This review originally published on September 14, 2020
Viewed one way, the fourth season of FX’s Fargo can be seen as an experiment to test what happens when every element of a TV show is executed brilliantly … except the story.
The reason is more complicated than you might think. In fits and starts, the new season drags the viewer in, approaching but never quite reaching the threshold at which art becomes truly compelling. One hundred years from now, we may have advanced sufficiently as a civilization to develop robot spouses that appear almost indistinguishable from our fellow humans and offer a shockingly close approximation to real romantic love. But just as those mechanical partners will ultimately fail to provide the same enduring spark as a human relationship to the lonely souls of the world, so does Fargo abandon its patient viewers in the uncanny valley that falls short of legitimately good television.
But about those other elements: the praise is sincere. The cinematography stands out as particularly gorgeous, depicting early and mid-century Kansas City in muted tones ranging from black-and-white to variations on sepia, and the visual feast extends to the costumes (khaki has never looked so elegant), the buildings (ditto: bricks), and the weather (Fargo continues to shine in the medium of, um, snow).
The performances are equally riveting, starting with the suddenly ubiquitous Jessie Buckley as the murderous nurse Oraetta Mayflower. Buckley, who shows an Amy Adams-like quality of standing out even in mediocre works, combines a plainspoken sweetness with a sinister malignancy that will continue to intrigue and disturb me, I think, for weeks or months to come. (Andrew Bird, who is coincidentally also in this show—and does whistle, by the way—once sang the line “she’s got blood in her eyes, in her eyes for you,” and that lyric will forevermore in my brain be inextricable from Oraetta.) Jason Schwartzman delivers as Josto Fadda, the heir to the Italian crime family in the city, somehow successfully combining the bewildered innocence he’s been delivering since the days of Max Fischer with the ruthlessness of a man who isn’t as weak as he first appears. Chris Rock is just fine as Loy Cannon, Fadda’s counterpart in the Black crime syndicate, and E’myri Crutchfield deserves special mention as Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, a smart, dignified moral center in a show that flutters and flails around her. And of course, Timothy Olyphant has become a sure thing in prestige TV; here, he plays a carrot-chomping, slightly smarmy, Mormon U.S. Marshal (if memory serves, he’s played a marshal before…) and he’s as reliably fun as ever.
The only real misstep here falls to Salvatore Esposito, and it’s not his fault. He played the brilliantly menacing gangster Gennaro Savastano in Gomorra, and had plenty of chops to bring that same irresistible energy here, but was instead turned into a goggle-eyed caricature by the directors. A shame.
As you see, even the names are also fantastic. It doesn’t really matter in the end, but the art of naming characters is an under-appreciated one, and these are marvelous: Gaetano Fadda, Constant Calamita, Rabbi Milligan, Ebal Violante, Lemuel Cannon, Dibrell Smutny, Satchel Cannon, Narcissa Rivers, etc. etc. etc. It’s an anthroponomastical feast.
But we must arrive, ineluctably, at the story. My guess is that the first episode will be enough to turn off most viewers, so cluttered and nonsensical is the plot. The action begins with a brief history of gang wars in Kansas City, but unlike past seasons of Fargo, it doesn’t even bother nodding toward realism. Noah Hawley directs the first two episodes armed with the worst and most superficial instincts of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, right down to the textual labeling of characters. The drama turns on a strange plot point, which is the exchange of children by rival crime families in an attempt to ensure peace. I know this is something that happened historically in medieval times, not to mention in Game of Thrones, and maybe it even has some modern equivalent, but it feels pointless and ahistorical here. Even more so when the first two historical clashes, between the Jewish and Irish mafia, and then between the Irish and Italian mafia, occur in spite of the kid swap. After watching these massacres, we’re supposed to not only accept that it happens yet again between the Italians and the Black syndicate, but also to care about the consequences.
The word “care” is important here. Despite the entertaining performances up and down the cast list, I never came close to caring about the fate of any of them. That’s partly due to the superficiality of the directing, but more about the convoluted plot. In the first episode, we’re introduced to a numbing variety of characters, and the relation among them is desperately unclear. Six episodes later, those connections either remain ambiguous or have been mashed inartfully into hodgepodge narratives. There are dramatic deaths—some scored with that beautiful, haunting theme—but exactly none of them resonate. The complexity here is not the mark of sophisticated storytelling, but about losing sight of the value of simplicity. To borrow a cliche from sports, this is a classic case of trying to do too much.
Taken as a whole, this is not quite a bad show, but it’s not a good one, and it’s definitely the worst iteration of Fargo so far. Previous seasons have thrived on the dark side of humanity, but in order to be really scary, it has to be tethered at least somewhat to reality. David Thewlis’ character of Varga in Season 3 was so effective not just because of his performance, but because he was an avatar of vampire capitalism, set against the complicated goodness of Ray Stussy and Nikki Swango. Nor is there any sign of the honest-to-god criminal despair of the original film that was recaptured by Jesse Plemons in Season 2, or the seediness of Martin Freeman in Season 1. There is nothing substantial here, nothing that grips the heart.
Fargo has lost its footing in Season 4, succumbing to stylization and caricature and gratuitous over-plotting, and effectively wasting a tremendous cast. We’re left with a weak story and a few banal monologues about race, money, and Life In America. But the nice thing about an anthology series is that once a season is over, it’s really over. Snow melts, seasons change, and this show has earned some generosity … or at least the gift of a short memory.
Fargo Season 4 premieres with two back-to-back episodes Sunday, September 27th on FX, and will be available the next day on Hulu.
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