Through the lens of a lot of popular fiction, the story of organized crime in America is the story of American immigration. From The Godfather to Scarface to American Me and Gangs of New York, gangster dramas chronicle the stories of those who arrive on these shores to find they are immediately the underclass, denied the privilege and goodwill held by those already here and blamed for society’s ills. Shut out from earning the American Dream, they decide to take it, banding together with their fellow immigrants for protection and then power. They often survive, these stories argue, by putting the next wave of immigrants after them under their boot.
The FX anthology series Fargo — which returned for its fourth installment this week after a three-year absence — has traditionally not been about this sort of crime story. Prior installments spun pulp yarns that were more in tune with the film of the same name the series is inspired by, where the trademark niceness of Midwestern folk is demonstrated as a farce partly thanks to a suitcase full of money. To creator Noah Hawley, Fargo, both the film and his series, are chapters in a book about the history of crime in the Midwest. Its first three seasons were each set in a different time period and featured a different cast, but they rarely strayed far from the bloodstained Minnesota Nice of the film.
This new season is different. 2020’s Fargo weaves a tale of warring crime families in 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, and in turn becomes a story about immigrants and grand ideas of America. It is ambitious, slick, and ponderous, carefully lining up dominoes for a spectacular collapse, but never illuminating anything a student of the gangster epics doesn’t already know.
The stage is set when Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) arrives in Kansas City. The head of a black crime syndicate comprising migrants fleeing the Jim Crow South, Cannon seeks to establish a foothold in a town run by the Fadda family, the local mafia. In the show’s premiere, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy,” Fargo recounts how the Faddas came to control Kansas City: First the underworld belonged to the Jewish Moskowitz Syndicate, who were then supplanted by the arrival of the Irish who formed the Milligan Concern. The Milligans betray the Moskowitz Syndicate, and once they’re in power, the Faddas arrive and do the same to the Milligans. The cycle is about to begin anew, but there’s chaos afoot.
Fargo’s new season sprawls in ways that don’t make sense at first. One of the first characters viewers meet is Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, a precocious girl (E’myri Crutchfield) giving a school report; in short order we are also introduced to Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), a nurse with a cruel streak, along with Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille), a volatile pair of lovers and robbers. All these characters are ancillary to the plot of Cannon’s struggle against the Fadda family, but Fargo slowly traces lines between them, attempting to form a tapestry for all of America through the diorama of its version of Kansas City.
The series gestures at ideas of assimilation and the construction of whiteness, depicting generations of immigrants poorly regarded until times changed and the immigrant class with them. With writing that’s not nearly as deft as its filmmaking, Fargo examines whiteness as a construct of power, dramatizing ideas expressed in scholarly works on immigration and race like Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White or David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness. Reading those books for yourself would probably be more illuminating. Fargo remains exquisitely made and very well acted, but this season is plagued by characters prone to giving speeches whenever possible. It’s a story where characters constantly talk at each other and not to each other, which eventually becomes as annoying to observe as it would be to experience.
A great premiere coupled with Fargo’s three-year absence from television earns a lot of goodwill that is slowly sapped over the next few episodes, as this story’s sprawl begins to get the better of it. Episodes feel like they have multiple endings; actors give impeccable performances, but characters give very little to hold onto beyond their big speeches; and there’s a general lack of wit in this installment that is often present when Fargo is at its best. Perhaps it’s a side effect of a story prominently about criminals, omitting normal folk almost entirely.
Fargo introduces us to its story by presenting a cycle; it begins its tale in earnest by setting up the conflict that will either break or define that cycle. The trouble is, we’ve already watched it play out. “Families are always rising and falling in America,” says Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Departed, another work about such patterns. He’s summarizing Hawthorne, yet another observer of American power. The role of whiteness in that power is now obvious to us. It is hard to watch a show that seems interested in exploring that as if we’ve never heard it before.