Noah Hawley, the creator of the Fargo TV series, is also a novelist. Before he ever started working in TV, he wrote novels like A Conspiracy of Tall Men, and has continued to write even while producing Fargo and Legion. Hawley's literary background and what he does with Fargo makes me think of him as akin to a crime novelist of the post-Elmore Leonard school, where the author picks a type of crime story and does variations on it over and over again. This is not a bad way to operate, and there are dozens of great authors who do it, but it works better for novels than it does for TV. Anthology series work better when they're united by sensibility rather than format. At this point, even after three years between seasons, the Fargo model has gotten a little stale. Season 4 is feeling a bit like diminishing returns. Which is not to say the show is at all bad; it's still fun to watch and exceptionally well-made. It just doesn't feel as vital as it once did.
Season 4 has the least connection to the Coen Brothers' 1996 movie yet, or to other seasons of Fargo. It's set in Kansas City in 1950, and tells the story of a war between two rival crime families, a Black outfit led by ruthless businessman Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) and an Italian mafia led by Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno). In a Kansas City crime tradition, Cannon and Fadda have traded their youngest sons to cement an uneasy truce, with Satchel Cannon (Rodney Jones) living with the Faddas and Zero Fadda (Jameson Braccioforte) in the care of the Cannons. But after the elder Fadda dies, the delicate balance falls apart, and Loy Cannon uses the opportunity to make a grab for control of the city's underworld, while Don Fadda's sons Josto (Jason Schwartzman), a little punk, and Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), a psycho, squabble for control of the family while also fighting the Cannon syndicate.
Other players in the complex conflict include Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E'myri Crutchfield), the intelligent 16-year-old Black daughter of the local undertakers, who is investigating her neighbor Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a racist, generally unpleasant nurse with ties to Josto Fadda and a discomfiting record of patient deaths under her care; Dick "Deafy" Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), a devout Mormon U.S. Marshal who's looking for a pair of fugitive outlaws, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille); Odis Weff (Jack Huston), a crooked cop with a tic; and Patrick "Rabbi" Miligan (Ben Whishaw), who was twice traded by his Irish crime family and betrayed them to serve the Italians, but doesn't belong with the Italians. All of these players get more and more enmeshed as the gang war hurtles toward its bloody conclusion.
Each season of Fargo has a guiding theme, and this season it's a question of who gets to be an American and participate in the American project of capitalism. Both families are on the outside, fighting for their chance to get in. The African Americans have been here for hundreds of years, but they can't break in because of the color of their skin, while the Italians are relative newcomers with their own language and culture, but their race gives them the option to assimilate if they want. Josto does and Gaetano doesn't, and Loy wants to more than anything. He develops a credit card that he knows is a billion-dollar idea if he can get white banks to buy into it, but they won't, because it's coming from him. It's a compelling idea that unfortunately falls a bit by the wayside as the season progresses and plot needs to be satisfied.
The plot and other details are basically the same as every other season of Fargo. All the familiar elements are at play: a family conflict, an embodiment of goodness (Ethelrida Pearl Smutny) and an embodiment of evil (Oraetta Mayflower, played with tremendous verve and an outrageous Minnesota accent by rising star Jessie Buckley, who you'd have no idea from her voice here is actually from Ireland), a psychotic killer (Salvatore Esposito's Gaetano, who bugs his eyes out of his head to show that he's crazy), an ironic sense of humor, a mysterious touch of the supernatural. The line between having a distinct style and repeating oneself is a fine one, and Fargo finds itself on both sides of it over the course of the season. Sometimes it finds compelling new angles, like making its good character not a cop for the first time in the series' history, and sometimes it does a worse version of things it's done before (Whishaw's adopted outsider Rabbi Milligan is good, but he's no Hanzee Dent, the white crime family-adopted Native American hitman played by Zahn McClarnon in Season 2, the year that remains the high-water mark for the series).
Perhaps the biggest part of what keeps this season of Fargo from achieving the heights of its early seasons is Chris Rock's Loy Cannon. It's not a surprise that Chris Rock, one of the most talented comedians ever, is capable of giving a solid dramatic performance. But it is odd that he's so serious to the point that it doesn't seem like he's having any fun -- especially since part of what makes him such an incredible comedic performer is the sense that he's always enjoying himself -- and when so many of the actors around him, particularly Timothy Olyphant and Jason Schwartzman, are clearly having a ball. This is more of a direction issue than a performance issue, like Hawley wanted Rock to play so much against type that there's no trace of the Chris Rock we know in Loy Cannon, but it makes for a pretty uninteresting character. He's so calm and subdued that there's nothing to emotionally connect to, which is a problem when he's the center of the ensemble.
That being said, there's still a lot about Fargo that's really good. The 1950 setting allows for beautiful period costume and production design, the dialogue is smart and sharp, the music is immersive, and the cinematography is vibrant. And how can you not appreciate the creativity of the character names? Even minor characters have names like "Allen Sneet." If I worked in FX's marketing department, I would have pitched a Fargo name generator. It would be so much fun. Liam Mathews = Lemmy Murfreesboro.
No one knows if this will be the final season of Fargo. That's up to Noah Hawley and FX boss John Landgraf, and they're very open about not knowing. But if it is, no one will say it didn't go out on its own terms in its own time.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Fargo premieres with two episodes on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9/8c on FX. Episodes will be available to stream the day after air on FX on Hulu.