Noah Hawley’s Fargo on FX has always been about history. Whether it’s the previous relationship audiences have with the Joel and Ethan Coen movie the show was adapted from, or even the way the anthology series has engaged with itself over the last three installments, Fargo has been keenly aware of the preconceived notions audiences automatically have about it just by merely existing. Fargo (the show) has mostly stuck to the "formula" of what audiences expect from this specific kind of Midwestern crime series. That is, until now.
The excellent fourth installment (critics were sent nine of Season 4’s 11 episodes; I’ve watched them all) [Ed note: Obviously, spoiler alert for Season 4 of Fargo from now on] of Hawley’s movie-to-television adaptation of Fargo (which airs its two-part premiere on September 27 at 10 p.m. ET/PT) isn’t so much about a murder gone awry as it is a battle between the past and present over what it means to be an American on the precipice of a bold new future. It also inverts many of the established troupes we’ve seen in the past: The show opens not in that titular city, nor with the frozen tundras of the Coen Bros. movie. Instead, we start in Kansas City, Missouri, during the last gasps of the fall of 1950. It switches three series’ worth of white cop protagonists for a crew of enterprising Black mobsters led by Chris Rock. The head cop with a moral compass (Jack Huston) is about as ineffective as stupidly tragic lowlifes that have populated the series in years past. The balance of morality is instead a child (E’myri Crutchfield) and an Irishman (Ben Whishaw). Dueling hitmen are instead female outlaws (Kelsey Asbille and Karen Aldridge)—on and on the inversions continue.
While Hawley’s latest installment is set 70 years in America’s past, it’s a story that will resonate just as much today. Rock’s Loy Cannon is smart and successful but realizes he’s hit the ceiling on how far he can take his ambitious criminal empire due to his skin color. This sets Cannon down a tenuous path with the Italian Fadda gang and involves a crushing sacrifice to keep the peace between them. Yes, Fargo Season 4 doesn’t shy away from fully incorporating and exploring the 1950s’ racial, immigrant and social politics. While the show’s superlative sophomore season charted similar territory with Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan, Hawley dives deeper into exploring the issues with a surprising amount of nuance and grace. And while this exploration of race doesn’t quite hit Watchmen-levels, it’s a breath of fresh air for a show that has been decidedly white up in previous iterations. In fact, between Rock’s Cannon, his supporting cast of confidants, and Emyri Crutchfield as the daughter of an interracial family (played by musician Andrew Bird and Anji White), this is the most diverse Fargo has ever been—and the show is all the stronger for it. This extends behind the scenes too, as Hawley brought in a broad group of voices, including Stefani Robinson (of Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows fame), into the writer’s room this year to bring this story to life.
The characters of Fargo have always been particularly memorable and well-cast, and Year 4 doesn’t disappoint. Jason Schwartzman gets to put his years of work in the Wes Anderson repertory school to great use as Josto Fadda, second-in-command of the Fadda gang. Emyri Crutchfield’s Ethelrida Smutney is sharp and brilliant in equal measure. Character actor Glynn Turman is superlative as Cannon’s righthand man Doctor Senator (don’t worry, there’s a creative explanation for his name). Other characters take a little more time to find their footing: Jack Huston’s twitchy Detective Odis Weff takes until about the halfway mark to click, as does Timothy Olyphant’s Dick ‘Deafy’ Wickware, a U.S. Marshal who would find the behavior of Olyphant’s previous television lawman absolutely abhorrent. Neither of them is as off-the-mark as Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle in Year 3, but some viewers might find their patience tested in the early stages.
The real powerhouses performances come from a not entirely unsurprising trio; Rock, as mentioned above, is absolutely dynamite, filling the screen with an intensity and hunger I’ve never seen from him before. He’s going to get all sorts of accolades for his performance—and rightfully so—as every moment he’s not on the screen, I eagerly waited for his return. I was also particularly taken with Ben Whishaw’s Rabbi Milligan, whose last name should cause previous Fargo watchers to perk their ears up a bit. I’m shamefully not familiar with the bulk of Whishaw’s television work and instead had to rely on the somewhat muted performance he’s given as Q in Skyfall and Spectre. In Fargo, he’s a revelation. Not since Matthew Rhys’ sunken and sullen face have I seen an actor capable of conveying canyons of pain with just a look.
However, the breakout for many viewers is going to be Jessie Buckley. As Minnesota transplant nurse Oraetta Mayflower, Buckley’s character is better left experienced in real-time—but now upfront she’s doing something extraordinary here. Those who loved her work in Wild Rose and the recently released I’m Thinking of Ending Things know what she’s capable of, but watching her act like watching Lu Dort go for 30 a few weeks ago against the Houston Rockets; it’s a star-making performance, one so committed, unhinged, and kinetic that you won’t be able to stop watching. If she’s not on the shortlist for a major Hollywood franchise movie by the end of this season, I’ll be legitimately shocked.
Around the season’s halfway mark, a character asks, “Do you know why America loves a crime story?” The answer: “Because America is a crime story.” Fargo, in all of its iterations, has always held this belief at its core. By placing crime in such sharp focus in its fantastic fourth year, Fargo reminds us America’s real past is never as far behind as we believe it to be. Noah Hawley’s focus this year is on deconstructing America and the preconceived notions of our country as an ideal, shining beacon on a hill. In this way, watching this season of Fargo is a bit like a looking glass. And as with all reflections, we might not like the truth of what’s staring back at us.