With the finale of its fourth season Nov. 29, Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” cemented four seasons of living comfortably in the Coen brothers’ shadow. The star-studded casts, sinuous plot structure and black comedy that carried the series’ first three seasons are all present again in season four, but the show’s little brother imitation of the iconic directors’ singular style has worn dangerously thin six years on.
Set in Kansas City circa 1950 (but shot in locations across Chicagoland, including the 1900 block of West Lunt Avenue in The Phoenix’s own Rogers Park), the season centers around two organized crime families jostling for territory and influence in the Missouri city.
The two families are Black syndicate Cannon Limited and the Sardinan Fadda family. Central to the conflict are the factions’ leaders, Loy Cannon and Josto Fadda.
Loy is an ambitious mobster played with a fascinating blend of snark, rage and determination by Chris Rock (“Dolemite is My Name,” “Top Five”). Conversely, Jason Schwartzman (“Wine Country,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) portrays Fadda as an arrogant young man attempting to take the family’s reins in the wake of his father Donatello’s death.
A series of miscommunications, failed intra-family deals and reneged commitments soon spiral into a full-on war, but the season’s central conceit is the decades-old practice established in the first episode’s lengthy opening.
Whenever a new crime family announces their presence in Kansas City, the established syndicate arranges a meeting between the two families. Employing a strategy inspired by long-gone Jewish and Irish crime families back in the ‘20s, the families trade their youngest sons as an incentive for peace.
Putting aside the overwrought backstory this framework needs just to get started and the confusing decision to portray both crime families as nearly identical in structure, the premise is a fine basis for the kind of Coen brothers-lite season of television “Fargo” should strive to put out.
The problem is Hawley and his writers attempt to balance this storyline with an array of other narratives in a manner that can only be described as irresponsible.
There’s plenty to like throughout season four, but it’s hard to latch onto any of the eclectic characters when none of them appear particularly well-thought out, and none of them get the space they need to flourish.
The season’s secondary characters — all of whom’s stories do ostensibly serve the larger narrative in the end — include Mormon U.S. Marshall Deafy Wickware (Timothy Olyphant), eccentric nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley) and bank-robbing lovers Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille) and Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge), who find themselves embroiled directly in the two syndicates’ feud.
The sheer amount of story presented would be impressive (as it has been in prior seasons), but 11 episodes of TV is hardly enough to develop even one of these plotlines in a satisfactory way.
Hawley’s series exists because of the Coen brothers’ 1996 classic of the same name, but if the showrunner can’t claw his way out of their influence, he’s going to go down with the ship that’s become FX’s “Fargo.”
With each additional season, Hawley moves farther from the good-natured, thoroughly Midwestern heart that made watching pregnant cop Marge Gunderson solve crimes so enticing.
Now, having done three seasons’ worth of organized crime stories, “Fargo” has drifted completely off-course. Instead of sticking with the original’s exploration of Gunderson’s relentless positivity in the face of true evil, Hawley has become fascinated with humanizing criminals and pushing ordinary people into criminal mindsets.
There are some glimmers of hope that suggest Hawley hasn’t lost the thread, however.
For one thing, Hawley’s decision to focus on organized crime functions as a humanizing depiction of people indoctrinated into a specific lifestyle from birth, a concept that’s not explored enough, but at times lends real gravitas to the families’ conflict.
Ben Wishaw’s performance as Rabbi Milligan, who was traded from the Milligan Concern to the Moskowitz family before ultimately ending up with the Faddas when they eliminated the rest of his family, is another bright spot. When Satchel Cannon (Rodney Jones III) is sent to the Faddas, Rabbi volunteers to watch him, and the duo’s bond becomes one of the season’s best dynamics.
But the most encouraging element — and the one that saves the season from complete disaster — is E’myri Crutchfield’s turn as Ethelrida Pearl Smutney, a precocious teen who strives to help her parents settle their large debt with Loy any way she can.
Crutchfield gives a fully realized performance as Ethelrida, confident and ambitious, but also naive and idealistic in the ways young people should cling to being. Her arc provides the plot some desperately needed cohesion, but more importantly, her outlook on life and her good-natured cleverness provide Hawley’s show with its best moral center yet.
Perhaps my frustration with this season’s clutter, cynicism and paint-by-numbers depiction of ‘50s organized crime is a sign of the times. The show’s pacing, exquisite production values and occasional slapstick comedy suggest a breezy, late-night watch, but the plot’s machinations don’t reflect this. This season of “Fargo” demands patience, but it doesn’t offer much up in reward for those willing to give it.
“Fargo,” rated TV-MA, originally aired on FX and is available to stream on Hulu.