This is the eighth 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*
Were I to attempt to convey why I love Joel & Ethan Coen’s work so much, genre balance, might be the two best words to do so. “Comedies,” are not normally my personal bag; were someone to ask me who my favorite comedic filmmakers are, my answer would be the Coen Brothers. Part of the reason being: every film they’ve made is close to tonally uncategorizable, yet always has hefty narrative gusto; though I would argue it took three creative ventures to find this stride.
“Fargo” Seasons 3 & 4 have a creepier pace and more scattershot character approach than Volumes 1 & 2 of the series, partly because their narratives more closely mirror purposefully over-plotted source material: Season 3, “The Big Lebowski” – the Brothers’ stoner time capsule transplant of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” – and Season 4, Dashiell Hammett’s works that inspired “Miller’s Crossing.” Were you to attempt to describe the whole plot of either film or season in detail, one would likely fall short. Were one to attempt to convey the heightened style of its aesthetic, it would simply be a disservice to the aplomb of such a considered approach.
A big difference, however, ‘Crossing,’ was – as Joel & Ethan have effectively conceded – an exercise of indulgence, aspects such as the over-the-top shootout featuring a ruthlessly cartoon-powered Albert Finney mob boss, Leo, his Looney Toones-level ridiculous skillset with a Thompson juxtaposed against soprano opera music blaring. These moments feel like young filmmakers (very possibly deliberately) taking the privilege of revel and relish too far, coming across like two troublemakers aiming to prove themselves almost through showing off. With 3 volumes to hone its own dial of tonal ludicrousness, “Fargo” Season 4 has payed tribute to the bombastic nature of this type of character – alongside Jon Polito’s Johnny Gaspar – through Salvatore Esposito’s bull in a china-shop brute, Gaetano Fadda. The sequence in which his is shot and kidnapped being a prime example. Compared to the pompously high-handed, prodigal aesthetic of ‘Crossing,’ the show’s bullet ballets – or sometimes simply the tension leading up to them, i.e. the crosswalk montage in the premiere – are continually a commanding television achievement, heightening and deepening and the series’ lore through the narrative irony of its echo imagery.
“The Nadir” concludes with the best split-screen shootout (that I believe) I have ever seen, almost immediately following a savage and unsparing nod to 1933’s Union Station massacre. The boys from Fargo unload their drum mags on the Fadda family home. Structurally, it’s practically the mirror inverse of Kanas City’s (1979) assault on the Gerhardt farm from Season 2, an attack in which Loy Cannon’s (Chris Rock) youngest male offspring – the soon-to-be-renamed Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) – is one of the few survivors. These roundabout events are close to parallel bookends of each other – the nadir of two generations of crime families from the same suburb. Brad Garrett’s Season 2 character Joe Bulo – who will one day be Milligan’s respected superior – was subtly introduced in hour six, Ebal Violante (Francesco Acquaroli) making the introductions. “This is Joe Bulo, out of New York.” “Joe Bulo out of New York, get a drink at the bar; this doesn’t concern you.” Oh, how wrong you are Josto. Neither may be aware of each other’s existence yet – in fact, currently, they are on opposite sides – but the actions of those that surround them – the fallout of the war for control over Kansas City – will entangle their lives.
Another reason the bullet-littered ending smacks you right in the face: it’s the right cross of a one-two-punch, following up an already remarkable set-piece in its own right – the aforementioned Union Station massacre – one would assume most any hour of television would be humbled to have as its climax. Tragically, the writing was literally on the wall for Zelmare and Swanee (Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille), the train to Sioux Falls (massacre) being 666. Like the stagecoach passengers in ‘Buster Scruggs’ “The Mortal Remains,” the pair of outlaws (or one of them, at least) enjoys their last mouthful of holiday candy sweets, waiting at the Gates of Horn. Of course, as soon as Zelmare catches sight of Marshall Wickware (Timothy Olyphant) bullets are destined to start flying, our “Raising Arizona”-like couple ready to go out, Bonnie & Clyde style.
