This is the first piece in a series of detailed critical readings of the FX series “Fargo,” which will be specifically be focused on analyzing how the anthology show continues to pay thoughtful tribute to Joel & Ethan Coen’s prolific body of work.
*These essays contain spoilers for both the show and various Coen Brother movies*
The 1996 film “Fargo” is the Coen Brothers’ equivalent of a true crime bedtime story. Two bumbling lawbreakers (Steven Buscemi and Peter Stormare) mishandle a simple kidnapping and hand-off scheme, culminating in a series of events so comically hair-brained there is no way anyone could write it… except Joel and Ethan did. Their impish proclamation that these tragic events, unfolding beneath the dark snowy blanket of the Midwest, were, in fact, based on actual events, was an ingenious metaphor of mischief for the American success story, one long cloaked by a white veil of asinine folklore.
Showrunner Noah Hawley’s progressively prevalent, anthology adaptation of the Coen’s original work, started as a purposeful echo to the original, Oscar-winning picture, but has expanded into a sprawling love letter to the revered filmmakers’ tremendous career oeuvre. After the outstanding first season came to a close, many (myself included) no doubt raised their eyebrows when a sophomore installment was announced – and, even more of a surprise, one slated to be set during the 1970s. Huh? That’s not “Fargo…” (Will there still be parking lots and Radisson buffets?) By the time the second batch of episodes rolled around, however, close followers of Joel and Ethan’s flicks immediately had their fears put to rest when the premiere hour’s opening image doubled-down on its Coen obsession, acting as an extravagantly playful homage to the brothers’ first masterpiece: “Barton Fink.”
The title: “Massacre At Sioux Falls,” is slapped on top of Old Hollywood imagery, the remnants of a Civil War battle, fought and lost. “Starring Ronald Reagan,” the next card amusingly reads (if there is a fifth season of the show, my money would be on it being set during the ‘80s, fully priming the stage for the film/first season). The idea of a literal actor using his status to spread cultural lies about American mythology, eventually being elected this country’s Commander-In-Chief hits just a little too close to home – again, you’d think one couldn’t write such farcical nonsense…
In the closing minutes of the first hour and tail end of the season, Hawley and Co. pulled out another Coen Brother deep cut, the U.F.O. from “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” an image tied to a post-war United States’ psychological paranoia. Of course, being the scholars that they are, Joel and Ethan’s approach to the motif is expressly multi-layered. Inspired by classic noir works such as those written by James M. Cain (author of “Double Indemnity”) the duo opted to shoot their 1950s set film in high contrast, black and white (still some of the best work cinematographer Roger Deakins has ever done), specifically playing expressful homage to Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s renowned compositions from “Citizen Kane.” And what was Orson Welles previously most known by the American people for? Inciting a panic-induced conspiracy of alien invaders, for making a bedtime story out of real world fears.
Now, in the year of our Lord that is 2020, U.S. citizens almost seem to have an addiction to their media being sensationalized. Whether its QAnon or Wizarding World TERF wars, Americans have grown accustomed to what they want to see – no matter how brainlessly extravagant that may be. In keeping with the series mindful mining of all of the Coen’s movies, Season 4 (set in 1950, Kansas City) cleverly blends together the brothers’ first full-on literary escapade, “Miller’s Crossing,” (by the filmmakers’ own admittance ripped straight from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” – as well as Jean Pierre-Melville’s underseen “Le Doulos; something they’ve never openly referred to, but, if you ask this writer, is all-too obvious) with elements from their second film, the bank-robbing romp “Raising Arizona.”
Another notable cinematic influence for the fourth season (also captured by the opening sequence of season 3) is the Coen’s most autobiographical film, “A Serious Man” – the Coen’s only film to date to feature a young student as one of the main protagonists. With a repetitious editing pattern that evokes the “Turn to the right” flow of “Raising Arizona’s” introductory set-up, we meet Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield) reading a history report in voice-over. “Frederick Douglass once intoned, I stand before you as a thief and a robber: I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and I ran off with them.” She’s been called to the principle’s office (same as the boy in “A Serious Man”). “What’d you do this time,” the secretary asks. “I’ve been maligned,” is all she says, before the office door opens. “Next,” the principal murmurs out with an irritated head-tilt.
In “Raising Arizona” this sequence primes us for the film’s central set-up, the nonsensical team-up between a working cop and a petty criminal, who fall in love after he finds himself processed before her a countless number of times. Apparently, when you’re White, its a meet-cute to get arrested. Ethelrida, on the other hand, finds herself at the end of a wooden paddle, over and over, to the point where she cannot even bear to sit in her classroom chair without it causing her extreme discomfort. After solving a complex equation on the blackboard (more “A Serious Man” imagery) she assures the room that the answer is correct (after reading the room’s racist facial expressions donning disbelief). A charming White man can get away with stealing a baby from a wealthy furniture mogul, but a Black woman can’t even raise her hand without receiving eyebrows of sneaking suspicion and a trip to an office of authority.
This idea of prejudicial assumption also weaponized in a playful visual gag involving the meeting of a series of mob families. Continuing the percussive musical editing pattern, Ethelrida’s history report travels back in time to when Jewish families ran crime in KC, before the Irish showed up to spit and shake their hand. Unbeknownst to the audience at this point, the show is also introducing us to a key character who connects the fourth season to the second, Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw), a young lad in a bowler hat (he appears to be the series’ Tom Reagan), who is traded to the rival crime family as a gesture of good faith. He will eventually turn on his “Hebrew” captors, leading him to earn his moniker from his whisky drinking brethren – being told the story of Goldilocks, and the problem of someone “sleeping in his bed,” and “sitting in his chair,” Milligan’s father using a children’s story to fuel the hateful fire of his offspring. Years later, the boy will be exchanged, again, when the Italians roll into town. Clearly wounded by a family that values him more as property than a person, Milligan betrays and murders his father, ending up on the opposite side of a coup the young man is no stranger to. When the next crime family generation arrives, The Cannon Limited, headed by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), rival boss, Fadda, looks around, slightly bemused “Did you come alone?” No, Don Fadda, he did not.
After his own crew flanks him, Loy whips out a switchblade, causing all the Italians to reach for heaters in their coat-pockets. After a tense stand-off Loy cuts his hand, telling Fadda that they should do this “like men” (posturing masculinity being a recurring element of the brothers’ work). After the third ritualized hand shake, the audience is now conditioned to expect the family exchange: one unit trading a piece of their “future” for another. Having been through this twice himself, Rabbi Milligan takes the young Cannon boy under his wing. Viewers paying close attention to the earlier seasons will already see that this trade can only end tragically.
Fargo season 4’s fanciful opening history report is the secret origin of Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine, from the series’ second season), who we know will work all his life for the Kanas City syndicate only to end up in a thankless middle management position following the massacre of Sioux Falls, heralding the arrival of a U.F.O., and ushering in the Reaganomics era of “true crime” in America. We basically know the Cannon family won’t survive the bedtime story, we don’t yet know precisely why, but we know that their footprint on “Fargo” will be a forgotten foot-note in the big book of Manifest Destiny, and most of America will be too distracted chasing their own treasure hunting pursuits, reading ridiculous stories in the (proverbial) newspaper with a bowl of piping hot porridge, enough Pancake Houses and Arby’s around to be bothered to care.
“Here last week they found this couple out in California they would rent out rooms to old people and kill em and bury em in the yard and cash their social security checks. They’d torture em first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television was broke. Now here’s what the papers had to say about that. I quote from the papers. Said: Neighbors were alerted when a man ran from the premises wearing only a dog collar. You can’t make up such a thing as that. I dare you to even try.“ – Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men