Halfway through its fourth season, the critically acclaimed anthology series “Fargo” has shirked its deadpan fatalism for a more robust, plot-driven epic gangster drama. At some points, it flourishes as an uncompromising reflection on family, loyalty and what it means to be American, but at other times, it loses the classic Coen brothers flavor of searching for meaning in the meaningless.
It’s unfair to ask showrunner Noah Hawley and company to repeat the standard formula of past seasons, which usually follows an unwitting schlub who is sucked into the merciless and strangely eccentric criminal underworld. The limitations began to show in the third season and, to partially alleviate that stress, season four gets straight to the point.
The show ventures back in time to 1950, Kansas City, where the rooted Italian Fadda Family squares off against the newly established Black crime syndicate, the Cannon Limited. The dichotomy between both sides is riveting. The hotheaded, motormouth Josto Fadda, portrayed expertly by Jason Schwartzman, haplessly tries to assert his seniority and dominance while the cold, pernicious Loy Cannon, portrayed only adequately by Chris Rock, tries to replace his family with a lucrative, impersonal capitalist operation.
The story is massive, with each gang member gifted a properly complex character on top of a few more extraneous side acts: There’s the Smutny family, who are typical good-hearted Americans that run a funeral home, and Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), who is as ridiculous as her name sounds and has a penchant for murdering her nursing patients. If there is a Lorne Malvo type for this season, it is Oraetta, whose wickedness is bathed in a misguided use of religious archetypes.
The problem with Oraetta is, while the typical “Fargo” psychopath usually has a misanthropic logic about humanity that justifies their violent actions, Oraetta’s drive is misted by biblical allusions. Where other characters would grow more horrifying as they keep talking, Oraetta just sounds goofier. This makes for good dialogue, but is not as satisfying when compared to the lineage of great villains “Fargo” is known for.
An oddity in its scale is that, for how wide-reaching the story is, it never moves past the intimate, local tone of past seasons. The show lives in a muddled zone where, although every player is fleshed out, the action feels so cramped together that it’s as if everything happens on one street.
Growing pains occur when “Fargo” competes against its own legacy of quiet suburban life put in the context of race and wealth. There is a contrast between the subtle discrimination Italians faced in ’50s America versus the outright brutality Black Americans experienced from the police, although racial undertones are so light and separated from the plot that their presence does little to actually comment on the current state of U.S. injustices against minority groups.
The most rewarding part of “Fargo” is the thematic territory it explores with the character of Rabbi (Ben Whishaw), an Irish mobster who split from — and killed — his family after linking up with the Italians. His backstory presents the largest leap of faith in logic; the prologue in the first episode explains that, since the early 20th century, the rival gangs of Kansas City swapped their boss’ sons — Rabbi being one of them — as a way to keep the peace. As in “Fargo” tradition, the plan backfires on two separate occasions, so it’s confusing why the Cannons and Faddas would go through this charade for a third time. Besides that, Rabbi’s relationship with Loy Cannon’s son, Satchel, prompts the most fascinating questions on the value of blood over personal relations.
“Fargo” is still one of the wittiest shows on television, with Hawley’s dialogue both quirky and soul-searching. The show is a master of the monologue, has characters as unique as a $2 bill and cinematography on par with big budget films. Even with all that, it still doesn’t reach the heights of previous seasons. There’s absolutely room for a breakthrough with characters such as Oraetta or Loy Cannon, but as it stands, “Fargo” is a very good piece of television, although nothing special.