The 1996 film “Fargo” was perhaps not the obvious choice for a prestige TV series, given how rare it is for award-winning, acclaimed films to get turned into successful TV shows. But the resulting anthology series has been surprisingly effective. The crime-drama stories are nominally police procedurals but end up more like more morality tales, with satisfying results presented by ever-changing but always stellar casts.
Even so, the fourth season's decision to retell the story of two organized crime syndicates in Missouri in the 1950s, one black and one white, felt risky. White America has only just begun to understand the way racism has affected and infected society.
Happily, the show's attempt to tackle more difficult material goes better than expected, though at the expense of some of the things that defined the series’ preceding three seasons. The first is the abandonment of the northern Minnesota/North Dakota setting as the story moved into the Midwest. The second is a new attitude, with less madcap adventure and a far more dour sensibility.
But the biggest change in the fourth season is the absence of black-and-white thinking. There is still a (sort of) pure character in the form of Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E'myri Crutchfield), who opens the premiere with a recitation of Kansas City’s history of organized crime. Smutny’s interracial parents run the local funeral home (her father attends to the white funerals and her mother attends to the Black ones). Their kid is a too-smart teenager just trying to do the right thing, even when those around her want to punish her for it.
But though Ethelrida’s clashes with racist teachers and strict parents is a running plot in the series, the two crime syndicates battling it out for supremacy are the real narrative-drivers. As Ethelrida details early on, it is merely the newest round in a decadeslong war, starting with the Moskowitz Syndicate at the turn of the century, which was supplanted by the Irish Milligan Concern of 1920. They, in turn, were massacred when the Italian Fadda Family moved in just before World War II. (As with every season, “Fargo” claims this is a true story with the names changed though the truth is not quite so clear-cut.) Each time, the gangs mark uneasy truces (and an exchange of youngest sons) to keep the peace, until the latest batch of newcomers hungrily usurp the throne.
But the newest syndicate to arrive in town and challenge the Fadda’s stronghold is different. The Cannon Limited, led by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), represents a different sort of refugee community fleeing the Deep South and Jim Crow as part of the Great Migration. Cannon’s whole deal isn’t about taking over the city, though his ambition will eventually lead that way. It’s about making space for a Black capitalist society within the white one where they have settled, an alternate universe for a people who will never be allowed to become comfortable.
Rock’s performance is the highlight of the season. The longtime comedian has starred in a number of films — not all of them comedies — from “New Jack City” to “Dolemite Is My Name.” But this is the most complex role he’s attempted to date. In the first episode, it sometimes seems like he’s not sure how deep he can really dive in. But that hesitation quickly fades away, leaving Rock to create one of the most complex not-exactly-good guys in the “Fargo” canon. It helps that he is surrounded by a plethora of strong actors, especially Glynn Turman as his right-hand man, Doctor Senator. There’s also his main nemesis, Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman), the eldest son of the Fadda Family don, who is struggling to be taken seriously after having grown up a spoiled daddy’s boy. And Ben Whishaw is a silent scene-stealer the entire season as Rabbi Milligan, the last living survivor of the Irish clan the Faddas took out a generation before. He is deeply loyal, yet deeply conflicted; both a respected part of the Fadda family and yet never really part of it.
But the real joy of this season is the evil counterbalance to Ethelrida, Oraetta Mayflower. Played with glorious abandon by Jessie Buckley, Mayflower sometimes seems to be part of a different show. She plays a serial killer nurse who claims to be an early proponent of “mercy killings,” even though she’s far more into the killings than the mercy.
The season’s biggest problem is its slow style of storytelling. Even AMC’s “Mad Men” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which both leaned heavily into slow storytelling in their early seasons, never quite dragged it out this much. To be fair, exploring the ways race impacts society takes time. But there are periods when the whole enterprise feels like a bit of a dour slog, not unlike 2020. Escapism this is not.
But that’s the danger of any anthology series, especially with full cast and story turnovers. You are constantly being unfavorably compared to yourself. It’s not a fair comparison in this case, because “Fargo” is trying something different, something far more in line with how media should be tackling American period pieces in 2020.
Prestige TV series, especially ones that have a pro-police bent like “True Detective,” are figuring out how to adapt to the sudden changes in social mores. Given this reality, it’s not a bad idea to slow down and try to get it right. Some shows have been canceled outright, like “Stumptown,” reversing course on an already-greenlighted second season.
Luckily, “Fargo” has the solid ratings and critical credibility to take all the time it needs. It may not be the show’s most exciting season, but in the longer term, it may be the most important.
CORRECTION (Sept. 29, 2020, 5:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the "Fargo" character played by E'myri Crutchfield. Her surname is Smutny, not Smutney.