Imagine for a moment you’re an ordinary person living in the 1950 Kansas City of Fargo’s fourth season and just trying to go about your business. Life seems pretty normal, then one day the headlines shift. A well-known socialite has been gunned down outside a snooty hospital. Not long after, the back of the newspaper runs a weird item about the discovery of a burned-out truck that smells of oranges. Could it have something to do with the female fugitives who escaped from the nearby prison? And what about that raid on the downtown jazz club? What’s going on? If you wanted that kind of trouble, you’d have moved someplace famous for it, like Fargo, North Dakota.
But where it’s possible to imagine the average Kansas City resident going through day-to-day life without encountering any of the crime and weirdness we’d seen prior to this episode, “The Birthplace of Civilization” seems like a tipping point, the moment when the bloodshed starts to spill into the streets and the sub-rosa conflict between warring gangland factions becomes impossible to hide. It begins with tensions ratcheting even higher than before and ends with the first high-level casualty of the Fadda-Cannon conflict. Even if neither side wanted this war, there’s no going back from here.
The episode-opening salvo of “The Birthplace of Civilization” doesn’t necessarily seem like it’s going to lead to a full-on eruption. In fact, Josto treats it as an educational exercise for Gaetano, showing him one way to deal with an enemy that doesn’t involve killing. Instead of taking out Lemuel in a hit, Josto arranges to take him in via a raid orchestrated by Odis. Rather than enjoy a night of cool bebop, he’ll wind up in jail alongside some of Loy’s other men. It’s much more civilized! “That’s,” he tells Gaetano, “how it’s done.”
Josto might not have considered all the repercussions, however. First, the raid itself plays out brutally. The racist cops abuse and denigrate Lemuel, Leon, and the others who spend their time in the holding cell contemplating just how bad this could end for them if they’re sent to prison. The arrival of some intimidating, silent officers suggests the consequences could be even more immediate until they give way to Josto, whose arrival might portend an even worse fate. All the while, Loy fights his own battle at home with his wife, Buel (J. Nicole Brooks), whose patience has reached its end. In truth, it probably reached its end when Josto traded away Satchel, but Lemuel’s near-death experience, and now his arrest, apparently threaten what remains of their domestic harmony. Temporarily trading away a son is one thing. Losing one forever — that’s another matter entirely.
Buel’s mostly been a background figure so far, but she’s well played by Brooks in a scene in which she serves as a fine sparring partner for Chris Rock. Loy might technically prevail in this conflict, but he’s clearly broken something in their marriage that can’t be repaired. For Loy, it’s an acceptable loss. Later, while informing the Smutnys he’ll be taking over the King of Tears mortuary effective immediately, he tells Thurman and Dibrell how much he’s given up in the name of success and how okay he is with those sacrifices at the end of the day.
Rock’s kept Loy at a low simmer for most of the season, and at times it has felt like he’s been trying to construct a performance that avoids his natural charisma and gift for electric delivery. Apart from a few exceptions, he’s relied on a mean squint rather than verbal sparring. But each successive episode has asked Rock to open up a bit, and he has more than met the demand. Here, Loy has to stand his own against a justifiably enraged wife, get in Odis’s head by taunting him about his traumatizing service as a mine-sweeper, intimidate the Smutnys, and bring Zelmare and Swanee into the Cannon fold. He gets it done, and Rock brings the full power of his screen presence to each scene. But it’s the weariness in his eyes that reveals the toll all this has taken on Loy, whatever he might claim, that gives the character added dimension.
However effective Loy might be as a crime boss, whether or not he’ll have a chance to come out on top in this conflict remains to be seen. Josto has the police on his side. He also has other factors in his favor. As Josto explains to Loy’s men during his jailhouse visit, “America loves a crime story because America is a crime story.” Americans also love to “root for the taker” — so long as the taker isn’t Black. Italians might not be seen as fully American — just flash back to Deafy’s monologue about Salt Lake City in the previous episode — but they’re still white in the eyes of other white people, or at least not Black. They’ve got America’s deeply ingrained prejudice on their side, and nothing the Cannons can do will change that. Josto orders them to keep the peace, but it’s less a plea than a spiteful demand. Rabbi’s parting words — after passing on the assurance that he’ll take care of Satchel no matter what — reveal his pessimism not only about that possibility but about the fates of everyone in the room. “You’re all gonna die,” he says, making it sound not like a threat but like the words of someone who’s seen this movie before.
