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.