Like the 1996 film that inspired it, FX’s Fargo has always been more about a state of mind than a spot on the map. The series, also like the film, has partly taken place in North Dakota, but even when set elsewhere it’s consistently used the most barren stretches of the American Midwest as a spot for noir-inspired stories, stories in which ordinary people find themselves surrounded by corrupting forces and struggle — and often fail — to avoid getting sucked into the darkness. In Fargo, if not Fargo, it’s just as easy to lose your soul amid the lonely plains and alongside little-traveled stretches of road as in any shadow-drenched, big city back alley.
Fargo’s fourth-season premiere, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy,” takes it further away from its geographic namesake than ever. Set primarily in Kansas City in 1950, the episode opens with a crash course on the city’s underworld history that stretches from the first years of the 20th century to its midpoint — as narrated by Ethelrida Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield), a 16-year-old who, by episode’s end, will find herself swept up in that history’s latest chapter.
The setting marks a departure for Fargo in a couple of respects, bringing the action south and moving it to a major city. But Kansas City, as depicted here, feels like one of the previous season’s Minnesota towns, just writ a bit larger. And the characters — mostly colorful, Coen-y, talkative types with memorable names, a gift for sharp lines, and a propensity for violence — fit nicely beside their predecessors. So does Ethelrida, a character sharper than most of those around her who rarely gets the credit or attention she deserves. Even without a badge, she fits the tradition of Marge Gunderson and Molly Solverson. Though just a kid, she’s clearly wise beyond her years.
She has to be to survive. The daughter of Thurman (Andrew Bird) and Dibrell Smutney (Anji White), a mixed-race couple who own the King of Tears mortuary, she’s had to learn to navigate a post-war Kansas City that doesn’t try to hide its racism. Her parents have worked out a system: Dibrell handles the funerals for Black customers and Thurman takes the white ones. But Ethelrida has to face prejudice head-on at her high school, an institution filled with Black students and white authority figures where she meets only punishment — sometimes corporal punishment — for being, in her words, “a student of exceptional virtue and high achievement.”
She’s certainly a diligent student of history, though parts of this episode’s expository wind-up feel like they need a scorecard to keep track of who’s who, even with Ethelrida’s narration. The short version: for decades, Joplin’s department store has served as the center of the city’s underworld activities, even as different factions have taken over. At the turn of the century it belongs to the Jewish Moskowitz Syndicate who, in 1920, see their primacy threatened by the arrival of the Irish Milligan Concern. To keep the peace, the heads of the Moskowitz and Milligan families exchange sons, but the Moskowitzes meet their downfall when the Milligan in their midst — who will pick up the name Rabbi during his time with Moskowitzes — opens the doors to an Irish invasion, during which Rabbi’s father traumatizes him by forcing him to commit murder. Despite this result, the Milligans agree to a similar arrangement in 1934, with the on-the-rise Italian Fadda Family. Only this time, it’s their own son they send in the exchange, Rabbi, who turns traitor. Now in cahoots with the Faddas and his Irish/Italian exchange partner Josto Fadda, he helped organize a raid on the Milligans, killing his father during the ensuing gunfight, and paving the way for 15 uninterrupted years of Fadda rule.
It may not be built to last. “Whoever was the last off the boat, finding the doors of honest capital closed, rolled up their sleeves and got to work getting rich the old fashioned way,” Ethelrida notes. Expanding on that thought a bit later, she observes, “Here’s the thing about America: The minute you relax and fatten up, somebody hungry is going to come along, looking for a piece of your pie.” And by 1949, the Faddas have found their piece of the pie in jeopardy thanks to the ascent of The Cannon Limited, a Black crime syndicate headed by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock). Not fearing history will repeat itself, or maybe hoping it will again favor them over their rivals, the Faddas agree to another son exchange. They send Zero Fadda (Jameson Braccioforte) to the Foys with the instruction to keep his eyes open, and take the reluctant Satchel Foy (Rodney Jones) into their home. One year later, the peace still holds, if barely.
