‘Fargo’ Season 4 Unravels the Myth of America

Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman lead the FX series’ latest season, which is set in 1950s Kansas City.
Fargo Season 4 Chris Rock
FX Networks
By  · Published on September 26th, 2020

Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at the fourth season of FX’s Fargo.

America is a construct. Sure, you can find the United States on a map, but “America” as we know it is defined and redefined each day, by the words signed into law, the faces carved into statues, and the people in the streets. This is more obvious now than ever, but it’s not new. The fourth season of Fargo, which was filmed mostly before the events of 2020 and delayed five months due to the COVID-19 crisis, knows in its bones that America is little more than a story we tell ourselves.

Noah Hawley’s ambitious anthology series finally picks up again after three years and this time takes us to Kansas City, Missouri. The year is 1950, and a cast of outlandishly named characters vie for power in a city where ethnic hierarchies are ever-changing. In the Season 4 premiere, an unlikely narrator — Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (Emyri Crutchfield), a precocious mixed-race teenager who sees the power plays others don’t — introduces the long and bloody history of organized crime in Kansas City. Meanwhile, a gang war is brewing between the Italian Americans, led by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman), and the African Americans, led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock).

The first few episodes of Fargo Season 4 run the serious risk of flattening diverse experiences by drawing comparisons between marginalized groups — namely Black Americans and Italian immigrants — whose oppression, history has shown, was not actually equal. The series begins by painting with too broad a brush, introducing a dozen outsider-types with the implication that their difference makes them somehow the same.

Hawley is a talented writer, but this sprawling, noir-tinged tear-down of the “melting pot” mythos — as that’s what this standout season ultimately evolves into — would be too much for him to handle alone. Thankfully, the showrunner has recruited a team of co-writers for this season that includes Lee Edward Colston II (For Life), Stefani Robinson (Atlanta), and the duo of Enzo Mileti, and Scott Wilson (Snowfall). Together, the team lends the stylish series much-needed dimensionality as it steadily wades into the complexities of identity and power across eleven episodes.

As usual with the eclectic, Coen brothers-inspired series, the game itself is only as interesting as its players. There are enough standout performances here to fill up an entire Emmy category and then some. Chris Rock is quietly ferocious as the season’s most clever and capable character, and despite the series’ darkly comic tone, he plays his role almost unrecognizably straight. Schwartzman is perfectly cast as a new-world Italian whose boyish insecurities and blind spots get in the way of his mafioso ambitions.

And Jessie Buckley is fantastic as the poisonously sweet Nurse Mayflower, whose behind-the-scenes machinations are as impactful as the men’s’ gunplay. A few other highlights of this utterly stacked cast include Jack Huston as an OCD war veteran, Amber Midthunder as a badass Native American outlaw, Ben Whishaw as a soft-spoken Irishman, and Timothy Olyphant as a Mormon federal agent.

Hawley’s Fargo often offers hidden depths that unspool through monologues and anecdotes; we decide where we land on each character based on the stories they choose to tell. This season, everyone has something to say about what it means to be American. “To be an American is to pretend, capiche?” one character says. “In America, people wanna believe,” another confides. Nearly every chiacchierone on the street has an idea about what America is and who it works for, each opinion clearly shaped by the speaker’s own little corner of the universe.

In the series’ weakest outing, its previous, uneven third season, Fargo sometimes felt as if it was casting the cinematic sheen of prestige television over a bunch of nothing. This season never falls short in that way. Rather, its characters’ beautifully shot, often terrifically written musings seem purposefully incohesive, a sign of the ways in which the strain of American capitalism divides those whom it leaves behind.

At the fourth season’s outset, Cannon and Fadda participate in a bizarre tradition, each trading one son with the other indefinitely as a piece of ongoing collateral. This ominous gesture lays the groundwork for the season’s dual tragic throughlines. First, that morality will always chafe against the old-fashioned pursuit of making a buck, and second, that some people are playing a rigged game from the start.

Fargo tucks its message into stylish signifiers, making omens out of fresh-baked pies and half-painted billboards, but there’s still plenty to unpack beneath the eccentricities. The series’ fourth season is both a welcome return to form and a compelling, cinematic vision of the so-called American dream gone to rot.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)