very intriguing set-up of the crime family child swap, the season is determined to make the Smutnies, and namely their relatively precocious daughter Ethelrida, out to be the main characters. There’s just one problem: the Smutnies are terribly, TERRIBLY boring. Father Thurman (awfully played by Andrew Bird) is incredibly mild-mannered, mother Dibrell never does anything exciting out of the house, and Ethelrida, while it is suggested she is something of a genius, takes forever to make any sort of dynamic decision on the plot. Ethelrida may be smart, but she is not excitingly so. She is as smart as any smart kid in any school system. She’s normal-smart. The whole family is just simply normal, and unfortunately the season 4 team made the mistake of equating that to “boring.”
The criminally minded are not much better either. New Fadda boss Josto (Jason Schwartzman, totally off his mark) has no solid character arc or traits other than his constant frustration and hideously designed wardrobe. His brother Gaetano is a one-note psychopath who makes inconsistently motivated choices towards the season’s end and is played terribly over the top by Salvatore Esposito. Then, on the Cannon side of things we have the capitalist boss Loy (Chris Rock, who never fills the role’s shoes), whose hunger for power and its impact on his family is never really explored with enough resonance, because the whole season is just too crowded. Twitchy detective Odis Weff (Jack Huston) takes bribes from both sides, and by the time he’s ever interesting or we ever really feel for him it is far, far too late. Really, among the characters the only stand out is Nurse Oraetta Mayflower, brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley, who provides a distinct performance in a series that is usually noted for its distinction among others and in all aspects.
The emotional core of the show, really, should be placed in the relationship between Fadda associate Patrick “Rabbi” Milligan (Ben Whishaw) and Loy’s swapped son and Rabbi’s ward Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III). Unfortunately and as mentioned already, the season is just too damn big, too focused on other characters and storylines that the writers never realized would never be as interesting. By the time we can explore their arc together, it is quickly gone with the wind.
Fargo season 4 is, in the simplest terms, a disappointment. It’s uninteresting to watch, and with such terrible costume design it’s also offensive to the eyes. The dialogue is especially contrived, a prime example being the showdown of words between Ethelrida and Mayflower on the Smutny porch. “There’s a word for people like you,” says Mayflower. “That’s your word,” says Ethelrida, and then… I forget her next big verbal punch because after she delivers it she just KEEPS TALKING. It’s way too much tell, and not enough show. I’ve seen some reviewers suggest that the show has gotten too big for its britches, that all the success has finally gone to Hawley’s head. Perhaps that is the case, because any writer with any sort of accolades should not have produced a work that is just, on a fundamental, basic, and rudimentary level of story-telling, a huge misfire.