Five episodes into the fourth season of Fargo, about a gang war between Blacks and Italians in 1950 Kansas City, there comes a moment that sums up the show’s worst tendencies. In a dingy warehouse, Black gang boss Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) regales corrupt white cop Odis Weff (Jack Huston) with a story about a World War II infantry minesweeper who missed a mine and got an officer killed. “Boom!” Loy hollers. “They gotta send him home in a tureen!” Then Loy glances over his shoulder at his assembled henchmen and explains, “It’s a pot they put soup in.”
How does such a cringeworthy moment make it to air? Did an FX Network executive, Chris Rock, or Noah Hawley—Fargo’s showrunner as well as lead writer and director—worry that somebody might stop watching because of an unfamiliar word? Or was this a “character note,” based on the assumption that Loy is so dedicated to his men’s enlightenment that he would make sure to define tureen—which isn’t that obscure now, and definitely wasn’t then—on the spot, even if it meant stepping on his own punch line?
An even worse moment appears soon after: Odis gets in Loy’s face and says, “You didn’t fight in the war, did ya?” “Naw, man,” Loy snarls, “why would I fight for a country that wants me dead?” While less dreadful on its face than the tureen moment, this one is more debilitating, because it’s a twofer example of the dogged literalism that undermines the show’s poetry. Channeling substandard Quentin Tarantino and Tarantino imitators more than the Coens, FX’s Fargo states or restates that which was already plain from watching the characters go about their business (in this case, a Black man’s estrangement from a country founded on white supremacy).
And it’s yet another Fargo scene in which a major character cannot enter a room and state what he wants or attempt to accomplish a goal through direct or indirect means without first forcing an audience to sit through a tedious monologue. There are barely any actual conversations to be heard here, only florid anecdotes followed by a character either asking if the listener understood the subtext or preemptively relating the moral. Every season of Fargo is a veritable monologuefest, but season four seems especially top-heavy, perhaps because it’s more doggedly prosaic and linear in its telling and more concerned—à la Boardwalk Empire and Sons of Anarchy—with who’s whacking whom and where and for what immediate purpose, not so much with the cosmological and philosophical aspects of life and crime that made seasons one and two of Hawley’s series so gripping.
This last failing is particularly odd given the central conceit of season four (debuting this Sunday on FX): Kansas City’s gang leaders have a tradition of swapping their sons as a fail-safe to stop violence from escalating too quickly or becoming too all encompassing, or perhaps to force the other side to think of their enemies as human beings when things get dire. If you can move past the fundamental improbability of, say, the leader of a Jewish gang sending one of his sons to live in an Irish gang leader’s house and vice versa, then move past the fact (established in episode one’s prologue) that this arrangement invariably leads to massacres anyway, it’s a fascinating nature-vs.-nurture prompt. Yet Fargo never treats the circa-1950 transplanted sons as anything other than narrative hot potatoes to be passed from location to location as the plot requires. And it never ties the idea of transplanted cultural representatives to the season’s larger themes of immigration, assimilation, and shared and enforced cultures.
All this and more is encoded in the character of “Rabbi” Milligan (Ben Whishaw), a former Jew who spent time among the Irish and has now become an honorary Italian (even though the Italians never fully trust him). He is tasked with guarding Loy’s swapped-out son. Whishaw’s sad eyes and relaxed lethality (like a snake coiled in a burrow) wordlessly communicate the complexities of being a person of many cultures who is effectively without a culture (i.e., the condition of most Americans). But season four of Fargo isn’t interested in subtext unless it can be turned into text, underlined and boldfaced, with directional arrows.
Other actors besides Whishaw manage to spin straw into gold. Glynn Turman adds another panel to his gallery of classic character turns as Doctor Senator, Loy’s consigliere and resident father figure. As U.S. marshal and devout Mormon Dick “Deafy” Wickware, Timothy Olyphant brings his Deadwood and Justified experience to bear. He lets the show’s ornate, often pseudo-biblical declamations roll off his tongue and grounds episodes filled with scenery-gnawing eccentrics by doing more reacting than acting. As Oraetta Mayflower, a chirpy, murderous Minnesota redhead who’s like Marge Gunderson’s secret evil sister, Jessie Buckley seems to be starring in a barely related but vastly more compelling season of Fargo. She captures not just the essence of her character (a seemingly motiveless bringer of death in the vein of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and Raising Arizona’s Leonard Smalls) but a hyperspecific subset of mid-century middle-American white lady: the kind who walks like she’s 80 when she’s barely 30 and has a sprightly aphorism for every occasion (even murderous ones).
But the rest of the cast ends up stranded in Fargo’s shallows—notably Chris Rock; Jason Schwartzman as young Italian gang boss Josto Fadda, who’s basically Michael Corleone by way of Fredo; and Salvatore Esposito as his brother Gaetano, an Old Country hothead who seems styled on Jon Polito’s gang boss, Johnny Caspar, from Miller’s Crossing. What’s the problem? Sometimes miscasting seems to be the main culprit: Rock and Schwartzman, especially, radiate modernity so strongly you wouldn’t be surprised if their characters took cell-phone calls in the middle of a scene. In other cases, Hawley and his fellow episode directors seem to have encouraged their actors to cling to the most obvious choices (Esposito bugs his eyes out in every scene to show that his character is “crazy” and “capable of anything”).
At still other times, the dialogue hurls every other aspect of the production to the floor and pins it like those wrestlers who vexed Barton Fink. Anachronisms sink otherwise serviceable exchanges (the Twitter-certified warning “slow your roll” shows up twice), and lit’ry word-clots fail to translate from page to screen. You can tell even Fargo recognizes that last problem by the way it keeps self-consciously trying to make light of it. When Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille), a half–Native American outlaw, declares she has been “masticating savory vittles and imbibing top-shelf hooch,” her lover, Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge), peals, “Hoo-weee! Someone’s been studyin’ their vocabulary!”
One of the Coen brothers’ most quoted lines—practically a summation of their aesthetic—is from 2009’s A Serious Man: “Accept the mystery.” Hawley’s Fargo seems increasingly unwilling to take that admonition (itself rather cryptic) at face value. Still coasting on fumes from its season-two peak—which retrospectively seems like more of a fluke than the fulfillment of season one’s promise—the series carries itself as though it has the answers to everything. When one character asks a question of another and then announces with a self-regarding smirk that it was rhetorical—something both the audience and the listener could already tell just by the phrasing—Fargo disappears into its own navel, where even the lint is annotated.
*A version of this article appears in the September 28, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!