FARGO, Season 4: “The Pretend War”

Chris Rock as Loy Cannon. (PHOTO: Elizabeth Morris/FX)

Northern Minnesota author Aaron J. Brown reviews each episode of “Fargo” with an eye for unique details from the place where the show is set. The ratings range from INTERESTING  (bad), to COULD BE WORSE (not so good) to PRETTY GOOD (not so bad), and OH, YA! (real good then).

Beware the spoilers.

Episode 4: The Pretend War

(Original air date: October 11, 2020)

“To be an American is to pretend.”

This was the conclusion reached by the Fadda family consigliere Ebal Violente years ago as he naturalized to the United States from his native Italy. He wanted to know what meant by “American values.” Confronted with cutthroat capitalism in the streets and a history tainted by slavery and genocide, he decides that “American values” means pretending that actions like these are somehow excused from moral judgement of a nation.

One one hand it’s another speech in a season that’s full of them; but, on the other hand, the notion of “pretend” is the episode’s theme. The rival gangs pretend to have control over a situation that is spiraling away from them. How long the illusion lasts we don’t know, but it can only end badly.

“The Pretend War” is a place-setting episode, establishing the scope of what’s happened and foreshadowing what’s to come. Nevertheless, it reveals some important details and includes several excellent scenes.

We open on the Smutney family funeral home with the camera’s eye revealing medical instruments amid spooky music. It’s Christmas time in the story, but clearly Halloween in our minds. Ethelrida hears something outside her upstairs room. She opens the door to see a man sitting at the top of the stairs. He slowly turns his distorted face toward her, straight out of a horror movie. Is he a ghost? An apparition? She slams the door shut and he does not follow. Suddenly the funeral home motif of Season 4 comes into sharp focus.

A three-panel 1970s-style reveal wraps up some loose ends from last time. Zelmare and Swanee flop in a ratty hotel with Swanee still terribly ill from the ipacac pie. The money they robbed from the Cannon Limited is covered in barf, which proves to be a bigger problem than you’d think. 

Meantime, we see a truck full of oranges driving through the countryside. It stops after a wall of fire blocks the road, eventually encircling the truck in what Johnny Cash would have called some sort of hot circular flame shape. We don’t know the driver, but we know the passenger: Fadda henchman Constant Calamita. Cannon men emerge from the fires with guns, beckoning the Fadda men out of the truck. The driver makes a foolish attempt to fight and gets thrown into the fire. (Which begs the question, how did the three Cannon men get through the fire?) Calamita plays it cooler, but vows (in Italian) to get his revenge. The Cannon man doesn’t speak Italian, but can read the nonverbal cues pretty well. He heats up his gun barrel in the fire and uses it to brand Calamita on the cheek. They take the truck and leave Calamita behind, alive.

Then we get the scene between Ebal and Doctor Senator in one of their routine meetings as chief advisors to the rival gangs. This meeting comes with sharper edges as war seems nigh. Ebal demands to know why the Cannons have hit them. But he doesn’t know that his own family had attempted a hit on Loy’s oldest son, or that the Cannons were robbed in a deadly raid a few nights earlier. Doctor tells Ebal to get his own house in order. 

Glynn Turman as Doctor Senator and Francesco Acquaroli as Ebal Violente are proving to be absolute rocks in this cast (no pun intended, Chris Rock). They are wise, older men wronged by the past, driven by mutual respect and professionalism. 

Of course there was a lot more than oranges in the Fadda truck. The Cannons recovered 300 semi-automatic guns, a clear sign that their foes are arming for conflict. 

We cut back to Oraetta Mayflower’s apartment where our resident Minnesotan has advanced her sexual relationship with Josto Fadda. Ya, looks like some real good asphyxiation play there, then. We can bet Josto doesn’t know that Oreatta might decide to finish him off one of these times if he’s not careful. 

During the smoky afterburn, Josto reveals that he wants to kill Dr. Harvard, the doctor he blames for his father’s death. That perks up Oreatta’s ears, as (apparently unbeknown to Josto) she now works for Dr. Harvard. And we know that she was actually the one who killed Don Fadda.

Josto leaves even though Oraetta wants him to stay, showing that this imbalanced relationship could produced an imbalanced reaction at some point. Ethelrida from next door stops in to ask Oreatta if she could take her up on the offer to hire her to clean the apartment. An empathetic young woman, she knows her parents need the money. 

Oreatta lets Ethelrida stay and clean while she goes to work. Wisely, Ethelrida pins her to an agreement on time and pay. 

Later Rabbi Milligan intercepts Josto and informs him of his brother’s plot to usurp command of the Fadda family and escalate the war with the Cannon Limited. He doesn’t take it well, but again shows that he might be in over his head. In many ways both Josto and Gaetano are proving child-like in their motives and operation of the family crime syndicate. Josto performs like a petulant teenager; Gaetano plays the damaged bully. 

Josto confronts Gaetano. Outside, Deafy the Morman super-cop, confronts Gaetano and Calamiti. So much confrontation. But this week everybody holds their horses. 

Back at Oraetta’s apartment Ethelrida enters an unlocked closet to find a fully stocked bar of poisons, drugs and medical supplies. She finds a box full of obituaries clipped with care from newspapers. Then she finds another box full of small personal effects, anything from watches, bracelets, to rings — like the one she stole from Don Fadda’s finger the night she poisoned him.

Indeed, Oraetta is a serial killer. Whatever her motives, she’s killed lots of people who we know weren’t necessarily on death’s door. Ethelrida panics when she hears a noise. She packs up the boxes and puts them back but forgets her notebook on the shelf in the death closet. A dumb mistake. When Oraetta finds that she’ll know that Ethelrida knows — and if Oraetta was willing to serve up an ipacac pie just for spite, we understand that she’s capable of much worse.

