This is (not) a true story: but it still happens nowadays (Fargo S4 Review)

First time someone asked me, ‘What’s Fargo about?’, it took me a while to put an answer together in my head. Four seasons down and several plot twists later, I can now confidently say this is a wickedly written and beautifully directed series about an unfortunate and complex chain of extraordinary events. Its masterfully thought plot sheds light on the sheer importance of causality, characteristic to both real life and good fiction. Combine this with a self-aware freedom to expose the several different facets of morality and you’ve got yourself a winner. This is, after all, a homage to the Coen brothers’ trademark 1996 movie Fargo, and the dark humour it was famous for is ever-present in the TV series written by Noah Hawley. The title of executive producers the brothers hold goes to show their lingering commitment to the art of great fiction.

But don’t let Fargo fool you, particularly not the fourth season. Just because its clever writing entertains, it doesn’t mean the series doesn’t offer powerful social and political comment. That is, to me, the sheer underlying beauty of this season: how a story set in the 1950s can bring such powerful insight to issues of race, religion, class and even gender still happening today, some odd seventy years later. If you are someone who is not interested in any of these powerful insights, do not worry — this will still be an entertaining watch, because the writing is that good in its subtlety.

But how does Fargo achieve this? The initial premise of this season is to show how excluded and ostracised both Italians and African-Americans were in 1950 Missouri. These two factions end up going on an all-out organised crime war, but the story embraces each side and their culture’s history by nailing accurate characterisation in a precise manner. Each role is unique: from the drugged-up murdering nurse who euthanises patients out of their misery, to the hilariously twitchy detective who needs to knock five times before opening a door. And when a homosexual couple (one American-Indian, the other African-American) escapes the local female correction facility, the U.S. Marshall who arrives in town turns out to be an arrogant Mormon who sees himself as the personification of God’s will. It is this minute attention to detail that allures to the inclusion and mutual acceptance Fargo tries to enforce. A big melting pot, where everyone is just trying to get by.

When Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) is asked by a fellow American if he served in the war, he replies: ‘Why would I fight for a country that wants me dead?’ And when his ten-year-old son is approached by a policeman when sitting inside a car, one can’t help but think about George Floyd and the several deaths which ensued in similar circumstances. It is this seventy-year flashback into what it means to be a minority in America today that sets season four from the rest: many series try to achieve this but end up tiring the viewer with over-the-top social commentary. Fargo nails this whilst entertaining you.

If you think I have now spoiled it for you, there are plenty of other meaningful lines of dialogue which invite the spectator to reflect on the current zeitgeist. Almost every character has its moments of cathartic revelation. Josto Fadda (Jason Schwarzman), the Italian boss, asks: ‘You know why America loves a crime story? Because America is a crime story.’ These clever insights into the many facets of the American Dream will have you engaged with every bit of dialogue.

And if you haven’t watched the first three seasons, do not worry, you’ll still be able to follow the fourth season completely. If you have watched them, on the other hand, you’ll be offered a satisfying feeling of watching different timelines intertwine together. It is this attention to detail and intelligent writing that invites you to hit the pause button and reflect about, much like a good book.

One thing I should warn you about if you are new to Fargo, is the amount of death in this series, especially towards the climax of the organised crime war. One sequence will- have you absorbing some meaningful character backstory, only to have that same character accidentally shoot himself in the head during the next scene. These constant shifts in the balance will have you scratching your head, trying to figure out what next. The writers seem to play with your expectations, perhaps to bolster the idea that the only certainty in Fargo, much like in life, is death. This is, for me, the mark of good fiction, making it a widely enjoyable and unpredictable viewing experience.

This is a true story.’ Every episode starts with this sentence, drawing viewers into the Coens’s fictional-world adaptation they are about to enter. This isn’t in fact based on true events, but as Redmond writes, ‘most meaningful adaptations promote literacy over consumption’ (Redmond, 2016, p.17),suggesting that Hawley’s masterpiece falls into the ‘category of adaptations that adapt “actual” rather than invented events.’ (Redmond, 2016, p.18). But rest assured, for in Fargo, poetic justice is achieved. Whether this will help make up for all the real-world injustices it explores, I’ll let you decide.

(Un)political correctness, protests and democratic debating (Personal essay)

Politics. I know. Chances are the moment you read that first word, your reaction is to tell your brain you’ve had enough of that bullshit, and that is time to reward yourself with some instant gratification of endless, meaningless scrolling. But even then, nothing happens for no reason in a capitalistic world, and it can all come down to the way you decide to access your news, the window through which your perspective starts being drawn. But enough of these nihilistic rants and let us focus on the keyword here – perspective: we all live and experience different things in life which shape our view and consequent understanding of the world. Accepting this simple reality is a small step up the dauntingly steep climb called progress. For in democracy, everyone has a say.

