Even while working to improve its behind-the-camera diversity since 2015, one aspect of FX shows remains constant: They celebrate the showrunner as auteur, showcasing unique voices in a landscape where much television feels made by committee.
With something like the anthology series Fargo, which returns for a fourth “year,” that means putting an abundance of trust in the creative vision of Noah Hawley, whose TV work can at times be inconsistent but strives to be unlike anything else you’re currently watching. While the show’s name continues to pay homage to the original 1996 Coen brothers film, each new story is very much Hawley’s creation. In Fargo Season 4’s case, what’s set to unfurl is much more reminiscent of The Godfather than the previous morality tales produced under this title — a season of television that struggles to feel cohesive but does deliver some stand-out moments and fantastic characters.
Year 4 might arguably be the furthest away yet from the original Fargo, literally, temporally, and geographically. The focus stays on the rise of organized crime in 1950 Kansas City, with different “families” (read: ethnic groups) scrambling for dominance as the post-World War II American economy offers up plenty of new opportunities for profit. We’re avoiding spoilers here, of course, but anticipate battles for territory, terse negotiations, and lots of speeches about how “Americans love a crime story, because America is a crime story.”
While it feels like a very different season than years past, Year 4 might arguably sport one of the series’ strongest ensemble casts to date and that is saying quite a lot when you consider past line-ups that witnessed Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Billy Bob Thorton, and Martin Freeman delivering career-best work.
Chris Rock is of course commonly not thought of as a dramatic actor — his resume is not completely absent of serious roles (y’all, he did an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street in 1996!), but certainly Fargo represents a more serious dramatic commitment than Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Fortunately for everyone involved, while he can’t quite shed his persona entirely, by a few episodes in he’s fully convincing as a crime boss capable of terrible things. In one episode later in the season, he’s trying to make an impossible, heartbreaking choice, and the camera stays fixed on Rock’s face as a cascade of emotions flicker across it.
Jason Schwartzman is also someone who doesn’t often play the heavy (with the obvious exception of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, of course) and he really steps up here as Josto Fadda. Though when it comes to chameleons, no one has Ben Whishaw beat as Rabbi Milligan, a soldier out of place in the Fadda family, one who’s perhaps one of the most fully defined male characters of the series. Meanwhile, new-to-Americans Gommorah star Salvatore Esposito makes a big but broad impression as the ruthless, Italian-speaking brother of Josto, while Glynn Turman is here to remind us all why he’s a legend of stage and screen.
All of the above actors, you might notice, play those involved in the world of crime. As Fargo was supposed to premiere last April, there’s no way that Hawley and his writers could have predicted the way in which #BlackLivesMatter would become a roar this summer, a roar which has made many TV producers reconsider the way they depict law enforcement on television. But Year 4 catches a lucky break — past seasons have always featured local law enforcement as the show’s good-hearted heroes, including Allison Tolman in Year 1, Patrick Wilson in Year 2, and Carrie Coon in Year 3.
There’s no such figure in Year 4, beyond Jack Huston as a local officer with complicated allegiances and Timothy Olyphant as a federal marshal on a single-minded quest. In fact, there’s no one really who embodies the role of moral cornerstone the way a character like Chief Marge Gunderson does.
Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, the young woman who serves initially as narrator, is a crackerjack of a character thanks to some smart strong writing and E’myri Crutchfield‘s measured, powerful performance. But while she’s easily the closest thing this season has to a hero, she’s rather incidental to the power struggles which consume the majority of the plot. Meanwhile, Jessie Buckley as Oraetta Mayflower suffers from a similar but opposite problem — Buckley brings out her evil nurse’s sociopathy in rich and nuanced ways, but it takes far too long for her narrative to impact the overall arc.
The tragedy here is that just based on scale Year 4 has the best collection of female characters to date (there’s also supporting players Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille, who show up in Episode 2 to steal as much screen time as they can get their hands on). But even with Ethelrida’s narration, it never feels like their story — really, it’s hard to say whose story it really is. It’s ambitious of Hawley to not rely on a single tragic/comic/evil act to set off the action of the series; there are no hammers to the head or falling air conditioners that draw these characters down darker paths. But as a result, the banality of evil which was such strong fodder for past seasons is absent, replaced by a well-told gangster tale with families at war within and without, for obvious stakes and repercussions.
As always, with Fargo it comes down to “In Noah Hawley we trust…right?” One moment that still leaves me bewildered is a scene in Episode 2 where a woman in a public restroom is reapplying her lipstick, and the woman at the sink next to her asks to borrow it… and the first woman hands the lipstick over casually, not minding at all when this total stranger proceeds to use it on her own lips. Not to nitpick, but even in a non-pandemic time and place I don’t think there’s a single woman on the planet who would cavalierly lend a lipstick to a stranger. It’s a small thing, but it’s one that happens in an episode written and directed by Hawley — a reminder that sometimes this level of creative control can mean being blind to details outside of your own experience.
However, Hawley is a creator who loves images, ideas, and words, and not a single episode watched for review (FX provided the first nine) lacks for an unforgettable camera shot, a haunting character choice, or a line of dialogue so weird and wonderful it could only be Fargo. And in a year when pretty much everything feels coated with a layer of tarnish, perhaps it’s right that Year 4 is a season where heroes feel very hard to find.
Fargo Year 4 premieres Sept. 27 on FX (and the day after on FX on Hulu).