Loy is still out there, seething over what the Faddas tried to do to his oldest son, and worried for his youngest boy who remains in Fadda custody as part of the exchange. He knows that Rabbi Milligan is the one in charge of caring for Satchel, but was also one of the gunmen on the botched hit. So he confronts Rabbi on the street. He warns Milligan over what will happen to him, specifically, if anything happens to either of his sons. Milligan tries to explain without giving away too much, but he also remains a loyal soldier to the Faddas.

Milligan (Ben Whishaw) remains one of the more fascinating, complicated characters in the show this year. And Chris Rock adds a layer of menace to the character of Loy, who until this point had appeared more business-like and even gentler than your average mob boss. 

We next join a strange, captivating scene in the hotel where Zelmare and Swanee are camped for Swanee’s convalescence. Zelmare is in the bathroom LITERALLY LAUNDERING MONEY. (Ha!) But seriously, their $20,000 is covered in barf and stinks terribly. She’s washing the bills in the tub, but it’s clear that they still stink and probably always will. 

But after Swanee calls out in agony from the other room the scene, and the entire show, takes on an entirely new direction. A haunting specter rises from the tub behind Zelmare. It appears to be the same spooky man from the opening scene with Ethelrida. He seems to half-levitate and half walk out of the bathroom toward Swanee’s place on the bed. Zelmare seems to notice him. She sense him if she doesn’t outright see him, and she begins to pray. The man reaches Swanee out of frame, but we don’t see him again. He’s gone. Zelmare goes to Swanee to check on her. At first it seems like she’s not breathing, but then she gasps (and vomits) and the tension is lifted. 

Presumably this is “the devil,” as described by Swanee last week. The devil took her dad, a Chinese railroad worker, and has been chasing her ever since. We thought that was a metaphor. But nope. Real thing happening here.

Zelmare brings the semi-clean money to Thurman and tells him to pay off his debts to the Cannons with it. She and Swanee are going to bolt in a couple days, so she says goodbye. Thurman isn’t sure about using the stolen money but Zelmare talks him into it. But she doesn’t tell him where it’s from or why it smells so terribly. She sends a message with him to her niece Ethelrida: “Don’t let no sorry ass cut in front of her in line” 

“What line?” asks Thurman.

“Any line,” responds Zelmare.

Thurman brings the money to Loy Cannon. He sits awkwardly across from Loy at Loy’s well-decorated, upper middle class home. Thurman nervously sips from a glass of water, a minimal courtesy offered by Cannon. He pays off the Smutney’s debt with the bag of money. Loy doesn’t buy his story one bit, but he’s willing to take the money and let Thurman go. But after Thurman’s car motors off into the distance Loy gets a whiff of the cash and realizes that Thurman paid him with his own money, stolen from the Cannon operation just a few days prior by “two dames,” one of whom we know barfed everywhere.

Coupled with the earlier scene involving Rabbi Milligan, this scene really succeeded in showing Loy Cannon as much more menacing than we thought. We now believe that he’s willing to do great harm, even to good people, in order to achieve his ends. But we also know he’ll think about it before he does.

Minnesota details

I’ve already reported Oraetta’s activities for the week. She’s still a bubbly, love-struck Minnesota sociopath who just happens to find purpose in killing people under her care. But let’s talk about the snow.

Now, this is Kansas City snow. We can’t hold it to Minnesota standards. But at one point when Josto becomes enraged at his brother he frantically reaches down to a patch of snow and throws a handful of the white stuff in frustration. 

At first I was going to call “Interesting” on the snow composition. It was not good throwing snow and, for a moment, I thought it looked too powdery to be real. But then I redid my calculations. This is Kansas City and the snow fell a day ago but was melting. But maybe it had refrozen the night before and was melting again. Snow people know that this creates a layer of crusty ice over a very powdery center in the small snow piles we see in that scene. 

Josto’s awkwardness in handling the snow would have been normal because Kansas City is not an all-winter snow town and he’s a first-generation immigrant from southern Italy. So I went all the way around the horn and am calling “Oh ya!” on the snow. 

Another “Oh ya!” for the quality crow “caw caw” foley work in the same scene. Good winter crow sound. Nicely done. 

Stray observations

  • “The Little Drummer Boy” plays over the scene where the Cannons strip the Fadda truck to find the cache of semi-automatic rifles. It’s a great version of the song, with just a hint of African rhythm in the drum part. I was reminded of the sentiment espoused by Angela and Andy in “The Office,” that “The Little Drummer Boy” was always “bigger than Christmas.” And you know what, they’re right. Do yourself a favor and check out the full Vince Guaraldi soundtrack album from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” He does an instrumental jazz piano version called “My Little Drum” with children’s choir backing vocals that remains my personal favorite. That’s right, kids singing and jazz — together — and it absolutely slaps. 
  • Loy tells his people to sell 200 of the captured Fadda guns to “Mort Kellerman at Fargo.” Earlier seasons of “Fargo” hint at a relationship between the “Fargo” syndicate and “Kansas City” and this now becomes part of the origin story. I don’t remember the specifics from the flashback in Season 2, but was Mort Kellerman the gangster overtaken by the Gerhardts later in the 1950s? If so, that would add great poignancy to Mike Milligan’s defeat of the Gerhardts almost 30 years later. (Especially if we consider that Mike Milligan might be Satchel Cannon, a going theory around here). 

See you next week for Episode 5! Sorry for the slow turnaround on these reviews. I just don’t have the guns for next-day reviews this time. But I’m still getting them out before next one airs. And, as my analytics would reveal, no one is reading them anyway. Hello, he said, into the void. 

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “Raddoppiarlo

Next Episode: “The Birthplace of Civilization

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