This is the fifth 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*
“LOOK UPON ME!” John Goodman’s character, Mad Man Mundt, screams down the shotgun barrel of a flaming corridor, circa 1940s Los Angeles. Today, as we circle the madhouse election of 2020, one can look back upon this surrealist, Kafkaesque scene as a part of film history: the birthplace and fully fledged formation of the Brothers Coen’s distinct artistic temperament. The sequence was ironically the result of hitting a creative dry spell, Joel and Ethan taking a break from penning essentially (what they now concede to be) a rip-off/retelling of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key.” “Barton Fink” came about due to two dreaded words in the Hollywood industry: “writers block.” What was intended to be a distraction exercise, led the Coen’s to write their first full-on masterpiece, which, subsequently, also marked their first collaboration with the man whose style would come to define their motion pictures, cinematographer Roger Deakins. It was this meeting of the minds, that resulted in the now classic, “LIFE OF THE MIND!” set-piece.
“The Pretend War’s” roadside inferno of a cold opening is arguably the boldest/most blatant aesthetic love letter to Joel & Ethan Coen’s work the show has produced thus far. After a phenomenal split-screen sequence, contrasting all the binary doubles on both sides of the coming mob war, a pick-up truck full or oranges is engulfed in a ring of flames – a symbol which could perhaps be a call-back to the Brothers’ debut film, “Blood Simple,” “You were telling me about the ring of fire…” a patron at a soon-to-be dead man’s bar tells a Black bartender (one of the few in the Coen’s early films). ” He responds by proceeding to talk about the eruption of volcanoes, before their conversation is interrupted. Interrupting also being one of scribe Barton Fink’s cardinal vices, constantly interjecting his thoughts into his neighbor Charlie Meadows (a.k.a. Mad Man Mundt’s) stories. Internal rage festering before explosive action is taken, sets off the conflict of a number of their films, and it’s most always because of a man who fears the erasure of his own existence. Fargo Season 4 finds the head of two families trying to erase each other’s subsequence futures – a future in the form of offspring, whether that be a father’s son or a self-obsessed writer’s latest studio script – a future which informs the myth of history itself.
Before I continue rambling, I would just like to remark how cathartic it was, circa 2020, to watch Cannon’s boys intimidate the living shit out of the season’s second biggest posturing a-hole, Constant Calamita (Gaetano Bruno). I figured Leon, Omie and Opal (played by Jeremie Harris, Corey Hendrix, and James Vincent Meredith) would end up showing viewers what loyal soldiers they are at some point down the road, but I didn’t expect most all of the season’s set-up to erupt so fiercely and suddenly in a single scene. That surprise factor likely has something to do with the creeping style of the season, embodied by the sinister opening of the episode, a symmetrical close-up of water drops dripping into a pail from the bottom of a rusty sink, which turns spooky.
There are at least 4 significant uses of sinks in the Coen Brothers 18 motion pictures that come to mind off the top of my head, the most famous two likely being the final image of their first feature, “Blood Simple,” a drop of water falling atop a dying private investigator who’s been stabbed in the hand, and the ominous push in from “Barton Fink,” which DP Roger Deakins still cites as one of his proudest achievements. The first is a play on film noir detectives and the “final girl” trope from slasher flicks; the second, is the audiences first big clue that a certain character (Meadows) might be a serial killer. Season 4 addresses these things through the characters of Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley) – who’s methods of madness are officially revealed by Ethelrida’s (E’myri Crutchfield) snooping in the fourth hour – as well as Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille), who spend the majority of the episode in a seemingly haunted hotel room with dingy wallpaper and an eerie bathtub. The imagery recalling Joel & Ethan’s third film, “Barton Fink,” as well as revisiting horror film element the brothers haven’t used much since “Blood Simple,” such as character’s seeing ghosts, like the nose-less man in “The Pretend War’s” opening, who later rises out of the bathtub as if Swanee’s grim reaper.
This also bring to mind the “Angel of Mercy” motif that can certainly be applied to characters like Karl Mundt, Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem), Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton), and now Oraetta (Mad Woman Mundt?) Mayflower. Additionally it makes one think of the final chapter of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “The Mortal Remains,” wherein 3 folks unknowingly find themselves on a carriage to the Underworld. That can apply to most all the characters tempting fate this season. “Am I the only one that smells dead people?” is one of the first things Swanee says when setting foot in the Smutney mortuary (obviously, another clear death/after-life motif). The act of smelling is also thematically noteworthy. One of the first things we see Marshall Dick “Deafy” Wickware (Timothy Olyphant) do is sniff part of the prison escapee’s crime scene. Getting a whiff of the vomit covered greenbacks (which Zelmare tried to wash out in the sink/bath) is how Loy realizes he’s been had when Thurman (Andrew Bird) tries to pay back the crime boss with his own cash.
That said, I don’t believe the ghost figure missing a nose is insignificant. The only time I can think of the Coen’s doing something similar is in “Blood Simple,” when Frances McDormand’s character, Abby, is convinced that her dead husband (Dan Hedaya) is trying to kill her, having nightmares that he is still alive despite being told that he’s been buried alive. She ends up shooting the man who shot her husband in a case of mistaken identity; I expect this season to play out similarly as it gets closer to the finale. There are so many people playing both sides, doubling their motives, whom other characters are not even aware of. The clearest parallel to M. Emmet Walsh’s P.I., Lorren Visser, is probably the aforementioned U.S. Marshal, both of whom are the only characters present in the conflict, who most other characters are unaware of – they’re looking at things and taking action from outside the “ring of fire”. And, of course, they’re both fond of wearing one of the Coen brothers favorite genre motifs, a (cowboy) hat.
Not saying that Dick Wickware will end up lying dead underneath a sink waiting for a drop of water, but it wouldn’t surprise me either. Like Visser, he’s the only figure whos life circumstances do not directly revolve around the central players of the conflict; in another clever reversal, he’s a force for right (or so he thinks) rather than evil. I expect that means he’ll end up caught in the wrong crossfires, meeting his end trying to put things proper, but perceived as being part of the problem – which also brings to mind “No Country For Old Men,” Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), narrating the opening, an opening quite similar to Joel & Ethan’s debut film, beginning with Walsh’s voiceover: “The world is full of complainers…” Who is another classic Coen complainer? Barton Fink, who literally complains to the front desk that his neighbor is making too much noise. In the beginning of episode 5, “The Birthplace of Civilization,” we see Oraetta Mayflower pounding her head against a wall as a sick man wails, mirroring Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) dream sequence in “A Serious Man,” (used cleverly in that film’s trailer gag) a film which also contains a blackmail letter – much like the one penned by Ethelrida about Oraetta, a woman who is constantly complaining about how much noise her patients are making, the same thing Mad Man Mundt tells Fink he is also selfishly guilty of before departing the hotel.
Mundt leaves the writer with a mysterious package before setting off on his way. Not unlike an apple pie suddenly showing up on the doorstep of the mortuary – the mortal remains of which have now been hurled all over Loy Cannon’s stolen cash. Ethelrida pens her letter to the hospital at the start of the episode, attempting to thwart the murderess nurse’s secret nefarious agenda via an anonymous post-card. Quite the thoughtful little capitalist, that Ethelrida Pearl Smutney.