This is the fourth 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*
Fargo Season 4 has so many moving pieces I have essentially spent each week extrapolating so many Coen Brothers signs and symbols (a.k.a. semiotics) that, ironically, I’ve expended very little time talking about the season’s head figure Loy Cannon himself; partly, because, like the film “Miller’s Crossing,” (of which the season is incalculably indebted, but which, itself, is entirely indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key”) the plot has been following a plethora of characters on opposite sides of a coming mob war, and, while Loy has been at the center of the conflict, many soldiers that surround him have had more narrative agency, thus far (that finally starts to change in the show’s fourth hour). Episode 3, “Raddoppiarlo’s” concluding heist sequence might have spelled the beginning of the end of both families, and there is almost no clearer sign than the Sicilian Price Who Was Promised, Josto Fadda’s blood-splotched jugular.
Something showrunner Noah Hawley has always handled expertly is the transplanting of surrogate Brothers Coen types – from all across their filmography, but, of course, “Fargo” in particular – throughout the season, mixing and matching binary relationships and assorted motifs across an increasingly varied cast of ne’er-do-wells and delinquent schemers. The ending chapter of their anthology Western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” found the brothers almost flat-out admitting to/outlining their method of madness. “I’m the distractor…” a small loquacious fellow with a skinny pencil mustache (Jonjo O’Neill) tells a stagecoach of passengers who may or may not be on a road that resembles the River Styx, “I’m the distractor with a little story, a little conversation, a song, a sparkle. And Clarence does the thumping while their attention is on me.” The man which whom he refers is the burly muscle played by Brendan Gleeson. The conclusory short ends with the pair of bagmen hauling a body up a ghastly flight of stairs. This pairing, of “little fellow” and “tall man,” (Englishman and Irishman) is a constant of the Coen Brothers.
Speaking of Constant, Calamita’s (Gaetano Bruno) role in the season sure is beefing up. As mentioned in the post-previous, “Raddoppiarlo,” is an Italian sentiment with multiple meanings, referring to something being doubled, as well as becoming twice as great in number – that can apply to stature, status, and a string of characters. In Season 4, Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) is our stand in for the “little fellow,” as Steve Buscemi’s pathetic criminal wannabe, Carl Showalter, is referred to by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and the two strippers that Carl and his buddy Gaer (Peter Stormare), the “tall man” of the pair, stop to hook up with on their way in to the “Twin Cities.”
“Tall Man” (which brings Paul Bunyan to mind) is also the name of Liam Neeson’s character in Chapter 3 of ‘Buster Scruggs,’ “Meal Ticket” – think about that title in relation to all the Kansas City gluttony (“Where is pancakes house?”) as well as the coarse material that drives that segment; ‘Meal Ticket’ is about how a figure of stature abuses a storyteller who has lost his arms and legs (Harry Melling), in order to pay for prostitutes while his little limbless partner sits in shame on the floor. Carl is most always seen wearing yellow, and has a thin mustache, just like Josto, just like Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) from Season 2 – a character whom, if my theories are correct, will eventually be the death of one Oraetta Mayflower (the doubling motif perhaps also extending to situations/circumstances). I don’t think these similarities are a coincidence in the slightest. If you need any more evidence, note how often Josto touches his collar area, a motif which repeats after his choke-hold session with our chatterbox nurse in episode 4, “The Pretend War,” Josto’s second sexual encounter of the season following Oraetta’s creepy mob-car handjob.
Another small, but I honestly believe key overlap, is a line Oraetta (Jessie Buckley) utters after securing a job at a new hospital following being fired for questionable behavior in the previous episode: “I’ll be here with bells on.” She tells her new superior. In the original film “Fargo,” Carl makes himself a second appointment with a sex worker, the film amusing cutting to her riding him in bed after he asks her if she finds her line of work interesting. As the little fellow who likes to wear yellow squirms on the bedsprings she impatiently spits out “Come on… chime your bells…” right before another character bursts in and chokes Carl out with a leather belt.
The resemblances don’t stop there, but rather than spend this entire article discussing the plight of the pencil mustache, I’ll just throw one more example in the hat and then move on to discussing our “high hats.” The Gerhardt brothers from Season 2 are a clear parallel to the Fadda family, the largest of the three (Angus Sampson) being named Bear, just like the household trio in Goldilocks. The second season also repeatedly makes use of an empty chair motif, as the elderly patriarch of their operation is put out of commission early in the season, just like the latest. The conflict of the season is set-off by a sibling squabble between Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and Rye, which leads to the murder of Judge (Mayflower?) Mundt inside the waffle house.
Rye intends for Judge Mundt to be his only victim, but feebly botches the hit (like Carl botches everything in “Fargo”). Season 4’s mob war kicks itself into high gear at the end of Raddoppiarlo after Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw) deliberately flubs an assassination attempt on Loy Cannon’s son, Lemuel (Matthew Elam), overseen by Constant Calamita, the tall brother Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito’s) right hand man (another pair). Bells chime as the duo waits for their target. “Thinking of taking some courses?” The Irishman asks the Italian. “History of the Roman Empire?” This calls back Josto’s racially charged comment in the premiere hour. “We’re the goddamn Roman Empire. They were born in huts,” he says of his darker skinned “allies.” For those who aren’t as versed in Coen history, their movie “Hail, Caesar,” was originally intended to be a farcical comedy about a pair of imbecile actors idiotic failings to adapt a Roman epic to the stage, eventually they combined this project with a few other scripts and it became “The Player”-like romp released circa 2016 – a film that’s conflict is set-off by a kidnapping from a group known as “The Future.”
Anywho, back to the botched hit sequence, Rabbi Milligan is, himself, also a stand-in, as is damaged copper Odis Weff (Jack Huston). They are the pair of “high hats” for the season, the finger men caught in between two sides, as their moral compass have swayed between both. Each owes allegiance to opposing sides of a growing conflict, and they are both almost always wearing their hats, just like Gabriel Byre’s Tom Reagan, in “Miller’s Crossing.” The motif is also a callback to French noir master, Jean-Pierre Melville’s under-appreciated, double-sided coin on nihilism and male fragility, “Le Doulos,” which translates to “finger man,” slang for informant, the twitchy job given to both Rabbi and Odis. The itchy trigger finger is much more than a simple character tick. I expect both their paths will cross in a significant manner by the end of the season. It wouldn’t surprise me if they team-up to save Satchel a.k.a. Mike Milligan – a boy who ends up with two names after being traded for a surrogate stand-in.
“What kind of man are you?” is the central question asked by so many Coen Brother movies, but is literally embodied by their classical noir throwback, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Sounds a whole lot like both Rabbi and Odis when all is said and done. They are no different than barbers asked to cut hair. They wait for something to fester and grow and then show up with a pair of shears. But for how long though? That is an answer Joel & Ethan have never stopped chasing. At what point are you happy enough with who you are and what you have that you can stop worrying about the future so much? As soon as Gaetano shows up in America, Josto’s empire is instantly threatened. We know how this will play out in summation, Cannon will lose his foothold over American crime, but I don’t expect Josto to come out alive either. In fact, it would not surprise me at all were he to be shot in the face somewhere that may one day become a parking lot, for not being a man at all.