This is the sixth 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*
Shower curtain stranglehold! Whew, did that scene give the Coen geek in me chills. Joel & Ethan’s Academy Award winning films finally collide in the beginning of “Fargo” Season 4’s sixth hour, “Camp Elegance.” Odis Weff (Jack Huston) comes home to a neat and tidy apartment only to be ambushed in his bathroom (like Peter Stormare’s Gaer Grimsrud in the 1996 film). Struggling against his assailant, the pair fall onto the floor, the camera spinning above the choke out scene, just like the opening of their Cormac McCarthy adaptation. Except, blood doesn’t squirt all over pair of handcuffs, instead, Cannon’s switchblade lets Odis keep his last breath of life.
It’s about time Odis’ role in the season was finally beefed up. Sadly, though, his two-pronged implementation into the Cannon/Fadda crime war comes at the cost of the good Doctor Senator, Esquire (Glynn Turman), Loy Cannon’s (Chris Rock) trusted consiglieri. As suspected, Odis is now caught in the middle of the families’ crossfires – like The Continental Op from Dashiell Hammett’s fiction, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Bryne) in “Miller’s Crossing,” and the double-crossing Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw) – he has become a fingerman on opposing sides of an ensuing battle. A big difference however, both Tom, and the Op, are morally ambiguous characters whose motives are always shrouded – they almost want to be playing both sides to further their own agenda. In more traditional Brothers Coen everyman fashion, both Milligan and Weff become enveloped in a conflict much larger than themselves, not by choice, but out of responsibility – and, in Milligan’s case, basic decency, (not unlike Marge Gunderson). We bear witness to the ethical compass spinning inside their heads. Neither are self-sorry domestic breadwinners, a la Jerry Lundegaard or Ed Crane. The Coens did provide brief glimpses into Tom’s closeted humanity throughout ‘Crossing,’ but not to the extent they have Milligan or Weff. Huston’s casting paying clear homage to his father, John Huston, who’s own works – in particular, his seminal WWII PTSD documentary “Let There Be Light” (part of the inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”) – are purposefully mirrored in the mine-sweeping backstory of the troubled / traumatized crooked cop. Huston’s layered performance, full of OCD-laden shame and twitchy ticks is outstanding, habitually wearing fear on his face like a donkey in headlights (hee-haw).
Chris Rock also does his best work of the season so far in his exchange with Odis in the intro portion to Episode 5, “The Birthplace of Civilization,” which opens in a jazz club – perhaps a nod to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and specific folk art institutes that will be swallowed by the long arm of capitalism. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” most certainly applies to Cannon’s credit card idea. After Josto (Jason Schwartzman) harnesses the power of racial assumption to bring the city’s law enforcement down on his business, most all of Loy’s crew is arrested, Odis orders for him his men to let Loy be, upon realizing the head of the family somehow knows of his darkest secret. “BOOM! There goes Sammy!” “BOOM! There goes Mike!” Unbeknownst to him, the second name he utters, one of the most common in Uncle Sam’s United States, will soon be bestowed upon his offspring, Satchel. ‘Llewyn Davis’ is also the Brothers’ second film to take inspiration from Homer’s “The Odyssey” – the cat (named Ulysses, another Roman reference) that the self-absorbed folk singer loses being a loose a stand-in for Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.
Furthermore, the record mogul in the film (played by F. Murray Abraham of “Amadeus” fame, “Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!”) acts as a surrogate for real life music producer Albert Grossman. The name of the club in which Llewyn auditions for him ‘The Gates of Horn,’ a poetic term used for the Underworld, Hades, in the Homeric epic. Abraham’s white gatekeeper character acts little differently from the banker dismissing Loy’s loan shark business model in the premiere. And, what is ‘Lou N. Davis’ singing about? A baby that’s been lost.
