Chris Rock in Fargo
Matthias Clamer—FX
September 27, 2020 7:00 AM EDT

In a slightly different world, Fargo season 4 might never have happened. After the FX anthology drama ended its third season, creator Noah Hawley admitted that he didn’t have an idea for a follow-up. And, he figured, “the only reason to do another Fargo is if the creative is there.” So, if there was to be a sequel, Hawley estimated it would take three years. That was in June 2017.

Thirty-nine months later (it would have been 34 had COVID not temporarily halted production), the show has reemerged with a story whose timeliness is obvious. It marks a significant departure from the earliest seasons of Fargo, which pitted good and evil archetypes against each other in arch, violent crime capers that ultimately erred on the side of optimism. Season 3 flirted with topicality, from an opening scene that hinged on Soviet kompromat to a hauntingly inconclusive final showdown between the latest iterations of pure good—represented by Carrie Coon’s embattled police chief Gloria Burgle—and primordial evil (David Thewlis’ terrifying V.M. Varga). Five months into Donald Trump’s presidency, that ending simultaneously reflected many Americans’ fears for the future and suggested that the battle for the human soul would be an eternal one. You can imagine why Hawley might have considered it a hard act to follow.

Instead of trying to top the high-flown allegory of its predecessor, the fascinating but uneven new episodes tackle conflicts of a more earthly nature: race, structural inequality, American identity. To that end, Fargo season 4 ventures farther south and deeper into history than it has gone before, to Kansas City, Mo. in 1950. For half a century, ethnic gangs have battled over the midsize metropolis. The Irish took out the Jews. The Italians took out the Irish. Finally, just a few years after a brutal World War in which fascist Italy numbered among the United States’ enemies, the Great Migration has brought the descendants of slaves north to this Midwestern city whose complicity in American racism dates back to the Missouri Compromise.

This upstart syndicate is led by one Loy Cannon (Chris Rock in a rare dramatic role), a brilliant, self-possessed power broker who doesn’t relish violence but is determined to exact reparations from this country, on behalf of his beloved family, by any means necessary. Loy’s deputy and closest friend is a learned older man by the name of Doctor Senator (the great Glynn Turman, all quiet dignity). In an early episode, the two men walk into a bank to pitch its white owner on an idea they’ve been testing out through less-than-legal means in the Black community: credit cards. (“Every average Joe wants one thing: to seem rich,” Loy explains to the banker.) He turns them down, of course, convinced that his clientele would have no interest in purchasing things they couldn’t afford. We’re left wondering how the ensuing saga might’ve been different if Loy and Doctor Senator had been allowed to channel their considerable intelligence into a legit business.

Salvatore Esposito and Jason Schwartzman in 'Fargo'
Elizabeth Morris/FX

The Italians, meanwhile, are starting to enjoy the rewards of their newfound whiteness—a largely invisible transformation marked in The Godfather by Michael Corleone’s relationship with naive WASP Kay Adams. (In keeping with previous seasons’ allusive style, Fargo often playfully evokes Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy.) In the wake of their capo father Donatello’s (Tommaso Ragno) death, two brothers battle for control of the Fadda clan—a crime family that has Italian-accented patriarchalism written into its very name. Crafty, spoiled, crypto-corporate Josto (Jason Schwartzman, doing a scrappier, cannier take on his Louis XVI character in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) has long been Donatello’s right hand. But his younger brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito, imported from Sky Italia’s acclaimed organized-crime drama Gomorrah), a brawny brute who came up in Sardinia busting heads for Mussolini, stands between Josto and the consolidation of power.

Generations-old tradition dictates that if two syndicates are to share turf in Kansas City, their leaders must raise each other’s sons. These exchanges are supposed to be a sort of insurance policy against betrayal; never mind that they never work out as planned. So Loy very reluctantly trades his scion Satchel (Rodney Jones) for Donatello’s youngest (Jameson Braccioforte). The boy finds a protector in the Faddas’ solemn older ward, Patrick “The Rabbi” Milligan (Ben Whishaw, humane as always), who double-crossed his own Irish family in an earlier transaction.

