FARGO, Season 4: “The Nadir”

Karen Aldridge as Zelmare Roulette, Kelsey Asbille as Swanee Capps. (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 8: “The Nadir”

(Original air date: November 8, 2020)

Who are we cheering for in the fourth season of “Fargo?” That’s a tough question.

Of course, we pull for the young ones: Ethelrida, Satchel, even little Zero. They aren’t corrupted yet. But the adults are all desperate, damaged, or cruel, each in their own special way. The possible exceptions are the mothers — Dibrell Smutney, Buel Cannon, Chianna Fadda — but none of this seems to work out for them.

Indeed, we find it difficult to pick sides in the gang war between the Cannons and Faddas. Yes, the Cannons are ambitious strivers in the face of racial prejudice. But Loy Cannon appears to cause a mass murder in this episode. Maybe not directly, but without much thought, and perhaps that is worse.

Meanwhile, Josto and Gaetano Fadda are incomplete men, poor leaders who will probably kill each other along the way. The outlaws Zelmare and Swanee? They’re sassy and interesting, but they gun down so many innocents in this episode that it’s hard to find them as endearing as we are supposed to.

We could cheer for law enforcement, but so much of what we see of “the law” in this story is also corrupted. Odis admits that power is what drew him to the badge. The exception might be Deafy Wickware, who holds true to his strict code of personal ethics and religious beliefs, but who also casually calls Loy Cannon “boy” and tells the Italians that he comes from a place where guys like them are hanged without trial.

There are no heroes. And maybe that notion, brutally thrust into this storyline, is the point of this season. Of the four vaguely interconnected seasons of “Fargo” so far, this is the one set the earliest. And it makes the argument that the real villain is generational trauma.

“The Nadir” begins with Josto Fadda having lunch with his rarely seen fiancee and her father, a local politician running for mayor. The gal thinks it’s a friendly lunch, but for her father and future husband it’s a negotiation. Josto wants an election day wedding. This is a power play because, seemingly unknown to the poor young woman, Josto is supposed to deliver the election to the would-be mayor as a pre-condition to the marriage.

Josto seems to get his way in a scene cut by split screens showing him having risky strangulation sex with our favorite sociopathic nurse Oraetta Mayflower. Josto, we now fully understand, is highly flexible in the morality department.

We get a critical scene for Josto and Oraetta here. For one thing, Josto seems to think he can get married and still keep Oraetta as a girlfriend. Oraetta seems to want much more out of their relationship.

But both of them also reveal themselves to each other. For her part, Oraetta explains her desire to be a nurse by referring to a mother who took care of her when she was sickly. But what she describes sounds much more like abuse; a mother who poisoned her daughter and then seduced doctors to secure the necessary medical care. Pretty sick. And would explain Oraetta quite well.

Josto talks about his childhood, specifically referring to the “Devil,” the Irishman Yiddles Milligan who abused him when he was traded to him by his father. “He did things no one should do to a child,” he said. Josto then confesses that he loves Oraetta, something she doesn’t take well at all. It’s hard to tell if that’s because she just found out Josto was getting married or because he said the words in the first place. Either way, she’s steamed.

Oraetta is also distressed because she just learned that Dr. Harvard, the boss she poisoned, is still alive. That means she’s going to have to go to the hospital to finish him off.

Back at the Fadda compound, Josto walks in to see his men gathered around a bruised and bloodied Gaetano, freshly released from the Cannon gang. Gaetano promptly pounds the crap out of Josto, knocking him out. He awakens to find Gaetano waiting for him. But, to his surprise, Gaetano is happy now. He thinks Josto’s gamble — to kill a child to force Cannon to overthink what to do to his enemy’s brother — was genius. He pledges his undying loyalty to Josto, with almost too much pomp and circumstance to be believed.

Across town, Loy learns that the Fadda brothers have patched up their differences rather than kill each other. When asked his next move, Loy says one word: “Fargo.”

He’s going to deploy Mort Kellerman’s gang that he armed with the Fadda’s guns a few episodes back.

Loy’s wife Buel Cannon visits Dibrell Smutney at the funeral home. In a winding conversation, she reveals that she wants Dibrell and Thurman to do a service for her son Satchel, who she believes to be dead. She also informs her oldest son Lemuel about the death of his brother.

Oraetta reaches the hospital to learn that Dr. Harvard has been transferred to a secure hospital out of state. They know he was poisoned. This leaves Oraetta in a tough spot. Not only did she poison him, but now she’s been revealed asking about him and his location.

She rushes home and begins to pack. She’s going to have to ditch, it seems. But as she’s packing up she finds Ethelrida’s notebook, left in the secret closet full of poison and death mementos by mistake. She recognizes the handwriting and realizes that the girl next door was the one who tipped off Dr. Harvard in the first place.

Loy Cannon returns home to pick up a few things. Deafy Wickware shows up. We get a tense scene in Loy’s living room. It’s an inverse of the scene when Loy meets with Thurman Smutney about the money. Only this time Deafy seems to have the power while Loy is forced to listen.

Deafy expounds on an idea that he has shared with others. The idea that those with the “criminal mindset” seem to craft their own code to justify their behaviors. But he said such codes collapse quickly when confronted with real threats. He tells Cannon, to his face, that his veneer of respectability — the house, the car, the community service — are all lies, and that God knows they’re lies. At some point Deafy and Cannon’s man draw guns. But he is undeterred. He wants Loy to give up Zelmare and Swanee.

