This is the seventh 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*
One’s foundational truths are rooted in a blend of history and storytelling, experience and hearsay, but the concepts of belief, faith and religion, tend to conflate these things, purposefully not outlining the tall tales for what they really are, often out of some sociocultural agenda. This becomes a problem in these United States of America, when mythological tales meant to illustrate morals start being read as factual certainties in the face of economic hazard. The fear behind this uncertainty can be tapped into by those who hold power, and such worry and distress, can lead to peaceful infrastructures entirely losing what they see as the future of their stability.
“Which one of you is Samuel?” These are the first words uttered by Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) in the premiere. “My name is Lemuel.” Loy Cannon’s (Chris Rock) son (Matthew Elam) corrects, “It’s in the bible,” the two would-be inheritors of two rival crime families sizing each other up. “The Jew part or the Catholic part?” he snarks back. At the end of this exchange, Josto flashes a peace sign, “See you in the bible.” “That don’t even make sense.” Lemuel responds.
Being a Brothers Coen obsessive and rabid viewer of the FX series, I instantly knew that this exchange was a key statement of the season. Showrunner Noah Hawley has often likened “Fargo’s” chapter anthology approach to a fictional version of something like “The History Of True Crime In The Midwest,” a faux-text introduced at the tail end of the series’ second season. Hour six of the show’s fourth volume, “Camp Elegance” – the centerpiece episode of this volume – directly calls back the bible conversation during a power brokerage between the Blacks and Italians, a scene in which Josto Fadda swipes Loy Cannon’s idea into his own pocket right under his rival’s nose.
After the diner-side murder of Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), Loy orders the capture of Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito), enlisting our bank robbing, prison escapee’s Roulette and Swanee (Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille) for the job. Previously, the pair gave Ethelrida (E’myri Crutchfield ) a speech about the difference between the organized criminal and the true outlaw, revealing how easily those without a future buy into American folklore. Heck, the two ladies have practically stepped right out of the pages of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel & Ethan’s own anthology project, made up of a series of Western short stories that feel more and more relevant to this season as it moves alone, particularly, “Meal Ticket,” and “The Mortal Remains.” The second story of the film “Near Algodones,” following a bank robber who finds the hangman’s noose, twice.
Gaetano also finds himself facing the grim reaper down twice in these two hours – the first time, he’s shot in the back of the head by Swanee, the second he’s beaten to a pulp with a collared chain around his neck before being set free. But why did Loy Cannon let him walk away? When Josto meets with him, it is not by his own choice, but on the orders of New York, who will only let Josto remain boss if he cleans up his mess with the Cannons and his brother. After conceding that Senator should not have been killed, the Italians wish to make a trade for the brother to stop the bloodshed. “Maybe I killed him already,” Loy bluffs, and a lightbulb goes off in Josto’s head, who realizes he can make the same claim, do what he does best, appropriate the idea of his enemy. He then lies about killing Loy’s son, in an attempt to get him to take his brother out, much to Ebal Violente (Francesco Acquaroli) chagrin. “He’s more animal than people.” Josto says of Gaetano. “He’s your brother,” the consiglieri responds, “Cain was Abel’s brother. How’d that turn out?”
Josto then spouts a fiction about how Calamita (Gaetano Bruno) went crazy, shot the kid and Irish (Ben Whishaw), also confirming that he “shot at Samuel.” “Lemuel,” Loy corrects. “Right,” Josto concedes, “From the bible.” The meatier the season gets, the more apparent it becomes that the appropriation of foundational ideas is a key throughline, as it was the original film, the conflict of which partly set off by the falling apart of a parking lot investment deal, discovered by an every man (William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard), and stolen by the elite. “No, but, Wade, see, I was bringin’ you this deal for you to loan me the money to put in. It’s my deal here, see?” The episode also returns to the creation of credit cards, first suggested by Loy Cannon in the premiere hour, promising U.S. banks economic prosperity, the manager making the uber ignorant statement that working class Americans won’t spend hard earned money that they don’t have. Loy drives down the road and sees a giant sign sporting his idea: “Diner’s Club Credit Card” it reads.