Ethelrida Pearl Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield from History’s 2016 Roots remake) is the show’s other innocent youth, a bright and insightful Black teenager whose parents (Anji White and indie rocker Andrew Bird) own the poignantly named King of Tears funeral home. Every Fargo season needs a personification of goodness, and in this one it’s Ethelrida. Not that her virtuousness makes her life any easier. In a voiceover montage that opens the season premiere, she tells us that she learned early on that, as far as white authority figures were concerned, “the only thing worse than a disreputable Negro was an upstanding one.” Her inscrutable foil is Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a white nurse neighbor whose patients tend to die before they can experience too much pain. Oraetta’s quaint Minnesota accent (another Fargo staple) belies the racist views she politely but unapologetically espouses; she seems fixated on making Ethelrida her maid.

E’myri Crutchfield in 'Fargo'
Elizabeth Morris/FX

It’s fitting that Oraetta is both the most tangible link to Fargo’s home turf and the first character who ties together the mobster’s story with that of the Smutny family. As her loaded last name suggests, she seems to embody a particular form of evil that has been a constant in American life since the colonial period: white supremacy. Oraetta harms, kills and plunders with minimal consequences. No wonder she has eyes for Josto, the first Fadda who knows how to wield his white identity, building alliances with government and law enforcement that would be impossible for the Cannon syndicate. (Josto’s version of Kay Adams is the homely daughter of a politician.) “I can take all the money and pussy I want and still run for President,” he boasts at one point.

The reference to our current President’s briefly scandalous Access Hollywood tape is so flagrant as to elicit an involuntary groan. It’s lines like this that expose the limitations of Hawley’s attempt to fuse the topical and the elemental. Fargo still creates an absorbing, cinematic viewing experience, with painterly framing, pointedly deployed split-screen and arcane yet evocative needle drops. A not-at-all-gratuitous black-and-white episode could almost stand on its own as a movie. And, as in past seasons, the show gives us many remarkable performances: Rock may seem an odd pick for a gangster role, but the same shrewdness and indignation that fuel his stand-up persona also simmer beneath Loy’s measured surface. The pain Whishaw’s character carries around in his body goes far beyond what can be conveyed in dialogue. Bird broke my heart as a meek, loving dad. But in his eagerness to make a legible, potent political statement, Hawley struggles to find the right tone and keep the season’s many intersecting themes straight.

Jessie Buckley in 'Fargo'
Elizabeth Morris/FX

The show is simply trying to do too much within a limited framework. Fargo wouldn’t be Fargo without some eccentric law enforcement, so an already-huge cast expands to fit a crooked local detective with OCD (Jack Huston) and Timothy Olyphant—whose roles on Deadwood and Justified made him prestige TV’s quintessential cop—as a smarmy, Mormon U.S. Mashal who snacks on carefully wrapped bundles of carrot sticks. Yet Hawley also realized that he needed to break from previous seasons that, like the Coens’ film, cast a white police officer as the avatar of goodness; hence Ethelrida, whose investigation into her city’s criminal underworld takes the form of a school assignment, and whose soul is stained by neither corruption nor white privilege. She’s a wonderful character, but her and Oraetta’s story line can feel peripheral to the gang war.

With such a crowded plot, it’s no wonder the show can’t maintain a consistent tone. Each season of Fargo creates a hermetically sealed moral universe, doling out divine and definitive justice to each character according to their position on the spectrum spanning from good to evil. In the past, its archness has served as a self-aware counterbalance to the sanctimony inherent in such a project. And there’s still plenty of irreverence in season 4, particularly when it comes to Hawley’s depiction of the Faddas, Oraetta and the other white characters. But there’s nothing funny about the oppression and discrimination that Loy, Doctor Senator and Ethelrida face. Each of their fates is shaped at least as much by a society that is hostile to people who look like them as it is by the moral choices they make as individuals. So the scripts give them the dignity they deserve at the expense of inflicting earnestness—along with frequent reminders, such as Schwartzman’s Trump line, that the story’s themes remain relevant today—on a format that isn’t built for it. Realistic characters and absurd ones awkwardly mingle.

Hawley’s attempt to correct his show’s political blind spots is laudable, and some pieces of the allegory work well; the ritual of ethnic gangs trying—and failing—to work together by raising each other’s sons makes an inspired metaphor for America’s fragile social contract. Even so, Fargo seems fundamentally ill-equipped to address systemic inequality. Though that failing may well render future seasons similarly flawed, if not impossible, in our current political climate, it doesn’t negate the pleasures or insights of what remains one of TV’s most ambitious shows. Like this nation, the new season is a beautiful and ugly, inspiring and infuriating, a tragic and sometimes darkly hilarious mess. As frustrating as it often was to watch, I couldn’t look away.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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