Noah Hawley has made Fargo into a fantastic TV franchise because he has been able to find actors to play unexpected parts, and he trusts them to do well at the parts he picks for them. This time around, the unexpected actor is Chris Rock, playing Loy Cannon, the head of a Black crime syndicate in 1950 Kansas City. The story of the fourth season of Fargo goes in a bit of a different direction than the first three seasons did. But does Hawley continue his golden touch?
FARGO SEASON 4: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A voice says “My history report, by Ethelrida Pearl Smutny.” Then we see Ethelrida (Emyri Crutchfield) pushed into what we suspect is the principal’s office as we hear her report. The year is 1950.
The Gist: Ethelrida’s report is about how the top of the heap of Kansas City’s organized crime syndicates have changed over the years, simply because there was always a group coming up behind them to knock off the people in charge. The tradition would be that the rival groups would trade the first-born sons of the man in charge, to engender trust but mostly to have their kids be little spies. It would inevitably lead to a double cross where the up-and-coming group shoots up the established group and takes their dominant position.
Ethelrida describes how the Jews were overtaken by the Irish, then a number of years later the Irish were overtaken by the Italians. One of the interesting aspects of the trade is that Rabbi Milligan (played as an adult by Ben Whishaw) was traded twice. The first time, his father ordered him to kill his young counterpart in the Jewish gang. But the second time, Rabbi was part of the double-cross, even following the command to kill his father. He became a trusted member of the Fadda syndicate.
By 1949, there was a new challenge to the Fadda’s power; “The Cannon Limited,” led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock). Unlike the other groups whose leaders agreed with a spit-handshake, Loy insists on a bloody handshake with Donatello Faddo (Tommaso Ragno). The alignment is there for a reason: The Cannon group has the Black neighborhoods and wants more, and the Faddos want to make sure they’re still in control of the city.
We see Ethelrida in the principal’s office a number of times, usually after getting into fights with White students. She is biracial in an era when interracial marriages are frowned upon and, in some places, illegal. Her father Thurman (Andrew Bird) runs the local funeral home, and while she’s passing through the house while a white funeral is going on, she’s buttonholed by Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a quirky nurse at St. Bartholemew’s, who is fascinated by the fact that she’s biracial. “Your mother must be quite dark-skinned,” she says in her Minnesota accent as she looks at Ethelrida’s arm while both the girl and her father look on with extreme discomfort.
Loy is definitely seeking more power and turf than the Faddas want. “You talk like I work for you. We have an alliance,” he says to Donatello while their kids are playing (they made the traditional first-born trade). We see Loy’s ambitions when he and his right-hand, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) go to a massive bank offering a service they provide to the people in their neighborhoods: A newfangled thing called a credit card. The bank refuses, thinking they can’t take advantage of people in need.
But the Faddas, as you would expect, don’t trust Loy and his crew. Donatello’s son, Josto (Jason Schwartzman) calls them every name in the book, but Donatello tells him, “You don’t think they’re saying the same things about us?” And, even though two Black gentlemen crossing the street roused the Faddas to brandish their guns, and Donatello almost gets felled by a massive bout of gas, what gets him is a BB from a kid’s gun finding its way to his neck. They rush to the private hospital, who doesn’t want “their kind.” They then go to St. Bartholemew’s, where Josto befriends a quirky nurse from Minnesota named Oraetta, who takes care of his father… in all the wrong ways.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? You could say this reminds us of Fargo seasons 1-3, but this is more along the lines of Forest Whitaker’s recent series Godfather of Harlem.
Our Take: Over the first three seasons of Fargo, we’ve seen Noah Hawley get unexpected and quite remarkable dramatic performances out of some unexpected actors — Brad Garrett, anyone? — so we weren’t surprised to see Chris Rock kill it as Loy Cannon in the first episode. He’s serious, a little angry that he has to follow the Fadda’s lead, and annoyed that his credit card idea is dismissed out of hand because he’s Black. You know he has ambitions that are going to lead to a lot of violence and turf wars, and he also misses his son, who understandably didn’t want to be sent to live with the Faddas.
We hope we get to know the Smutny family more, especially the whip-smart 16-year-old Ethelrida. She has no idea what her place in life is, and her father really can’t reassure her, saying, “There’s a place for everyone in the world somewhere,” but she is well aware that her parents are getting involved with Loy and his syndicate, and that can’t be good.
Every performance in the series is excellent, from Schwartzman’s over-the-top portrayal of a gangster whose unearned power goes to his head because of his inadequacies, to Buckley’s take on the quirky but murderous Nurse Mayflower. These are characters that could have gone haywire in different hands, but Hawley’s writing and direction, as well as his ability to think outside the box as far as casting is concerned, keeps these parts from getting too silly.
What we’re not sure of is where exactly the story is going. Will the Cannon syndicate take over for the Faddas in a violent manner? Will we see how Loy changes as he gets more power? And where does Ethelrida fit into this? We already know that Nurse Mayflower is a murderess who has her eye on Ethelrida, but we’re not 100% sure how this connects to Loy’s increasing power and the turf wars his gang is engaged in. Usually, by the end of the first episode of a season of Fargo, we have a good idea what the story is. Here, it’s not as obvious. We hope that’s not a bad sign of what’s to come.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: The camera pans from Ethelrida, sitting on a porch swing outside her family’s house/funeral home, to the apartment building we saw Nurse Mayflower enter a few minutes earlier. We see Mayflower in the window, staring down at the Smutnys’ house, fascinated with the girl sitting on that porch swing.
Sleeper Star: Well, we like Glynn Turman in anything, and we liked him explaining his name, Doctor Senator, to the banker. And he was proud of his PhD in economics from Howard, as he should be, but the look on this face when the white banker said, “Oh, that’s the negro school,” is priceless. He raises a little eyebrow while keeping the smile on his face while this guy is dismissing his whole education.
Most Pilot-y Line: During the first-born trade, when Rabbi brings the Fadda kid over, Loy reacts to his accent this way: “Where are you from, Dublin, Italy?” It’s a kind of funny line but could have been better.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Fargo is Fargo; you’ll get excellent and unexpected performances, a lot of quirk, a lot of violence, and a lot of fascinating side stories. We’re just not quite sure where the main story is going this time around, and we hope things become more cohesive down the line.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
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