Fargo, season four, review: There’s too much going on – and too little of it is interesting

Moving the action to Kansas City in the 1950s, FX’s hit anthology series returns for a fourth run of episodes

Louis Chilton
Sunday 09 May 2021 23:20
Fargo: Season 4 trailer

Of all the anthology series to emerge over the last decade or so, Noah Hawley’s Fargo ranks as one of the very best. Helping itself to loose handfuls of themes and ideas from the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 crime film of the same name, the series won over sceptics with its sweeping, off-beat stories of crime, calamity and coincidence. Its somewhat disappointing fourth season, debuting on Channel 4 this Sunday seven months after airing in the US, shifts the action to Kansas, Missouri, in the racially segregated 1950s.

There are a lot of plot threads to keep track of in the seasons’ opening hours. It begins with a (fictionalised) history of Kansas gang warfare in the early decades of the 20th century. We see the rise and fall of Jewish and Irish gangs, and the tentative peace agreed between Italian and African-American gangs, the erosion of which falls at the centre of Fargo’s plot.

In the Italian Fadda family, we have the don’s brash eldest son Josto (Jason Schwartzman), his hulking younger brother Gaetano (Gomorra’s Salvatore Esposito) and the adopted “Rabbi” Milligan (Ben Whishaw). The Black crime syndicate Cannon Limited, meanwhile, is fronted by the enterprising Loy Cannon (Chris Rock, giving a strong if not quite world-shattering dramatic turn). Also dotted around Fargo’s story is Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), a Black teenager of precocious intelligence, whose aunt is a bank robber and who lives across the road from Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), an eccentric hospital nurse.

Previous seasons have been elevated by some great performances, particularly those of the charismatic “wild card” villains: Billy Bob Thornton in season one, Bokeem Woodbine in season two, David Thewlis, best of all, in season three. Buckley’s nurse Mayflower is probably this season’s equivalent, a cheerfully malevolent presence with a formidable dark side. Buckley attacks the material with real magnetism, but her character doesn’t quite have the sparkle or menace of previous villains. We’ve seen elements of her character before – in Thornton’s amoral Lorne Malvo, in Kirsten Dunst’s dippy Peggy Blumquist – but it’s not just Mayflower: several of the season’s primary characters feel like perfunctory remixes of old ones.

Fargo has always been more a triumph of style than substance, but here, the discrepancy is broader than ever. Split-screen shots and punchy montages – hallmarks of seasons past – are used to diminished effect, deployed almost half-heartedly. Writer-creator Hawley’s turn of phrase, while not as diamond-tight as the Coens’, is erudite and mellifluous, but the relentless monologuing and arch metaphor-speak are wearing thin. Nonetheless, there’s an offbeat wit to some of the dialogue (an under-pressure police officer quips that “top brass are measuring my asshole like they’re fixin’ to move in”) and a serviceable approximation of its source material’s comic tone.

There’s just too much going on here, and too little of it is interesting. Though the violence is indulgently stylish, the gang warfare plotline struggles to excite – the Faddas just seem like a blander, Corleone-inflected version of season two’s Gerhardt family. Broader arguments about oppression, prejudice and America’s past aren’t presented with enough depth or subtlety.

Fargo has returned still smarter and slicker than the majority of crime dramas out there. But for those who’ve seen the series reinvent itself to great success twice already, this may feel like one do-over too many.

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