This idea is further extended in the Brothers’ James M. Cain tribute, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the plot being set off by a barber investing in the dry-cleaning business, a deal which will eventually lead him to the electric chair, convicted for a crime he didn’t commit; in a sense. The future of dry cleaning would have raked Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton) a fortune, had he not been accused of killing his business partner (Jon Polito). Crane is a murderer, but the ultimate irony is his heinous crime was committed by accident; Crane mistakenly killed the man who was sleeping with his wife (James Gandolfini) who, himself, was the murderer of the man Crane receives a life sentence for killing – its circuitous Coen tragicomedy wrapped in a noir package at its finest. There are also closeted homosexual undertones to the material, as there are in “Miller’s Crossing,” as there is this season between Constant Calamita (which means magnet in Italian – a Magnet of Death, or Magnet of Doom? – title of a Jean-Pierre Melville film which stars Jean Paul Belmondo, a major influence on Tom Reagan and Joel & Ethan’s third film) and Gaetano Fadda. Why else would Constant be so obsessed with saving/siding with the younger brother over the older?
Furthermore, as Odis Weff (Jack Huston) attempts to get the heck out of dodge, he finds Loy’s new right hand man Opal Rackley (the awesome James Vincent Meredith) waiting for him. “Laundry day?” he asks, another clever callback to “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” “Don’t ever sneak up on a police officer,” Weff says, startled. “Got to even the odds somehow.” Opal fires back (what a line). The karmic balance of what goes around comes around is also (hypocritically) stated by our loquacious U.S. Marshall (Timothy Olyphant) in the sixth hour. “Are you familiar with the Blood Atonement?” the Mormon Marshall asks Otis. “Thou shall not kill, but he that killeth shall die.” This sort of eye-for-an-eye bloodshed is embodied by Opal’s worldview “Kill, or be killed. It ain’t complicated.” Inevitable nihilism, the past coming back to haunt the future, is partly what this season is all about, personified by motifs such as the mysterious Noseless Man, extending the theme of American colonialism as an act of genocide. “Gotta die someplace,” Swanee, part Native American, tells Odis in the seventh episode’s locker room scene. “How old are you?” he asks. “Old as the hills,” she switches to an indigenous dialect, “…old as the rivers… old as the trees…” a sentiment which rings very ‘Buster Scruggs’ (“All Gold Canyon”) and also fits as a call back to Season 2’s Massacre of Sioux Falls, the Hollywood satire opening, and Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) who will later change his name to Moses Tripoli. See you in the bible, Hanzee.
Bringing all these ideas home, Loy gives an epic monologue about America being the origin of the confidence man, the snake oil salesman. (Tall Man in “Meal Ticket” much?) “He don’t so much rob you as trick you into robbing yourself,” a line that harkens back to Cannon’s previous “I just stole from this man” street speech. The American Dream breeds entitlement, a future of privilege. In a country run by capitalism, such salesman act like shepherds, easily able to fleece all those wearing fluffy dreams on their sleeve – if social media in the time of COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we are a country of sheep – perpetual Charlie Browns hoping the football won’t be pulled out from under them. More so, we love to remind ourselves of these myths around the holidays, as that cartoon special still runs on an infinite loop like attending church on Sundays. “See you in the funny papers,” former welterweight boxer Omie Sparkman (Corey Hendrix) tells Gaetano, before they let the dog off his leash, sending Cain back home to Abel.
“He told them to look at me, look at me close. That the closer they looked, the less sense it would all make; that I wasn’t the kind of guy to kill a guy; that I was The Barber, for Christsake. I was just like them – an ordinary man. Guilty of living in a world that had no place for me, yeah. Guilty of wanting to be a dry cleaner, sure. But not a murderer. He said I was modern man, and if they voted to convict me, well, they’d be practically cinching the noose around their own necks. He told them to look, not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts.
Then he said the facts had no meaning.”