One of the great, unlikely crime drama success stories in the past half-decade or so has been Noah Hawley’s TV version of Fargo.
A riff on the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning film from 1996, the televisual version has fantastically and successfully retained the original’s singular sense of humour, its flashes of quirkiness and the template of a large ensemble cast full of memorable characters.
From Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard, Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo and Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson in series one; Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blumquist, Jean Smart’s Floyd Gerhardt and Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan in series two; and Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango and David Thewlis’s V.M. Varga in series three, Fargo boasts a constant procession of characters that, yah!, really do stick in the memory, ya’know?
In fact, I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – when it’s good (which it frequently is) there’s nothing quite like Fargo on television.
Unifying themes of Fargo in the past seem to be have been the existential battle between good and evil, and how ordinary people can get caught in the middle of a fast-moving situation when they least expect to. In series one and three these ordinary people made bad decisions that propelled themselves into a world they were ill-equipped to handle, and they had to reap the consequences digging deeper and deeper into a hole they couldn’t get out of. In series two, and now four, we have a gangland element.
For this highly-anticipated fourth run, Hawley transports us out of Minnesota and North Dakota and into the big mid-west city of Kansas City, which signifies not only a geographical departure but also a tonal shift.
Narrated by black high school pupil, Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), she gives us a potted history of the city’s warring gangland factions. These stories of recurring themes and violence are intercut with her own struggles to be accepted at school, and her own wise-beyond-her-years understandings of what America is and how race and class plays such a huge role in its societal construction.
It’s a bravura sequence, telling the story of how the neighbourhood was first ruled by the Jewish Moskowitz Syndicate at the beginning of the 20th century, then usurped by the Irish Milligan Concern in the 1920s, and then by the Italian Fadda family in the 1930s. These exchanges have a common and interesting theme – to broker and ensure peace, each ruling gang and their rival swap youngest sons.
Each family must then raise the other’s boy as its own.
This vaguely Biblical idea has never worked and has always ends in bloodshed.
Hawley pulls out all the bells and whistles during these fabulous opening scenes – there are soft-focus filters and washed-out colour palettes to show scenes from a century ago, on-screen chyrons to introduce characters, split screens and even black-and-white mug shots of the thugs taken in police custody.
We finally work our way up to 1950, where The Cannon Limited, led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), now wants a piece of the Fadda action. Once again they swap boys in order to keep the peace, but there’s a greater emotional impact here as we begin to see the consequences of the exchange – Loy Cannon’s boy is in tears when he’s told he’s going to live with the Faddas, while the surviving Milligan boy who went through the same experience – Rabbi (Ben Whishaw) – is empathetic and takes him under his wing.
Fargo wouldn’t be Fargo without its quirky, memorable characters and while Jason Schwartzman is suitably volatile as Fadda’s son and heir, Josto, and Chris Rock oozes charm and charisma as Cannon, it’s Jessie Buckley that emerges as the real star of the show in the early runnings.
She plays Oraetta Mayflower – a chatterbox nurse who, by the end of the first episode, looks like she might be an ‘angel of mercy’. From Fargo itself, Oraetta feels like the only character linking the previous series to this one – she has the accent, she has the cheerful, folksy demeanour, and is that slightly grotesque caricature we’ve come to expect.
Living across the street from Ethelrida and her interracial family (including her father who’s an undertaker), she has an encounter with the teen early on and there are hints that this friendship might develop. It’s not an easy exchange between the two – Ethelrida is a forward-thinking liberal who likes to stand up for herself, while Oraetta often puts her foot in it with casual racism.
As you can tell – and as ever with Fargo – there’s a lot to get your head around in this first episode, with plenty of characters to get to know and plenty of questions you’re desperate to find the answers to – what part will Ethelrida play in all of this? Will the Faddas and Cannons manage to keep their uneasy truce going? And what is Oraetta Mayflower really up to?
One thing that’s noticeable is the darker tone in this series. It misses the skip and lightness of touch of past outings, and it seems that even the super-quirky characters have murderous intent. Make no mistake, there’s malevolence coming from all sides in this series opener, and it sends out a bleak message – despite the passage of time and whoever’s in charge, violence, greed and hatred will always prevail.
There is one scene that strives to hit that Fargo sweet spot between black comedy, cartoon violence and rancour – when Donatello Fadda and Jonto are riding in the back of a car they’re held up at a school crossing, black men start to move into position. While all this is going on Don Fadda suddenly gasps for breath and for all the world looks as though he’s having a heart attack. When the situation outside the car comes to nothing, so does Fadda’s predicament, and he lets out an almighty, elongated, trouser-splitting fart. It’s only then that an errant BB gun used by one of the kids outside accidentally hits him in the neck by accident.
It’s a strange scene that really wants to strike that beautiful Fargo equilibrium, but it doesn’t quite hit the bullseye and feels like there are too many elements to really make it flow, work and raise a laugh. This could be series four of Fargo in microcosm if this first episode is anything to go by.
All that being said, I’m thinking about these characters and this world hours I first watched it.
Welcome back Fargo, it’s good to have you back.
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Fargo is currently being shown in the UK on Channel 4 and is available on-demand on All4