When it comes to audacity and sheer technical excellence, the new season of Fargo doesn’t quite match up to its predecessors. Either that, or perhaps Noah Hawley’s signature narrative techniques are less surprising to me now after six previous seasons of television (three more of Fargo, and three of Legion). Still, Fargo’s fourth outing is a lavish period production that continues the show’s increasing trend of using its oddball midwestern crime universe to comment metaphorically on the illicit underpinnings of the American experiment. And, like season three, it does its damnedest to tap into the tumultuous national zeitgeist.
Season four delivers us to 1950, for what in many ways feels like a conventional mafia tale. It involves rival organized crime outfits, vying for territorial dominance in Kansas City: an old guard Sardinian family led by Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno), and an upstart African-American syndicate led by the ambitious Loy Cannon (Chris Rock). In a crime world ritual (which never seems to pan out well), the Fadda and Cannon families exchange children on the “logic” that it will demand good behavior on both sides, thereby keeping the peace and cementing the partnership. But in classic Fargo fashion, a series of random-chance incidents — involving a stray BB gun pellet, a racist doctor, two lesbian bank robbers, and a serial-murdering sociopath named Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), among other things — lead to escalating tensions between the two clans, eventually destroying the alliance and erupting into all-out war.
Much as season three drags Fargo into the deep end of the Trump years, season four does something similar with its season arc, tackling America’s storied history of racial inequality in timely response to the Black Lives Matter protests. If the message is obvious, it’s still noble, finally injecting significant diversity into a traditionally very white series. It’s a slow starter, and there’s something distancing about it; again, I think perhaps Fargo‘s once-unpredictable narrative rhythms have become predictably unpredictable, at times. But it extends the saga ably enough, with the requisite easter egg connections to the other seasons, continuing to weave the series’ impressive tapestry.
As usual, the vast character roster is filled with enjoyable quirkiness, headlined by Buckley’s animated turn as the demented Oraetta, who sports the show’s trademark Minnesota accent. It’s possible the story depends too much on the rivalry between the two fairly conventional mob bosses who find themselves in opposition; Rock is quite good as Cannon, while Jason Schwartzman brings his usual snarky energy as Josto, heir to the Fadda crime family. But neither commands the screen with the same dominance of previous season antagonists. For entertainingly colorful side characters, there’s Salvatore Esposito’s bug-eyed fascist Gaetano, who keeps his brother Josto’s hands full; Timothy Olyphant shows up a carrot-chomping Mormon Marshal, bringing his usual effortless charisma; and Jack Huston has one of the more interesting supporting roles as a Odis Weff, a corrupt cop traumatized by his experiences in World War II. Unfortunately, the Cannon side of the divide isn’t nearly as interestingly fleshed out, although Glynn Turman makes a great impression as Cannon’s right-hand man, Doctor Senator. It’s impossible not to notice that season four lacks the usual good-hearted foil character (represented in earlier years by the likes of Allison Tolman and Carrie Coon). For that, there is bright, precocious Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), the daughter of a clandestine mixed-marriage who becomes Oraetta’s unexpected nemesis. And Ben Whishaw is on hand as “Rabbi” Milligan, whose complicated legacy — as a child, he was “traded” to the Italian mob by its Irish predecessor, and then betrayed them — leads him to become a devoted guardian to Cannon’s son Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III).
Overall, season four more or less accomplishes the mission its sets for itself, and does so with the requisite roster of memorable personalities, offbeat humor, and spiraling out-of-control conflict. It doesn’t exactly wow in the same way as earlier years, but it does have an interesting prequel vibe, and may be worth it for its ninth episode alone — an eerie, black-and-white road trip that ends with yet another bonkers Fargo deus ex machina. As far as I’m concerned, this series can run as long as it likes.