And he does. To avoid trouble. To wash his hands of that whole problem. But in giving up those two he begets horrors that we will soon see.

This scene wraps up with one final exchange. Deafy alludes to the friendly nature of Mormans. But Loy says, “No, you’re not, but it’s the way you’re unfriendly, like you’re doing me a favor.”

If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s the signature line of Mike Milligan when he first encounters Minnesotans in Season Two. This only amplifies the likelihood that Mike Milligan is really an adult Satchel Cannon. It also, however, seems contrived. That’s a great line, critical to understanding Mike Milligan’s character in what was arguably the best season of “Fargo.” And while we might imagine that he got the line from his father Loy, we know that Satchel isn’t in this room to hear that line. We’re forced to assume that they both came up with it independently, like some sort of genetic wit. It was an initially exciting, but ultimately hollow way to end what was one of the season’s best scenes and best performances.

Downtown, Deafy explains his plans to the the Kansas City Police Station. Basically, a bunch of uniformed officers are going to storm the train station with guns drawn. There isn’t much art to this strategy, and we’ll see the consequences soon. Odis tells Deafy that he wants to go clean, to help on this mission. Deafy forces him to admit who was on the phone just then. Odis tells the truth (we think), that it was Loy Cannon, that he wants the two gals out of the picture one way or another. That’s plausible, and Deafy agrees that he should help.

This brings us to the first of two showpiece scenes in Episode 8: the train station. It’s hard not to see parallels with the iconic train station scene in “The Untouchables,” and other scenes of its ilk. We see Zelmare and Swanee enjoying a few peaceful moments before their train arrives. They’re about to get away. But then Zelmare sees Deafy looking down from the balcony. She knows the jig is up. She and Swanee kiss and prepare to go down shooting. At some point they see the death ghost, the one that haunted Swanee when she was sick and Ethelrida when she was worried. Again, only Zelmare seems to see him, but it almost seems like Deafy sees him too.

As the cops storm down the stairs to the two outlaws, Zelmare and Swanee draw a rather formidable arsenal of weaponry from their coats, including a machine gun. Though most of what happens occurs off camera, we hear a dizzying array of gunfire and quickly learn that dozens of people are dead — cops and civilians alike. Frankly, it’s a disturbing event, one that reminds of countless mass shootings in recent years.

Odis manages to leave the car, having gone through several attempts to overcome his anxiety and OCD. But we soon learn that his anguish wasn’t just fear. He has his own plan to execute. Odis finds Deafy, who has the two women cornered after they run out of ammo. But rather than help, he shoots Deafy and then Swanee. For some inexplicable reasons he hesitates when he turns to shoot Zelmare and she flees in shock and horror.

Deafy, even in death, seems to convey a judgmental facial expression.

Back at the Fadda house, Josto and Gaetano revel awkwardly in their strained new alliance. Their mother comes out to implore them to wear warmer clothes. They chide her in an almost unbearable series of movie cliches. “Aw, mom.” But just then the Fargo mob busts through the bushes with guns blazing. All of the Fadda guards are killed, the house is riddled with bullets. Josto hides behind a wood pile while Gaetano, ever the warrior, draws two pistols and returns fire.

For some inexplicable reason, the half dozen guys with machine guns back off when one guy with pistols shoots back. Josto and Gaetano survive the assault, but their poor mother — who only wanted them to come in from the cold — lies dead on the kitchen floor.

EPISODE GRADE: Could Be Worse. This season is highly watchable, and this episode is full of so much action and intrigue. But the episode uses all these resources poorly, leaving deep questions about the point of the story. And there were at least two moments where the artifice of the writing pokes out like a broken bone.

Minnesota Details

  • So, “Fargo” isn’t in Minnesota. We all know that. But when Loy calls out “Fargo” as an order, meaning to dispatch their allies in Fargo to go after the Faddas, we feel the heart of the show come back, at least a little. I especially felt it when I saw the flapped winter hats on the gunmen as they ambushed the Fadda compound.
  • Oraetta has a hilarious “run-walk” when she gets angry. It’s very Minnesotan. I’ve seen many women do this. It’s always funny, unless it’s because of something you did.

Stray Observations

  • Gaetano embraces Josto after concluding that his brother’s gamble with his own life was actually a genius move. The look that the family advisor Ebal gives is absolutely perfect. He is deeply suspicious, doesn’t believe it for a second. Like his dead friend Doctor Senator, he is an old man who will have to clean up all this shit left behind by young men.
  • In the scene where Lemuel and Ethelrida converse at the Smutney home, Lemuel holds up a Duke Ellington album. The title: “Duke Ellington: Live at Fargo.” Cue your best Fozzy Bear facial expression.
  • When Oraetta is packing up in a frenzy the music drives the energy of the scene. It’s a sort of African drumline sound. One thing I like about this season is the way the music often blends African folk sounds into an Americana motif.
  • Based on the preview, it appears the next episode will be in black-and-white. We’ll find out what happens with Rabbi Milligan, young Satchel, and the killer Constant Calamita.

Read more at the Fargo Review page.

Previous Episode: “Lay Away

Next Episode: “East/West

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