FARGO, Season 4: “The Birthplace of Civilization”

Glynn Turman as Doctor Senator (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 5: The Birthplace of Civilization

(Original air date: October 18, 2020)

“You know why America loves a crime story?” asks Josto Fadda. “Because America is a crime story.”

Season 4 of “Fargo” unleashes torrents of clever lines like these, all coordinated toward themes of inequality, power, and the upward (if ultimately downward) mobility of crime and punishment. Taken on their own these snappy rejoinders are great. The only downside is that there are so many characters jostling to say lines like these that the plot seems to be constantly buffering.

The 1950 Kansas City mob war between the Italian Fadda Family and the ascendant Black organization, the Cannon Limited, escalates in “The Birthplace of Civilization.” The theoretical stakes become real, all too real for some of the players.

We open on a jazz club where Loy Cannon’s oldest son — the rebel jazz hound Lemuel Cannon — is hanging out with his minder. Police raid the club at the behest of Josto Fadda and arrest Lemuel in brutal fashion. The scene is all too jarring for a modern audience who has seen cell phone footage of Black men being arrested violently.

That’s not the only raid. Officers also bust on Loy’s warehouse. Here we see Odis leading the way. They arrest most of the men, but not Loy. Loy seems unaffected. He even gives us some remarkable backstory on the twitchy Odis. He was a WWII bomb sweeper who screwed up just once, causing the death of a colonel. Loy’s version of the story is rather unsympathetic. Later we learn that Odis only screwed up the bomb assignment because he had just learned of his fiancee’s rape and murder back home. So, now Odis has some depth to go with his quirks. We still don’t know what motivates him to mole for the Fadda family, though.

With more than half a dozen of Loy’s men in jail, including his son, things seem bad. Especially when some cops enter the room, apparently just to sneer at them. But they’re actually just clearing way for Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman) to come give a speech.

Josto tells them how America is a crime story. Americans like a taker. But not if the taker is Black. That’s why, he says, he and his Italians will win this war. They’re not exactly white. But they’re not Black. “Surrender,” he advises.

Rabbi Milligan hangs back to talk to the men. He promises he’ll take care of Satchel Cannon if war comes. One of Cannon’s men said they could take custody of the boy if he felt so softhearted. “You’re all going to die,” Milligan says, dispassionately. He might be right.

Ethelrida writes to Dr. Harvard warning her about the sociopathic killer Oraetta. She uses a false name, but it’s an act of courage for someone who lives across the street from a serial killer. It’s her 17th birthday, but she spends most of it under a lot of stress. She visits her outlaw aunt Zelmare and her lover Swanee at the seedy hotel. They’re about to skip town, but all too slowly for their sake.

Back at school, Ethelrida gets sent to the principal’s office (again), this time to answer more questions from “Deafy,” the prudish yet relentless U.S. Marshal. In an episode dripping with 1950s racism that doesn’t feel so old, Ethelrida reminds Deafy that Africa is the “cradle of civilization,” not something to be ashamed of. For his part, Deafy describes in detail the crimes her aunt committed and threatens Ethelrida with something that counts: her access to an education. We don’t see it, but we gather that she gives up Zelmare and Swanee’s hideout.

Meantime, back at the funeral home, Loy Cannon visits Thurman and Dibrell with some frightening news. He knows the money Thurman gave him was the same money Zelmare and Swanee stole from him. He informs them that he now owns the funeral home and that they’re going to give up Zelmare and Swanee or face the same fate as their clients.

This leads to a dramatic sequence where Deafy is bearing down on the outlaws’ hotel room only to find that Loy and his gang had already been there. Rather than killing the ladies of chaos, Loy enlists them for his coming battle with the Faddas.

Loy’s wife Buel stands up to him in this episode, furious that one son is in jail while the other is in the hands of the enemy. Loy wins the argument by emotional force, but it’s clear that he damages his marriage in doing so.

We also see the menace of the Fadda family usurpers, Gaetano Fadda and Constant Calamiti. Gaetano kills a father and son for the crime of serving him bad coffee.

In the dramatic conclusion to the episode we see Cannon advisor Doctor Senator enter the cafe where he normally meets Fadda consigliere Ebal Violante. But instead the steely eyed Constant Calamiti is waiting at the old familiar table. Gaetano hovers in the corner booth, menacingly eating an ice cream sundae. Now Calamiti gets to give a speech, this one about his childhood hardships and resulting viciousness. The vengeful henchman was a “baby in a box,” now he’s a “monster on earth.” Senator is tired of all this. He sees the pair as just two more young men striving to prove themselves, creating a mess he’ll have to clean up.

He doesn’t get the chance, though. Doctor Senator pays the waitress on his way out. She seems to sense the danger he’s in. As he retreats to his car Constant and Gaetano rush out of the restaurant. They gun down Doctor Senator. His guard is too slow and also falls in the gunfire.

Later we see Loy Cannon and his men looking down at his closest friend, dead in the street. In many ways Doc was the brains behind his organization. Loy is devastated. And while he’s certainly sad and mad, you can help but sense fear, too, in his stunned expression.

Those boys created a mess alright, but Loy will have to clean it up without the benefit of his closest advisor.

Minnesota details

Let’s talk about Gaetano slipping on the ice. As Gaetano and Calamiti pull up outside a small bar/restaurant, the demonstrative Italian steps out of the vehicle with a great deal of pep. We are treated to a high concept scene showing him half dancing across the empty street to some dramatic music that only he seems to be able to hear. And then, WHOOP, he goes ass over teakettle on some ice.

The kid from the restaurant, outside on break, can’t help but giggle. But he quickly regrets it, for the two fearsome mobsters lack a sense of humor. Gaetano show-acts how it was really funny, how the kid should have laughed, but we soon learn that he’s just burying his rage and humiliation from the episode.

Setting aside the meaning of the scene, let’s talk about walking on ice. Much of Minnesota culture can be explained by the fact that ice makes dancing or even walking with a sense of purpose legitimately dangerous almost half the year. As a result, Minnesotans are trained from a young age to walk like a penguin. No really, there are videos. Humans are products of their limitations. We define the parameters of life by what we can or can’t do. Or, more accurately, what we think we should or shouldn’t do.

In Minnesota, we walk hesitantly to avoid slipping. We speak quickly because it’s fucking cold outside. We embrace passive avoidance instead of directness because winter kills all but that which we choose to keep warm. Winter is our enforcer, tougher than any human, including — in this case — the crazed gunman Gaetano Fadda.

Stray observations

  • Farewell to Doctor Senator and a marvelous performance by Glynn Turman. His untimely death provides time for even more speeches by even more characters.
  • Not much Oraetta in this episode. She has to actually take care of a sick person without killing him, and it appears to be killing her.
  • Watching Chris Rock as Loy Cannon and Jason Schwartzman as Josto Fadda I’m struck by how these guys share many qualities. Their characters are tough, but not scary. They seem vulnerable, maybe even more so than the men who work for them. And they seem to know it.
  • Something about all the speeches in this season reminds me of a jazz performance that jazz people love but other people can’t stand. As a speech guy and a longtime “Fargo” analyst I’m greatly enjoying this season despite its overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey qualities. Though I certainly understand if the same qualities are making others fall asleep.

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “The Pretend War

Next Episode: “Camp Elegance”

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