Part of the pleasure of Fargo comes from seeing which Coen brothers films creator Noah Hawley will draw from with each new season. With its warring, ethnically distinct families wrestling for control of a city, the bloody, Dashiell Hammett-inspired Miller’s Crossing provides the obvious source of inspiration here. But another subplot calls to mind The Hudsucker Proxy. Loy, already serving as an unofficial banker for Black Kansas City, has aspirations beyond racketeering. His associate Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) has pioneered an ingenious new invention called a “credit card,” but when they take the idea to “third-largest bank in the state” — after being yelled at for using the “wrong” door — they meet indifference from a smug bank president who works out of a posh office serviced by pneumatic tubes. This, by all appearances, won’t be just a crime story. It will be a story about what it takes to make it in an America seemingly determined to maintain the status quo.
In fact, Ethelrida essentially says as much, musing about the meaning of assimilation and pondering “If America is a nation of immigrants, then how does one become ‘American’?” Fargo’s characters don’t seem to know. The grown-up Rabbi (Ben Whishaw) still speaks in an Irish brogue, having never fully abandoned the ways of the people he betrayed. The adult Josto (Jason Schwartzman) bristles at the news that his brother Gaetano, who’s been working in Italy, will soon be visiting Kansas City. In Josto’s words, “He’s not even American!” Ethelrida also says, regarding the city’s Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Black criminals that “none of them were white,” at least not in the eyes of proper society.
Other events in the episode bear this out. When Josto’s father Donatello (Tommaso Ragno) is injured in a freak pellet-gun accident outside a school — after appearing to suffer a heart attack, an incident that resolves itself in a fart of epic length — his family rushes him to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, this happens to be St. Theclas, a private hospital run by Dr. David Harvard (Stephen Spencer), who insists it’s for “Americans” and that they should instead drive Donatello to Saint Bartholomew’s, which serves their “kind of people.” “You and me are gonna dance again later,” Josto tells Harvard, but the doctor doesn’t appear to take the threat seriously. Some people know they’re untouchable.
The rerouting will prove fateful. It’s at Saint Bartholomew’s that Josto meets Nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a Minnesota transplant with an accent to match. After snorting some powerful drugs with her in a supply room, Josto says of his father, “I don’t like to see him like that. Will you take care of him?” to which Oraetta replies, “I shall attend him faithfully until the Lord arrives.” Josto’s response: “Aces.”
You can play that scene over and over, like Kevin Costner with the Zapruder Film in JFK, and never quite figure out if Josto means for what happens next to happen. (The cryptic look on Schwartzman’s face after their exchange clarifies nothing.) Later that night, Oaretta cheerfully visits Josto, speaks to him comfortingly in Italian, declares herself a “people person,” then poisons his IV, killing him. Does she think she’s doing Josto a favor or is she some kind of Angel of Mercy killer? (Or maybe she just really wants his ring.)
Any clarification about what’s going on here will seemingly have to wait until later episodes. Having previously met Oraetta when Ethelrida stumbled on her at her family’s funeral home, we already know her to be an eccentric character with a fondness for small talk and casual, if unconscious, racism. Within moments of meeting Ethelrida she’s complimented her on her “wise words for people of your complexion” and saying “I’ve noticed your people are often more in touch with their spirit and emotional side.” At the episode’s end, Ethelrida watches Oraetta disembark a bus then enter her apartment building across the street from King of Tears. Then, as the camera pans up, we see what Ethelrida can’t: Oraetta watching the place, her lips moving as they form words we can’t hear.
