“Welcome to the Alternate Economy,” the fourth season premiere of Fargo, stacked one unanswered question atop another, including this one: Who’s this season’s hero? Ethelrida quickly emerged as the season’s most thoughtful and honorable character, but she’s just a kid, right? Surely there had to be some kind of unlikely but stalwart police officer waiting in the wings, per Fargo tradition. They might be eccentric, sure, but they’d get the job done. Enter Odis Weff (Jack Huston), a Kansas City cop who doesn’t let his obsessive-compulsive disorder get in his way. Though some might be put off by his restlessness, facial tics, and need to knock on a door the correct number of times before exiting a room, Odis ignores them. He’s smart and thorough, never letting a detail go unnoticed. Clearly, this is our guy.
One problem: He’s on the take. After investigating the Faddas’ failed attempt on Dr. Harvard’s life — their anger at being turned away from his hospital has only intensified after Donatella’s death — Odis seems like he’s on the trail of the mystery, but it’s all an illusion. At Donatella’s wake he talks to Josto about his investigation and the need to find a patsy to “frame up” to throw off the top brass who are, in Odis’ words, “measuring up my asshole like they’re fixing to move in” (which sounds extremely painful). Whatever else Odis might be, this season’s hero he is not.
At TCA press tour, creator Noah Hawley described this as a conscious choice, saying, “In the movie and in the first three seasons, the all-good, moral character was always a cop. […] But the reality is there are a lot of Americans, that is not their experience of cops. So my hope was to create a story this year in which that burden was lifted off the cop and allow Odis to land in a different place on the moral spectrum.” Look elsewhere for a hero, in other words. That lends extra meaning to having Ethelrida, a Black kid in a racist town filled with corrupt cops, serve as the season’s moral center — if, of course, she can survive all the perils and shady characters Kansas City keeps throwing her way.
Sometimes they arrive on her doorstep. “The Land of Taking and Killing” opens with an image familiar to Fargo: snow falling on a field as the wind howls. It then pans down to an image inspired by Raising Arizona: a pair of prison inmates escaping and celebrating their freedom, loudly. Enter Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille). After procuring fresh duds from a pair of suckers at a nearby honky-tonk, they head directly to the Smutny home at the King of Tears mortuary where Zelmare reunites with her sister, Dibrell.
For Dibrell, it’s an occasion for mixed emotions. She’s thrilled to see Zelmare but justifiably suspicious of the circumstances of her arrival (particularly given that she shows up wearing a fur coat accompanied by Swanee, who wears cowboy outfit taken from the self-described “big buck” who offered her a trip “round the world”). Already thinking of robbing a bank, they don’t even really pretend to have been reformed, though Zelmare corrects Swanee’s grammar, the result of an insufficient reservation education where the teachers were, by her account, “mostly concerned with rapin’ the Native out of me.” But it’s not just criminal prospects that have brought Zelmare and Swanee to Dibrell and Thurman’s home. Zelmare’s gotten wind that her sister and brother-in-law are in deep with “leg-breakers” charging them exorbitant interest on a loan. Maybe she can help.
In the meantime, King of Tears’ business keeps rolling along, requiring Ethelrida to travel across town to pick up some formaldehyde from a different funeral home. She arrives just in time for a big funeral filled with Italians and sure to contain, she’s told, “yelling and rending of clothes.” Warned off checking it out for herself, Ethelrida naturally ignores the advice, peering in to watch the Faddas mourn their patriarch. That includes a big, intimidating man whose identity we’ll soon learn: Gaetano Fadda (Salvatore Esposito), the brother whose return from Italy so upset Josto when his father told him of it shortly before his death.
We’ll soon see why, but not before Ethelrida has another awkward conversation with Oraetta, who’s arrived to pay her respects for some reason. Oraetta’s surprised when Ethelrida replies to a French phrase in French, and corrects her in the process, in a later conversation clarifying that she didn’t think they taught French at the “colored school.” Ethelrida explains that they don’t, that she’s self-taught, further piquing Oraetta’s interest. Before saying she wants to take Ethelrida on as one of her “special projects,” she extends an offer to pay her in exchange for some light cleaning. The nature of the work and Oraetta’s condescending attitude makes Ethelrida bristle, even after Oraetta attempts to sweeten the deal with promises of long-playing records with French songs and stories. So is this why Oraetta gifts the Smutnys with an apple pie laced with digestion-disrupting ipecac (and a little blood) as the episode draws to a close? Does some other motive drive her? Either way, she fits Zelmare’s four-word assessment. She’s “one weird white lady.”
Of course, Zelmare doesn’t yet know how weird. Two details put to rest a lingering question from the previous episode, the question of whether Josto might have wanted Oraetta to kill Donatello. First, Josto clearly doesn’t remember Oraetta when he sees her again at the funeral. Second, we learn that she’s in the habit of killing patients out of a perverse sense of mercy. So does her employer, when she’s caught in the act of attempting to send a heart patient on his way by injecting poison into his IV drip. But instead of getting fired or jailed, Oraetta negotiates her way to a decent severance package by suggesting it’s the only way for the hospital to avoid disgrace, given that she might have been confused by the doctors’ awful handwriting. It’s almost as if she’s done this sort of thing before. Hmmm….
Back to Gaetano: He and Josto have, to put it mildly, different management styles. Gaetano’s a hardline pragmatist who leads with his fists and believes in “Business. Family. Country.” In that order. To explain his point of view — while staring down the much smaller Josto on the street — he recounts his wartime experiences first working for, then against Mussolini, not because of any kind of moral awakening but because of business interests. As a reminder of his loyalties, he carries some still-bloody teeth in his pocket in a little metal case. Josto has issues with Loy Cannon, for sure, but he’s got trouble in his own house as well.