The way Joel and Ethan wrap music into mythology is handled similarly in “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” George Clooney’s loquacious buffoon, Ulysses Everett McGill, being that flick’s Odysseus model. ‘O Brother’ also takes much inspiration from the Preston Sturges film, “Sullivan’s Travel’s” a movie about a Hollywood elite, literally learning to walk in somebody else’s shoes, as the sons of the various crime families, such as Rabbi Milligan, were forced to (somebody’s been sleeping in their bed). The movie ends with a group of prisoners watching a Pluto cartoon – the loveably Disney canine also being the Roman name for Hades, God of the Underworld. A blind radio DJ (played by Stephen Root) parallels the blind prophet Tiresius from The Odyssey (as well as Oedipus), both he and Abraham’s industry players being the gatekeepers to economic prosperity. The Cannon Limited faces even greater obstacles in trying to secure their own future, as Ulysses Everett McGill never had to be worried about being shot in the back after making his escape.
Clooney’s character is also the most similar the Brothers have concocted to “Raising Arizona’s” H.I. (Nicolas Cage), who sets off that film’s conflict by stealing a rich public figure’s quintuplet. Ulysses is trying to make his way back to five little Telemachus’ himself, a clever callback to one of its cinematic companion pieces. Both films deal with a specific subset of outlaw country life – in particular, the American stereotype/cultural mythology of the harebrained hillbilly – character’s drawls rambling on about their subjective prejudices, much like Timothy Olyphant’s U.S. Marshall Dick “Deafy” Wickware – a Mormon prone to rant about the “neophytes” who proceeds to groom himself in the mirror at the prison break crime scene – his educated but ignorant motormouth and obsession with looks being very reminiscent of Clooney’s narcissistic inmate on the run, a man obsessed with a particular brand of hair grease called “Dapper Dan.”
‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ is also the only Coen Brothers movie to blatantly tackle fascism by making the Ku Klux Klan a kind of ludicrous character in and of itself. Grassroots racism is basically written into the fabric of the film’s structure and tone (disclaimer: I’m actually the rare Coen fan that isn’t huge on ‘O Brother,’ I actually think they should have tapped into the hateful themes more). The closest they’ve come to tackling this subject matter again is their remake of “The Ladykillers,” transplanting it to the evangelical South. Tom Hanks (in a bitingly ingenious, uncharacteristic performance) plays an academic named Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. Wearing a Colonel Sanders white suit and always spewing on about his literary idols (such as Edgar Allen Poe), the character is almost unaware that he has a tell-tale racist heart, his assumption that they can use a kindly old Black, Christian woman’s home as a base of operations for a river boat bank robbery, illustrating how deaf (“Deafy”) he is to his own social prejudice.
As Higginson Dorr’s plan exponentially falls apart, Joel & Ethan cleverly frame him in a way that calls back to ‘O Brother’ adorning him to appear like a one-eyed Cyclops from “The Odyssey,” a role embodied by the Coen’s favorite bellowing fat man, John Goodman in the grassroots film. Speaking racist of monsters, Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) and his trigger man muscle throw down the sword at the end of the fifth hour, culminating with the creepy “baby in a box” speech and assassination of Doctor Senator by the Coward Constant Calamita (Gaetano Bruno).
Not being able to escape death’s clutches is perhaps the key Coen theme personified by the last few episodes. Again, the mortuary being a primary setting and Swanee’s “Am I the only one that smells dead people?” line, hanging a lantern on the signs. We also keep seeing the Noseless Man, how and why is something I don’t expect Hawley and Co. to answer directly, not unlike the Lebowski bowling alley with Ray Wise’s Stranger from Season 3. One of the most gutting aspects of the expertly handled ending of “The Birthplace of Civilization” is the knowing wisdom of the good Doctor. As soon as he ordered that cup from Nadine, the man knew he was putting his last teaspoon of sugar into his piping hot coffee, which makes the final moments sting all the more resonantly. The war for Kansas City is officially underway now, and this is the circular moment where the Season turns. Ethelrida starts the sixth episode disembarking a bus, just as she did at the end of the premiere’s hour’s opening montage. The death of Doctor Senator and the attempt of Gaetano’s life (which I’ll cover more in the next recap) being each families’ belly of the whale, what remains now is a violent sea of nostos, only Satchel Cannon, a.k.a. Mike Milligan, most likely won’t be seeing his father return home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar.