We never should have doubted Ethelrida Pearl Smutny. In the previous episode, her offering Donatello Fadda’s ring to Loy and treating it as a kind of sure-to-succeed nuclear option in his war with the Faddas seemed puzzling, but it quickly becomes clear how right she was. The plan, in short:
Ethelrida gives the ring to Loy.
Loy gives the ring to Ebal Volante, always the most pragmatic and approachable member of the Fadda camp, with a story about how Josto told Oraetta to kill his father so he could assume power.
Loy and Ethelrida sit back and watch as both their problems get solved.
And it works brilliantly, at least for a while. The ring exchange begins near the end of Johnny Cash’s rendition of “What Is Man” that begins as a roll call of the dead (one that kind of feels like an awards show’s “In Memoriam” segment, even in the way it builds up to the biggest names) and ends with Satchel exiting the King of Tears mortuary as the Smutnys smile over the new freedom that comes with the forgiveness of their debt. It’s a good day for the Smutnys.
It’s a horrible day for Josto, however, who’s on a rampage. The smug Dr. Harvard scarcely has a moment to celebrate his recovery and Oraetta’s arrest before Josto clubs him, shoves him in the back of a car next to his never-to-be alderman father-in-law. It’s a short ride for both men, who end up murdered then burnt to a crisp, leaving Josto to walk away. But he doesn’t look satisfied. If anything, he looks even angrier than before. But, hey, at least he gets some good news: Loy’s dead, killed by Leon. Their plan to install Happy and Leon in Loy’s place is going swimmingly.
Except, it’s not. Instead, it’s Ebal’s plan that’s enacted, one that involves both Happy and Leon being taken out of the picture while the family confronts Josto. What looks like an intervention for the frequently high-as-hell Josto — all his friends are there, even Oraetta — turns out to be a kind of kangaroo court in which he stands accused of enlisting Oraetta to kill his father. That moment of ambiguity in the season’s first episode, the one in which Josto asks Oraetta to look after Donatello because he hates to see him suffering, comes back to haunt both Josto and Oraetta. But mostly Josto. Oraetta’s not thrilled to be part of this mess, nor is she thrilled when Josto tries to dismiss her as some tart who means nothing to him, but she seems more miffed than terrified, even when it becomes clear she’s not getting out of this alive. If anyone in Kansas City is comfortable with the idea of death, it’s Oraetta.
For their execution they’re taken to an open field where their grave has already been dug. This season owes its greatest debt to Miller’s Crossing, and this is a riff on its most famous moment. Except Josto doesn’t have the skill to plead for his life as effectively as John Turturro in the Coens’ film. His best attempt, asking “Hasn’t there been enough killing?,” evokes only laughs, even from Oraetta. She does have a last request, however: “Can you shoot him first so I can watch?” This seems to be less about any anger she might have for Josto than he desire to see what it looks like when a man’s brains get shot out. She gets her wish and dies peacefully, true to herself to the end.
It is a good day for Loy, at least for a little while. He returns home to find the front door open, which naturally puts him on the alert. But once inside he finds Satchel, the son he thought dead, has returned to him. (If Satchel seems a little measured in his enthusiasm in seeing his dad, who can blame him?) Then things take a turn. Meeting with Ebal, he learns that the new head of the KC Cosa Nostra has changed the terms of their agreement. “Look at it this way: we are not taking half. You are keeping half.” What’s more, he invites Loy to stop thinking of himself as a boss and start thinking of himself as an employee. “You do what we say,” Ebal tells him “or we kill you and find someone who will.” Sensing himself boxed in, Loy leaves a chastened man. All the fierceness and bravado that’s defined him has been drained away.
But, hey, he still has his home and his family, including a son who loves jazz and another who’s taken to reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a reading suggestion he picked up at the Barton Arms. Rock nicely conveys a sense of contentment overtaking Loy as he watches them through the window. And then he gets an unexpected visitor: Zelmare, who rightly believes Loy tipped off the authorities to her plans to escape, leading to Swanee’s death. R.I.P. Loy. You tried to wrest control of Kansas City but, in the end, others pulled all the strings.
If there’s a moral to this season it’s not that crime doesn’t pay, it’s that crime only pays for some. The showdown between Loy and Josto was never evenly matched. Loy was a better gangster by far. He kept his head. He surrounded himself with wise advisors. He made plans for alternative revenue streams. He looked to the future. Josto was an entitled hothead who could barely keep his bear-like brother from taking his place. But, ultimately, Kansas City’s Italian faction had an advantage Loy would never have. Loy hit a glass ceiling of racism — actually, “glass” probably isn’t even the right word — that would never stand in the way of the Faddas and their allies. Josto would have married an alderman’s daughter if things hadn’t taken a turn. He was maybe a generation away from earning respectability for the Fadda family. Loy would never have been able to blend in.
But there’s hope for a better future (at least for Ethelrida, not Loy). The season ends as it began, with Ethelrida delivering a report on history that touches on season four’s themes. She’s delivering it to her parents but there’s one shot of an apparently older, nicely dressed Ethelrida sitting in front of Loy’s custom version of “Execution Without Hearing Under the Moorish Kings,” the painting Ethelrida recognized in the previous episode. She draws the lesson to a close, grabs a pair of packed suitcases, and heads off to parts unknown. If anyone can bend the future to her will, it’s her.
• And that’s another season of Fargo on the books. But wait, there’s more! A coda bringing back Bokeem Woodbine confirms what we’ve suspected all along: Satchel Cannon is the erudite and deadly Mike Milligan. Will we see him again? Will we learn how Satchel became Mike and adopted the last name of the man he came to regard as a father figure? We’ll have to wait and see.
• One episode highlight: Oraetta and Josto wrestling like kids in the backseat of the car on the way to their death.
• No ghost in this episode. He seems to have served his purpose and moved on. Or [dramatic music sting] has he? UPDATE: Or, maybe the ghost is there? As others have pointed out, if you look closely in the reflection of the truck’s window right before Oraetta’s execution there’s definitely something ghost-like there. It’s a subtle touch, and maybe it means Ethelrida is free of the spirit. Or not. Ghosts can be tough to shake.
• So good season, wasn’t it, all in all? It felt overstuffed at times and the story sagged a bit in the middle, but it ended strongly. And if the warring gang narrative sometimes felt like an excuse to parade a bunch of compelling, eccentric characters through a richly realized world, well, there are worse ways to spend 11 episodes. FX head John Landgraf suggested a few years back that this season might not happen unless Noah Hawley felt he had an idea strong enough he felt compelled to make one. Here’s hoping he finds one just as compelling, and a cast just as strong, for season five.
• Oh, and if you haven’t watched Miller’s Crossing, treat yourself after finishing this season.