Speaking of Loy, he comes to the Fadda house for a visit to check on his son Satchel and allow Fadda to do the same with Zero. It’s, by the terms of their arrangement, only a short stay. Loy learns that Satchel’s healthy enough but not particularly happy. Rather than being integrated into the house, he lives upstairs with Rabbi Milligan, whose years-ago betrayal of his own family has earned him a place in the Fadda house but not a seat at the table, figuratively or literally, as the parallel Thanksgiving dinner scenes near the end of the episode reveal. (By contrast, Zero Fadda is a full participant at the Cannons’ celebration.)
Loy’s certainly interested in horning in on the Faddas’ territory, as a later development confirms, but he also wants to ingratiate himself to some members of the family. He speaks to Zero with respect and asks him if to consider whether his blood relations do the same. He also — after a tense exchange with Gaetano that almost comes to blows — talks frankly to Rabbi. Asked if he’s seeing to Satchel’s education, Rabbi replies, “I’m teaching him how the world works. It’s dog eat dog.” “That’s how dogs work,” Loy replies. “Men are more complicated.” Asked if he’s happy living in his “master’s house,” Rabbi says, “We live with the choices we make.” But, in spite of his terseness, he regards Loy as someone he can talk to. He shares information about Gaetano with him and offers his best reassurances that Satchel will be safe and sound. They share a level of respect. Whether or not that will develop into an alliance remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be the first time Rabbi weighed his options and switched sides.
It seems like Loy will need some help in the days that follow. Josto doesn’t want to work out a new arrangement, leaving Loy to take matters into his own hands. Encouraged by Doctor Senator, Loy agrees to take over one of the Faddas’ slaughterhouses under the pretense that he and Donatello made an arrangement before his death. It’s an attempt to, per Doctor, “test their flank.” They’re successful, but taking the slaughterhouse and holding it prove to be two different things. After Gaetano shows up they back away, for now. But before he cedes the territory we get to see a bit of Doctor and Gaetano in action. They share a love for intimidation and meaningful eye contact. In another situation, they might have exchanged tricks of the trade, but not this one. Keeping up the unspoken racism of his encounter with Loy, Gaetano refuses to shake Doctor’s hand. “You have to give respect to get respect,” Doctor says. They agree to disagree. This clearly isn’t over.
Gaetano, Zelmare, and Swanee are just part of a veritable parade of new characters. At Donatello’s funeral we also meet Josto’s fiancée Dessie Gillis (Katie Kershaw) and her father Milvin, an alderman with political aspirations. In fact, Josto and Dessie’s impending wedding is designed to serve both men’s political ambitions, an arrangement that seems obvious to everyone but Dessie. Never mind the chaste kisses, reserved body language, and fact that Josto has seemingly barely seen her in weeks — she’s in love. By contrast, Josto and Milvin despise each other but love what they can (potentially) do for one another’s situation. Milvin wants to be mayor. Josto wants to father presidents and announces plans to “slow pump some babies” into his daughter “one at a time, and twice on Sundays.”
Like the fourth-season debut, this second episode has to expend a lot of energy putting pieces into place, which it does fairly gracefully in ways that suggest some minor characters will have more to do later on. (No doubt we’ll be seeing more of Leon, a.k.a. Happy’s Cousin, down the line.) But it also pushes the story forward more than might be expected. We’ve now gotten the first small volley in what’s shaping up to be a full-on war between the Faddas and the Cannons. And, freed of her job, Oraetta can now devote all her energy to being an agent of chaos. Then, just when it seems like it’s clear where the show goes next, Timothy Olyphant shows up as some kind of officer of the law and kicks down the door of the King of Tears, for reasons we don’t yet know. As ever, it’s not the sort of show that rewards assumptions.
• Hawley directs this episode and can’t resist framing Josto like Vito Corleone (and later Michael Corleone) in The Godfather. It’s a nod to a classic film, of course, but also to Schwartzman being Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew. (He’s the son of Talia Shire, Coppola’s sister.) The parallels don’t stop there: We get a first glimpse of Josto’s sister, who resembles Connie Corleone (played by Shire in the films). In Gaetano, Josto has a hothead brother not unlike Sonny and in Rabbi an Irish “brother,” reminiscent of Tom Hagen. But while Josto bears little resemblance to the cool, paternal Vito, it’s not yet clear if he’s a Fredo or a Michael. (Maybe he’s a Fredo who mistakenly believes himself to be a Michael.)
• A neat touch: revealing Odis’ true loyalties by having him call Josto “boss” then get stuck on repeating the word.
• It’s not surprising that Oraetta would be super into astrology. It’s also not that surprising that Ethelrida would have no idea what she’s talking about. Astrology has been around for thousands of years and resurged in popularity in the West with the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century. But it didn’t become a fixture of newspapers and magazines until British astrologer R.H. Naylor created a star chart for the newborn Princess Margaret for the Sunday Express in 1930. Naylor’s later columns helped popularize star signs by presenting a daily forecast for all 12 signs of the zodiac but this was all still fairly new to the average American citizen in 1950, and astrology wouldn’t come fully into vogue in the States until the 1960s.
• Welcome to the show Salvatore Esposito, an actor best known for appearing on the Italian TV series Gomorrah (like Fargo, an adaptation of a movie). He’s got incredible presence, and if his match-up with Glynn Turman’s calm but insistent Doctor Senator anticipates future confrontations between these two magnetic actors, all the better.
• No Country for Old Men gets a little nod this episode via the cattle guns.