     Right or left: trusting an old, smoky diesel engine to bring us back in time to *simpler*, man-eat-man ways; or rowing upstream towards a brighter future where Noah should have left the cow drown for the sake of mankind. And if you somehow choose not to go either port or starboard in this mother ship, if you are one of the few who decides to vote for the legalisation of marijuana, or, against vaccination for, let’s face it, you hate people almost as much as you hate yourself, you will be told your vote will end up resulting going either all the way left or right, for the big crowd movers are also the same entities who subsidise these smaller parties to promote an illusion of meaningful choice. But when did we conform with the idea of being, for better and worse, all on the same ship? The utopic ideal of one for all and all for one is now one for the romantics. After living through what many consider the biggest hurdle put to mankind in the twenty-first century ­­­­– a spiritual (and actual) pandemic –, it is clear to me that when the slightly overcrowded ship of the people spots an iceberg in the distance, everyone will swim for their lives, regardless or not if that means death to every other person rowing towards safety. Don’t get me wrong, I too used to be a romantic in politics, especially before I had the right to vote. But after understanding how even the drunkest of pirates can convince millions that the iceberg was caused by a minority inside the ship, I start losing hope altogether.

     And that brings me to my next exacerbated metaphor: protests. The rush of blood to the head telling you to draw your weapons and decapitate the drunkard captain yourself. My biggest political inspiration is by far my mum: her generation lived through the peaceful revolution which overthrew Portuguese dictator, Salazar. Now, I know it sounds farfetched to say one envies a generation because they lived through oppression and decided to do something about it. But I think these moments of adversity are the little-big moments in history where, for societal and ship-metaphorical stakes, we all get a whiff of the endless blue ahead, and get to live a bit: a chance to take a swing at the old captain, for we, the people, have had enough of this bullshit.

    Now, back to the amazing woman who brought me to this ship in the first place. I remember when the government was trying to shut down one of the country’s oldest maternities due to budget cuts. ‘Who’s coming down with me today?’, she asked energetically. Both me and my sister looked at each other on the couch and let out a jovial laugh. ‘What’s the point, Ma?’ All we cared about was that the big television would be free for the afternoon ­­. She let out a ‘This generation’ grunt, a line I’ve heard several times over the years to compare our political proactivity. We stayed home that day – mere spectators, watching from afar. But not Mum. We watched her on TV, rocking her fist on the front line. And there we were, tomorrow’s youngest and brightest, spectating our mum as if she were a foreign body to the bubble of comfort we locked ourselves in. But her effort wasn’t in vain. The maternity remains open to this day, and we saw the results of standing up for your beliefs with our own eyes – even if through a screen. When I brought that cherished memory back into our lives at dinner the other night, we all shared a good laugh with the same mocking tone we had adopted that sunny afternoon. But deep down, we are all proud of her.

     I struggle to remember when was the last time I went to a protest, and I’m not proud, perhaps even ashamed of it. It must have been about ten years back when the student body from one of the most art-orientated schools in Lisbon organised a gay pride protest. I remember our main motivation for attending this overly peaceful protest was skipping class. Surely enough, two of my closest cousins were starting to experiment with their sexuality, and I wanted to show my support. But I ended up being more of a curious bystander than a protester myself – the determination on people’s faces impressed me almost as much as the cause itself. Everyone was happy and a slow reggae set the pace. Utopia for an afternoon. But being a Caucasian male, I feel like I fit more in the privileged demographic that the crowds are trying to overthrow than the other way around. I guess that doesn’t help my self-aware tone when debating politics, but I still engage in healthy conversations over dinner tables at times, if the wine is right. Over the years however, I find myself gradually losing hope, bowing down over the course of the conversation due to the inability of almost every involved party to do something which has lost its significance over the years: listening to both sides. For what good is to live in a democracy where we all get a say, if we won’t allow the other side to elaborate on the propaganda their social network has been feeding them? I label this in my head as the implosion of democracy.

     Surely enough, I’m the first of people who’d like to educate the xenophobes who believe that ‘Closing the gate’ is a solution for every problem in Australia, but I think some people’s brains cease to evolve after certain experiences in life, and I’m alright with that. Democracy, we all get a say, for better and for worse. But I also wince when the overly-progressive teacher judges my decision to read the works of ‘dead, white men’, simply because they refuse to read anything which hasn’t been written by an LGBTQ+ author. When did your righter choices become a reason to downgrade mine? And yes, LGBTQ+ writers have been ostracized for centuries. But why should I, a male writer who just joined the party, be judged for the centuries of bigotry which preceded me? At what point did it become about demanding tolerance without allowing it in return?

     I believe to have found a reason to protest: for everyone to chill the fuck out and to let democracy take its course. To be accepting of other people’s choices and decisions. To allow people to bash their heads against the metaphorical and spiritual wall for the rest of their lives, if that’s what carries them to the end of the day. To exercise their right – duty in Australia – to vote. For if we share one view, what’s the point of living in a democracy in the first place? If Noah had brought only sheep into the arc, we’d all be bleating in the same tone. The sooner we all acknowledge the reality of a world of zebras, hyenas and parrots, the smoother we’ll all sail towards the inevitable iceberg ahead of us.