While Rabbi remains something of a sad-eyed enigma, we learn a bit more about Odis this week, both thanks to Loy’s taunting words (and “booms”) and via Deafy’s visit to his home. There, Deafy sees a bunch of neatly arranged Hummel figurines and a picture of Odis’s murdered fiancée. The visit also reveals that, while the war might have made Odis twitchy (as Loy suggests), his OCD predates his time as a mine-sweeper. In fact, his meticulousness is part of why he got the assignment, before being devastated by the news of his fiancée’s murder and, if Loy is to be believed, meeting disgrace after the death of a colonel due to some out-of-character negligence. Odis might be a corrupt tool of the Fadda family, but, in the moment, it’s kind of hard not to feel sorry for him.
Even Deafy’s heart melts a bit, and he’s a man who dreams about shaking trees filled with criminals in the service of the Lord. Deafy’s detective work takes him to Ethelrida’s school, where his very presence leads her awful principal and his possibly even more awful secretary to assume she’s in trouble, never mind her straight-A record (or the fact that she’s obviously smarter than them). And, she is kind of in trouble, since Deafy knows he can use the threat of suspension to strong-arm her into revealing where Zelmare and Swanee are holed up. He doesn’t even know she paid them a visit earlier in the day for her birthday, during which Zelmare offered her some top-shelf hooch. Ethelrida declined, but not before receiving a bit of wisdom about the difference between a criminal and an outlaw. Criminals “play the game” and dream of going straight, whereas outlaws have no such ambitions. In Zelmare’s words, there “ain’t nothin’ organized about our crime, because our crime is freedom.”
Like her aunt, Ethelrida’s gifted at parsing the finer points of language. She challenges Deafy when he details Zelmare and Swanee’s past crimes, then tries to use the word “civilized” against her. In response, Ethelrida informs him that Africa is the birthplace of civilization, then offers a brief history of their common African ancestry, facts she picked up while earning an A in anthropology. He’s impressed by the challenge, one that goes against the Mormon worldview and the theories about race he laid out a couple of episodes back. That doesn’t stop him from using the threat of expulsion against her to get her to reveal Zelmare and Swanee’s hideout, however.
As 17th birthdays go, Ethelrida’s has been pretty lousy. But it’s possible Deafy wouldn’t have had to get so tough to persuade her. (Besides, even though Ethelrida sends Deafy to Zelmare and Swanee’s hotel room, well, son of a biscuit, he arrives too late to bring them to justice. Loy decided to let bygones be bygones and make use of them as invisible soldiers in the Cannon army.) Ethelrida already has a strong sense of right and wrong, as evidenced by the letter she writes trying to expose Oraetta’s wrongdoing, even if she uses a false identity to compose it. For now, at least, Oraetta doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat to others. She watches — tortured enough to bang her head against the wall in agony — while a patient she’d clearly love to kill suffers. She’s an angel of mercy who’s had her wings clipped, at least for the moment.
That’s okay: Gaetano’s does enough killing for the both of them this episode. After slipping on some ice, lost in the sound of a Puccini aria that only he can hear, he first opts not to kill the teenage tavern employee who laughs at his misfortune. But when Gaetano’s served an inferior cup of American coffee, neither the teenager nor the barkeep escape his wrath, a move that shocks even the sadistic Constant. Gaetano has ruthlessness and fury on his side.
Gaetano might be unhinged, but he seems to be giving Constant ideas. When Doctor Senator shows up for his regularly scheduled diner meeting with Ebal, he finds Constant instead, with a silent Gaetano hanging out in a nearby booth looking as intimidating as a grown man can while eating a hot-fudge sundae. Constant lays out his sad origin story, but Doc’s not impressed. “You’re just boys makin’ a mess,” he says. “And one day, I’m gonna have to clean it up.” Only that day never comes; Constant shoots him in the back. Maybe, in his dying moments, Doc recognizes that the rules have changed and his way of doing things will never return to Kansas City. If not, Loy certainly does. Standing over Doctor Senator’s body, he looks frightened of what happens next.
• RIP Doctor Senator, one of season four’s standout characters. It’s a shame, and a bit of a shock, to see him go. Glynn Turman’s been doing amazing work, but this would explain why he’s been listed as a guest star from the start.
• Thurman, who doesn’t seem like the quickest fellow in some respects, has started to wonder if Oraetta might have poisoned the pie.
• “What’s the rumpus?” Ethelrida asks, echoing Miller’s Crossing.
• Ethelrida has images of Billie Holiday and Althea Gibson on her walls and a miniature of the Statue of Liberty on her desk. Sometimes décor can do a lot of work establishing a character.
• No ghost this week. Is he taking Ethelrida’s birthday off?
• Mort Kellerman shows up personally to collect those guns for his Fargo operations. He seems pretty sure of himself for a man who has less than a year to live, given the events recounted in Fargo’s second season.
• How good is the jazz combo in the opening scene? So good they can play Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” eight years before Blakey recorded the song.