After unleashing a lead storm, the episode cuts to Odis (Jack Huston) trembling in the car. In close to “No Country’-type fashion – whereupon Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) comes across the dead body of our misfortunate common man (Josh Brolin) – we only bear witness to the actual aftermath of the shootout, camera slowly gliding over and revealing the dead bodies as the cop playing all sides follows the booming gunshot sounds. When Odis comes upon Wickware and our pair of bank robbin’ recidivists, the lawman who has become a curse upon him has the drop on the women. Instead of cuffing the criminals he shoots U.S. Marshall Deafy straight in the heart – a sudden betrayal that plays slightly like a reversal of something akin to P.I. Lorren Visser’s (M. Emmet Walsh) low-blow killing of his employer (Dan Hedaya) in “Blood Simple.”
Before his fate befalls him, the Marshall pays a visit to Loy, an outstandingly well-written scene of passive-aggressive intelligentsia wherein the star-shaped badge gives a speech about the moral code (or lack thereof) possessed by the common criminal. The exchange ends with the Kansas City crime boss calling the cop with a fancy name out, when he describes himself as “friendly.” “No, pretty unfriendly, actually… but it’s the way you’re unfriendly… like you’re doing me a favor.” Mike Milligan has this exact line in the show’s second season, when talking to State Trooper, Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), who wears close to the same damned outfit as Marshall Deafy.
I think it’s also important to note the return of the Noseless man, at two different points during the Union Station sequence – a true crime occurrence that the show mythologizes via the western folklore of the final standoff. RIP Swanee. He definitely appears to be Grim Reaper of some kind – first rising out of the bathtub, nearly taking Swanee after being poisoned by sweet Oraetta, who has stepped up her game, again; spending the time we spend with her in the opening hour baking laced macaroons to immobilize and murder the Italian-hating Dr. Harvard (maybe you should check and see what country of origin your supposed favorite cookie comes from, bud).
Unfortunately for our favorite murderess-nurse-next-door (Jessie Buckley), we learn after another choke-out session with Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) that the racist doctor has survived, having been transferred to a hospital “specializing in poisons” (which sounds so pompously Lemony Snicket, which makes me very giddy with the Barry Sonnenfeld connection). My money goes on Oraetta having to change her identity now (like Hanzee) – although, I assume she is no stranger to this procedure – her feud with Ethelrida (E’myri Crutchfield) no doubt soon coming to a head. I really like this scene between Josto and Oraetta, the woman whom we know to be a killer reflecting on being diagnosed with a “kind of malaise… failure to thrive, is what I heard the doctors say more than once,” she says, after Josto flippantly informs her that he’s about to get married but the arrangement “shouldn’t affect this.” He then opens up about the horrible things done to him by his temporary captor, claiming to know that “the devil is an Irishman,” referring to Rabbi Milligan’s (Ben Whishaw) father, who places a curse upon him/the family.
There’s so much to digest here, especially considering the mortal constant that is the motif of death this season (and a certain memorial monument in the show’s next hour will only illuminate this further) but, again, I circle back to “The Mortal Remains,” Brendan Gleeson’s Irish thumper essentially one half of a pair of head-hunters for the underworld. With “Barton Fink” arguably being the Brothers’ film that represents a figure such as the devil in literal, if surrealistically, light, I remain more and more convinced that Oraetta’s “Angel of Mercy” comment, alongside her creepy neighborly complexion, points to her thematically, if not narratively embodying, John Goodman’s “Mad Man Mundt” transformation. Once the ring of fire surrounds him, he is Charlie Meadows no more. Combine that with the series’ themes of America providing a fairy-tale like opportunity for success, at the expense of moral sanity and a slew of death, and I think we’re about to be shown how, in these United States, a white serial killer with a pretty face still possesses the God-given right, and enough power in life to become Lady Liberty.