We’ll undoubtedly find out more as the season progresses, just as we’ll find out more about Josto and Loy. The glimpses we get of the taciturn Loy at home, where he apparently leads a quiet family life despite trading away his son for another man’s suggest we’ve only seen the surface of the character. In fact, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy” is so packed with characters and information it often feels like we’re zooming past important elements. Whishaw only gets a few lines. Ditto Francesco Acquaroli as Ebal Volante, a seemingly levelheaded lieutenant in the Fadda clan; Matthew Elam as Loy’s son Lemuel; and other members of the Cannon syndicate. And, like Ethelrida, we only fleetingly see the Cannons visiting her parents, who’ve apparently hit on some sort of money trouble. It’s, put simply, a lot. But then Fargo usually is and, if history holds, what follows will shine some light on the shadowy corners and labyrinthine connections only hinted at here. Besides, the fogginess of history seems to be part of this season’s themes. “History is made up of the actions of individuals,” Ethelrida says. “And yet, none of us can know at the time we act, that we are making history.” It appears as if, before the season’s through, a handful of Kansas City residents will soon make history of one kind or another, whether they know it or not.
• Denseness and all, this feels like a promising start for a new Fargo season. The typically impressive cast helps. Crutchfield’s a real find, shouldering a lot of the storytelling burden here and capturing the steely demeanor of a character who’s already seen more of her share of bigotry and nonsense. She has some nice tender moments with Bird, a musician making a confident acting debut, as well. It’s a pleasure to see Rock get a chance to stretch out and for Schwartzman to get such a meaty role. Both the story and a split-screen shot near the episode’s end set up the season as a clash between these two men. But Oraetta appears likely to provide an x-factor that could throw that conflict off, and Buckley’s performance keeps hinting at depths of still-unseen weirdness beneath that crooked smile.
• The Kansas City setting doesn’t come out of nowhere. In the real world, it’s been a mob hotspot. And in the second season of Fargo, it served as home base for the crime family that tried to push the Gerhardt clan out of North Dakota. Among them: one Mike Milligan, played by Bokeem Woodbine. If Mike is related to Rabbi Milligan, or anyone else in the Milligan Concern, it raises more questions than answers about the outcome of this season and what happened in Kansas City between 1950 and 1979, the setting of season two.
• The musical theme that plays throughout the episode is “Caravan,” written by Juan Tizoi and Duke Ellington and first made famous by Ellington in 1936. It works nicely, though it’s kind of odd to put the spotlight on Ellington in a show set in the town that belonged to his friendly big band rival Count Basie.
• This is obviously a fictional account, but the credit card as we know it did start to enter wide use around 1950.
• A few more items about 1950s Kansas City: Native son Robert Altman was living there at the time, having returned home after failing to make it as a writer in New York. Baseball fans could still see a game played by the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League team that was home, at one time or another, to Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck O’Neil, Jackie Robinson, and Ernie Banks. After Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947, the Negro Leagues’ days were numbered, but the Monarchs persisted for awhile, a symbol of pride and achievement but also a reminder of a divided nation.
• If the enemies-exchange-sons-to-keep-the-peace scheme sounds familiar, you might have read the Fourth World stories Jack Kirby created for DC comics in the early ’70s. To restore order to the cosmos, the good Highfather and the evil Darkseid trade sons, with Highfather raising Orion and Darkseid raising Scott Free, later to become the heroic Mister Miracle. It doesn’t work out so well there, either.
• Kansas City also serves (partly) as the setting for the classic 1952 noir Kansas City Confidential, directed by Phil Karlson.
• Another Coen echo: withholding the credits until 20 minutes into the episode is reminiscent of Raising Arizona, which is well underway before it reveals its title.
• It’s been over three years since Fargo concluded its third season. During the interim, Hawley oversaw the second and third seasons of Legion and made his feature directing debut with the not-that-warmly received Lucy in the Sky. This season was supposed to premiere in the spring, but got pushed to the fall because of the pandemic, which shut down production. It also largely uses Chicago as a stand-in for Kansas City, where previous seasons used Alberta as a stand-in for the Upper Midwest.
• Stick around for the credits and you’ll see Stefani Robinson listed as a supervising producer. Robinson’s a veteran of Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows. For the latter, she wrote “On the Run,” a.k.a. “the Jackie Daytona episode,” and picked up her second Emmy nomination for her efforts. Robinson has at least one writing credit later in this season of Fargo. Good get!