This is the third 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*
Going back to Ethelrida’s history report – specifically her concluding sentiment at the end of the opening montage – audiences are introduced to Season 4’s central crime figure – the Cannon family patriarch played by Chris Rock – as the final report passage is read via voiceover. “Here’s the thing about America,” she says “as soon as you’re relaxed, or fat enough, somebody hungry is going to come along, looking for a piece of your pie.” Joel and Ethan’s sophomore feature, crime-comedy caper, “Raising Arizona” is arguably the Coen Brothers’ most dream-like picture, concluding with the blissful fantasy of a delectable Thanksgiving spread. Are we witnessing a possible future, or simply a projection of bank robbing hillbilly H.I.’s (Nicolas Cage) belief in Manifest Destiny?
Ethelrida’s father, Thurman (Andrew Bird) is an interesting foil to Loy Cannon. Both men turning to illegal transactional means in order to provide for their family, Thurman coming to Loy in the first episode to help bail them out of debt. There’s a montage in the second hour that transitions between 3 different family’s dinning room tables. And, paired with the opening imagery of the episode, a callback to the famous scene from “Raising Arizona” where John Goodman screams his way out of the mud, foreshadows the Smutney family’s impending future, their struggles to put enough dinner plates on the table compared to those better off in America intertwining with a pair of prison escapees. This will lead to a ludicrous stick-up, not unlike when H.I. robbed a convenience store for a pack of diapers, and ended up having half the town chase after him.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a screenshot of Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille) joyously yelping to the stars and snowflakes after escaping from a prison, presented as if a nightmare fairy tale castle, both the composition and content a clear-callback to the laugh-out-loud gag from “Raising Arizona.” Additionally, the sequences starts with a symmetrical shot inside what appears to be a massive sewer drain, the movement and framing of which feels reminiscent of the opening credits of “A Serious Man,” oriented from the inside of a teenager’s eardrum whilst blasting Jefferson Airplane, so as to tune out from a boring Hebrew school lecture. The opening of the third season premiere matched this aesthetic in a similarly dreary fashion (as will the opening shot of Season 4’s fourth episode; more on that soon.)
Immediately following their escape, we cut to the two ladies cleaning themselves up in the mirror of a dive joint, similar to Gale and Evelle (John Goodman and William Forsythe) in ‘Arizona’ touching up their smudgy looks with shiny hair grease (not unlike George Clooney’s loquacious Ulysses character from “O Brother, Where Art Thou”). Swanee even manages to get herself a nice fur coat from a fellow restroom patron. The pair soon show up at the Smutney residence (like the two prison buddies from ‘Arizona’), and, according to Swanee, who is half-Chinese, half-Native American, they busted out to start “bank robbin’.” Roulette’s sister Dibrell Smutney (Anji White) is not thrilled to hear about her sis’ future career prospects.
Seems the couple has their eye on sticking up a slaughterhouse, one which has recently become a point of contention between the Cannon and Fadda families. Loy believes they are entitled to take over the business, and enlists his right hand man, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman, nailing the role) to oversee the transition of power. But, just how we U.S. citizens of the year 2020 fear how the upcoming election might turn out, a handover isn’t that simple. Little Josto’s (Jason Schwartzman) big bro Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito, an excellent stand-in for Jon Polito, with the towering presence of a Peter Stormare type) has recently paid America a visit from his homeland following their father’s death by Oraetta, and he’s not fond of, what he sees as, soft tactics his brother has been enacting as new boss. In a creepy monologue that recalls the fantastic dentist interlude from “A Serious Man,” the difference in the two Italian Princes’ tactics is clearly spelled out, Gaetano informing Josta that he keeps the teeth of his former adversary inside his pocket at all times, imagery that circles back to the curse/fairy tale motif established earlier in the season.
The escape of Swanee and Roulette also heralds the arrival of U.S. Marshall Dick “Deafy” Wickware, a devout Mormon who keeps a napkin full of carrots in his pocket (going back to foils, its an interesting contrast with the teeth Gaetano keeps; the two having a staredown in episode 4). One of the first things we see Deafy do, sniff the evidence, before the show cuts to police hounds – the season also has repeated callbacks to Rabbi Milligan’s (Ben Whishaw) comparing of mankind to ferocious canines. Through both Deafy and Gaetano, the season manages to up its pulpy genre ante, whilst simultaneously injecting what the Brothers do best: offbeat nihilism, ringing quirk and gloom out of simmering tensions and mischievous dread. They are essentially Looney Tunes characters you don’t want to cross, one being Bugs Bunny, the other Elmer Fudd – a cartoonish pop culture representation of mythic American frontier icons like Davy Crockett.
The third episode, “Raddoppiarlo,” concludes with the slaughterhouse hold-up, before blood – and other bodily fluids – start flying everywhere. Swanee suddenly starts heaving up chunks of Oraetta’s apple pie, mid-stick up – much like Garth Pancake’s (J.K. Simmons) IBS emergency during the boat-casino heist in 2004’s “The Ladykillers.” The amateurish robbery gone wrong (which unfolds much like Andrew Dominick’s “Killing Them Softly” before bodily functions become involved, is clearly going to cause chaos on all sides of the city. Paired with a botched hit on Lemuel Cannon – ordered by Gaetano to be carried out by “Irish’ – Milligan finds he can’t carry out the task, rightly suspect of who’s giving the orders, the two family’s conflict continues to rise. Curiously, Oraetta may be the person setting this war off, all because she baked a pie. Tellingly, the title of the episode, “Raddoppiarlo,” is an Italian term which refers to something doubling, of becoming twice as great in number. Doubles are all over this season of Fargo: from the prison escapees, or a pair of siblings, to characters that carry strange things in their pockets. Perhaps the most important is the dream of two disparate families, who want pie and a stack of pancakes.