If the third time’s the charm, what happens when the third time arrives and you remain uncharmed? When the “time” in question is the third season of FX’s critical darling Fargo, and the uncharmed “you” is me, a grouchy TV critic, the answer is: wait a while and try for the fourth. After a hiatus of three years, Noah Hawley’s anthology series returns this week and tries to meet the times—but there’s a reason saying fourth time’s a charm isn’t a thing.
Six long years ago, the first season of Fargo premiered, chronicling absurd and snowballing ultra-violence in the snowy climes of the upper Midwest, where galoots and bone-chilling criminals did dark deeds no one who saw them would ever forget. The heart of the show, like that of the Coen brothers movie that inspired it, was a decent female police officer wonderfully played by Allison Tolman, riffing on Frances McDormand’s indelible Marge Gunderson. But the finale pushes her to the side, because like so many of the prestige dramas that came before it (although fewer that have come after), Fargo was primarily concerned with the live-wire connection between men and violence.
On Fargo, there will be blood. Even episodes that don’t feature it promise some to come, with title cards that read: “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” The jocular, knowing promise of those lines (borrowed wholesale from the Coens) is what distinguishes Fargo. Yes, it’s another show that moodily explores the connection between manhood and violence and the depredations within the human soul, but it’s the one that does so with zany comedic deadpan—and accents, jokes, fleet camera work, obsessive period settings, kookily detailed plots, weird characters, and a woman or two in a high-profile role. For people who are into this sort of thing, Fargo is like a deconstructed pizza: It’s the thing you like, but more adventurous—the pepperoni is cut in the shape of Minnesota, or a meat cleaver, and you can sprinkle it on yourself. But it’s not a great time for pepperoni, when pepperoni—as in this now overkneaded metaphor—is violent white guy angst.
Fargo is tied up in the prestige tropes of six years ago, when the plight of menacing and tortured white men was widely accepted shorthand for seriousness of purpose and quality (although even then, those tropes were nearly exhausted). The fourth season, delayed from April to September because of COVID-19, is aware that the series’ prior preoccupations alone will no longer cut it. The new season explicitly concerns race and takes as its central characters not only violent white men, but Black ones as well. But in trying to say something about the essential criminality of America, a country built on exploiting Black people, it is more clunkily and explicitly thematic than earlier seasons, and almost doubly fixated on generational machismo, such that its female characters never quite come off the sidelines.
This is the case even though the show begins with a self-possessed young, Black, female high school student, Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield) being beaten by her principal, as she narrates her history report: “Frederick Douglass once intoned, ‘I stand before you as a thief and a robber … the moment our feet touched American soil we were already criminals.’ ” Despite it remaining unclear (at least through the first nine episodes) how or why Ethelrida would have so much interest in or knowledge about the Kansas City underworld, that is what the rest of her history report contains, the contents of which she shares with the audience. First, she explains, there were the Jews, who were ousted by the Irish, who were ousted by the Italians. In an attempt to keep the peace, a custom was developed. The ruling families would trade sons, theoretically keeping them from violence, lest that son die in retaliation. Even though this ritual has never had the hoped-for result, in 1950, they are still at it, and this time the groups trading offspring are the Italian Faddas and the city’s new criminal outfit, which, unlike the prior criminal outfits, is not made up of immigrants. They have come north in the great migration. The Black gang is led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), who seems much more aboveboard than his mafia counterparts, and is even trying to get his plan for a newfangled “credit card” off the ground with white bankers. (Guess how that goes.) The moment the mafia boss and Loy trade offspring should inaugurate a momentary peace. Needless to say, it does not.
The Fadda capo almost immediately dies (in a kind of quotation from The Wire)and is replaced by his son Josto (Jason Schwartzman), who is soon dealing with an expansion attempt by Loy. His brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) has also recently arrived from the old country. A former Mussolini Blackshirt —to make another intra-TV connection, he is essentially kin to the menacing, black market figures who haunted Lenù’s Neapolitan childhood in My Brilliant Friend—he is also a complete and total psycho. Esposito plays him with big acting choices you don’t often see on TV: He laughs, he sobs, he whispers, and his eyes bug out of his head. He is intermittently terrifying and ridiculous, but either way, he’s running very hot, which stands out in a show that loves the cool touch.
Soon, there’s a mob war on, and Fargo is on more well-trod territory than it’s ever been before, not just cribbing from the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing, but The Godfather to boot. It does have all sorts of characters that you don’t usually see in a turf war, but they get inconsistent screen time. There’s Ethelrida, the biracial daughter of mortuary owners in debt, who seems like she’s going to be the good woman who is so often the show’s moral center, but she can’t get a solid storyline. She lives across the street from kooky and outspoken nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), whose Minnesota accent belies a murderous streak and a willingness to spike apple pie with ipecac—a gag that, like Chekhov’s gun, goes off in the middle of a heist, conducted by two lady outlaws with the swaggering names of Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille), and who are—credit where it’s due—pretty fun.*
More central to the mob plot is Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw), an Irish son raised by Jewish gangsters and now allied with the Italians, who sets himself the task of protecting Loy’s son. (Their story climaxes in the black-and-white ninth episode, which I mention just to say: Yes, this is a show with a very special black-and-white episode about the relationship between someone who is Black and someone who is white. Anyway.) There’s also Odis Weff (Jack Huston), a dirty cop with OCD and PTSD who finds himself having to help an extremely clean-cut, carrot stick–chomping, Mormon U.S. marshal played by Timothy Olyphant. If all of this sounds like a lot of strands to tie together, it is—but unlike in previous seasons, many of these strands really feel ancillary to the gangland drama that stodgily occupies center stage.
The white ethnic groups that run Kansas City are on their way up the ladder, but the Black families, who have been American much longer, will never stop being Black. The show sometimes explores this with relative subtlety, as in the first episode, when the Italians are turned away from an upscale private hospital by a WASP administrator just as Loy Cannon is brushed off by a white banker, or even in the casting of Schwartzman, who with his perpetual adolescent sneer and hilariously obnoxious line readings always emanates coddling. But more often the show delves into these themes with topic sentences like “To be American is to pretend” and “Americans love a crime story. We are a crime story!” At one point Josto gives an anachronistically self-aware speech explicitly stating that ethnic white groups’ nonwhiteness is, unlike the Black group’s, only temporary. “We root for the taker. America loves a man who takes what he wants, unless he looks like you,” Josto tells Loy. “I can take all the money and the pussy I want and I can still run for president. But for you, it’s always gonna be the rope.” Loy is given to saying things like “I’m fighting 400 years of history. I’m fighting a mindset.”
If this makes the show sound kind of campy, that’s not quite it. This is a highly professional endeavor, and there’s nothing (too) embarrassing happening here. The show’s self-seriousness leans toward the dull more than the ridiculous, although some ridiculousness would be more fun. It doesn’t help that Rock, who has described this as the best part he’s “ever, ever, ever” had, is in such single-mindedly dramatic mode that he does not bring any looseness or lightness to his role, even when he’s sniffing dollar bills with a telltale whiff of puke. He, like the season more generally, seems dedicated to making something relevant, a noble impulse that sometimes weighs down this bizarre and gruesome period fiction, a show that wants to speak to the times more than it actually does.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2020: This article originally misidentified the actress playing Swanee Capps. It is Kelsey Asbille, not Amber Midthunder.