FARGO, Season 4: “Welcome to Alternate Economy”

E’myri Crutchfield as Ethelrida Pearl Smutny in “Fargo.” (PHOTO: Elizabeth Morris/FX)

Northern Minnesota author Aaron J. Brown reviews each episode of “Fargo” with an eye for unique details from the Midwest. 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 1: Welcome to the Alternate Economy

(Original air date: Sept. 27, 2020)

The fourth season of “Fargo” opens right in my wheelhouse: a sprawling historical tale spanning several generations. The narrator is a young Black girl telling truth to power during the Jim Crow era of the 1950s. We meet Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield) as she faces discipline at her Kansas City school for speaking out. Or, perhaps more accurately, for mixing it up with the students and teachers who put her down. The images of corporal punishment cement her words: this is about power — who’s got it, who wants it, and who loses in the end.

“Fargo” typically centers on an honorable law enforcement officer as the moral voice of the story. Not so this time. Ethelrida appears to be the main character. That alone signals the biggest shift in Season 4 from previous “Fargo” series.

Ethelrida’s trouble at school is just one part of her unusual life. She’s biracial, the daughter of an interracial couple that runs the King of Tears funeral home. Her soft-spoken father handles the white funerals, her outspoken mother the Black. We learn that her parents might owe money to an organized crime outfit, though these things are not for children to know.

Ethelrida tells us about the ethnic gangs that have jockeyed for control of the Kansas City underworld since the late 1800s. She begins with the “Hebrews,” aka Moskavitz Syndicate, who end up in conflict with the Irish, led by scuzzy boss in cheap clothes named Milligan. To avoid war the two organizations exchange sons as a way to force peace.

This is an important plot device for the story. Of course, exchanging sons doesn’t work, and we see this from the very beginning. The Irish double cross the Jews, and Milligan forces his son Patrick to shoot the other boy after killing the rival gang. The experience scars the boy, a fact that will eventually haunt old man Milligan.

For after the Milligan Concern come the Italians led by Don Fadda. Milligan, now wearing fine furs, continues the tradition of exchanging sons with his rival. Instead of sending his younger son, he again sends the older Patrick, now nicknamed “Rabbi” to join the Italians.

This time Rabbi Milligan does the double-crossing. He helps his new Italian family double-cross the Irish, even going so far as to personally execute the elder Milligan. We see that this cruel means of keeping peace is not only ineffectual, but actually breeds the kinds of resentments that cause wars. Because what is more cruel than separating children from their families?

The story catches up to its present — the year 1950 — with the rise of another mob to challenge the Italians. This time it’s the Cannon Limited, led by an ambitious Black man, Loy Cannon (Chris Rock), and his top lieutenant, a highly-educated economist named Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman).

Like those who came before, the Faddo clan dismisses and underestimates the Cannons, but agree to the same exchange of sons that had failed twice before. Cannon’s son Satchel, who very much does not want to go, joins the Italians while Donatello Fadda’s youngest son joins Loy Cannon.

The story takes off during a scene full of amusing and suspenseful misdirections. In what appears to be a total coincidence, Don Fadda takes a shot to the neck from some kid’s BB gun while waiting at a school crossing. He bleeds profusely, requiring medical care. His son and second-in-command Josta (Jason Schwartzman) rushes him to an elite private hospital. But the hospital director turns them away because they’re Italian.

Losing time, they bring the Don to the public hospital. Here the story takes its dark “Fargo” turn. Josta meets a nurse named Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), and asks her for drugs. This being a different time, and she being game, Oraetta provides a supply of white powder to be shared between them.

Josta tells Oraetta that he doesn’t like seeing his father the way he is. Could she “take care of him?”

Here’s the big question. Was Josta actually asking her to kill his father, making him head of the Fadda Family? Or was he just high, shooting off his mouth, unaware that she was crazy enough to take him seriously?

Either way, Oraetta coos softly at the old man in his hospital bed, telling him in his native tongue he was about to cross over to the great beyond. He doesn’t like the sound of that and tries to fight her off. The nurse proves persistent. She successfully administers a deadly drug to the IV and his thrashing stops.

Oraetta returns to her apartment, across from Ethelrida’s family funeral home. Ethelrida watches Oraetta go upstairs and stare out the window, muttering to herself or perhaps chanting some incantation into the dark night.

Minnesota Details

There aren’t many Minnesota details to parse this season. Obviously Jessie Buckley as the Minnesota-born nurse Oraetta Mayflower represents the lone connection to the North Star State. So let’s consider what’s happening with her.

First, the accent. Standard “Fargo” style. Many Minnesotans would say it’s not real, but it’s a lot more real than most of us would like to admit. Besides, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the accent is symbolic — a vocal cue designed to evoke the rigid society of midwestern life.

Buckley is an Irish actress. So, like Ewen McGregor in Season 3, she must not only perform an American accent but perfect this odd regional dialect. McGregor won an Emmy for his role, calling the accent “bonkers” in his acceptance speech. Perhaps Buckley will get to do the same.

While Oraetta might be the only Minnesotan in the story, this makes her the quintessential Minnesotan. Let’s review her characteristics:

  • Bright, sunny disposition in public; obsessive and strange in private
  • Caregiver who dispenses pain in amounts equal to medicine
  • Casually racist, but unaware of the fact
  • Passive aggressive and manipulative
  • Chronic looky-loo
  • Moralistic, imbued with a deep sense of righteousness in all her actions
  • And yet, mindlessly corrupt. Despite the upstanding facade, she doesn’t mind stealing drugs, getting high with strangers, or using her teeth to remove a dead man’s ring. She completes an unnecessary mercy killing while the victim shouts “Murderess!” in Italian, a language she knows.

If there’s anything wrong with this it’s that it’s almost too Minnesotan.

With most of the story set in Kansas City, Oraetta will provide most of the Minnesota details for these reviews. In her I see a remarkable, chaotic character, one who could make or break the whole season depending on how she develops. She makes me nervous, but I want to see more.

The initial review: PRETTY GOOD

Stray observations

As Ethelrida returns to class after another paddling the janitor scrubs away a graffiti image of a tornado. A direct reference to the “Fargo” theme: deviance and disorder isolated and contained by authority in the name of decency.

Loy Cannon invented the credit card. Not really, but his unsuccessful pitch for the idea in this story establishes him and his team as highly capable and forward thinking. But they can’t get anyone to listen.

An epic fart dominates one of the episode’s most pivotal scenes. It’s an obvious writer’s misdirection (a minus) but also a fart joke (a plus).

Lots of great lines in Ethelrida’s opening monologue about the rise and fall of the ethnic gangs:

  • “If America is a nation of immigrants than how does one become American?”
  • “The minute your relax and fatten up somebody hungry is going to come along, looking for your piece of the pie.”
  • “But none of the people in that room were white.” (A reference to the fact that Italians and Irish were not considered white at first).

As good as that monologue was (and I might be biased, because I’m writing about some of the same subject matter) it was a little clunky from a narrative standpoint. We seem to have a mosaic on our hands more so than a tight story. We’ll see how this turns out.

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Read the Season 4 Preview

Next Episode: “The Land of Taking and Killing

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