Episode six of the fourth season of “Fargo” is coming out next Monday, and I do not have any sense of anticipation to watch it. This is a problem for a show that is supposed to be an engaging and subversive crime-drama. Apart from the dark, quirky comedy and examination of the bleak American capitalist ethos which mirrors the original 1996 Coen brothers film, the show is supposed to keep viewers at the edge of their seats. Instead, each new episode arrives without much fanfare. What happened?
As an anthology series, “Fargo” depicts a new crime story every season, each with its own set of eccentric characters and interweaving plot lines. The first season followed a car salesman’s descent into villainy; the second was a mob story set in North Dakota; the third followed an investigation into a mysterious Russian. I watched these first three seasons eagerly, awaiting the next episode as soon as the previous one ended. However, in the latest season, these feelings of anticipation have been replaced with ones of indifference. Many critics and fans online have expressed similar lukewarm reactions to season four. While there are still those who praise the current season to the same extent as previous ones, its overall reception has been mixed at best. The simple question I want to examine is: What is lacking in this season that is present in the others?
To examine this question, I want to compare season four’s two-part premiere (“Welcome to the Alternate Economy” and “The Land of Taking and Killing”) with that of season two’s (“Waiting for Dutch”). I have chosen season two’s premiere for several reasons. First, the two seasons have similar narratives, as they both chronicle mob wars with individuals caught in between the sides. Second, season two is regarded by many—including me—to be the show’s best. By superimposing these two openings, we can get a better sense of where season four’s divergence leads to its lower quality, ultimately giving us a better understanding of what can make the first episode of a complex crime-drama engaging or not.
Season two’s “Waiting for Dutch” begins in 1979 by introducing the Gerhardt family mob, whose operations are based on a farm in Fargo, North Dakota. The reign of the family’s ailing father is ending, leading to an understated power struggle between his three sons, Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), Bear (Angus Sampson), and Rye (Kieran Culkin). Rye, being the youngest, believes he will never achieve the glory he deserves, so he foolishly decides to prove himself through a money-making scheme. His incompetence leads to a botched shooting at a diner, resulting in the deaths of three civilians and himself.
The episode then introduces two cops, Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law Hank Larrson (Ted Danson), who investigate the shooting. Next, the episode introduces a civilian couple, Peggy and Ed Blumquist (Kirsten Dunce and Jesse Plemmons), who accidentally involve themselves in the affairs of the Gerhardt family. Finally, the episode ends with a revelation that a Kansas City mafia is trying to absorb the Gerhardt family farm into their own syndicate by any means necessary.
Although season two has twists and turns, we can generally understand the purpose of all the characters within the plot. Season four’s premiere, however, is much more difficult to follow. Season four’s “Welcome to the Alternate Economy” and “The Land of Taking and Killing” is theoretically about an African American mob faction (headed by Chris Rock’s Loy Cannon) trying to claim territory from an Italian faction (headed by Tommaso Ragno’s Donatello Fadda) in 1950s Kansas City, but the synopsis quickly gets a lot more complicated…
Below is a Sparknotes-esque list of the other characters who relate to this main plot.
The list goes on, and on, and on…
One essential problem with season four’s first episode becomes apparent: its organization or lack thereof. While season 2’s first episode introduces many characters (I count nine essential characters with a plethora of supporting ones), its complexity is mitigated by its grouping of the characters into four sections: the Gerhardt’s, the cops, the couple, and the Kansas City mafia.
Most importantly, the show introduces one section of characters at a time, allowing the audience to understand each individual and their relationships before proceeding to the next plotline. In the first episode, the audience only focuses on the Gerhardt family for 20 minutes, culminating in the delightfully shocking and well-executed botched diner shooting. This is then followed by the second section that focuses on the cops who are investigating the shooting and the third section about the Blumquist couple. Only after establishing all three of these stories separately does the show establish the real conflict: the Kansas City syndicate’s encroachment on the Gerhardt business. It is the skillful organization of these disparate elements that allows the show to evade convolution while enticing the audience to continue watching, eagerly anticipating each new scene.
For season four’s two-hour opening, the reverse is unfortunately true. Instead of grouping each set of characters into their own sequence, the show cuts back and forth between characters while steadily adding new ones, as if they are ingredients being sifted into a cake batter. Perhaps there are too many ingredients, resulting in a dessert much denser than one would like.
Instead of introducing each syndicate with their own sequence, the show—after 30 minutes of dense Kansas City mob history—introduces both factions simultaneously in one scene. It is only in the following sequence that one group is given individual focus: the Italians. However, it is also in this scene that the audience witnesses a shocking turn that is similar to the climax of the diner shooting in season two, leading to the death of an important character, Donatello Fadda.
But because we have not spent much time developing the Italian mob, this climactic scene is underwhelming. Season two’s climax is shocking because the show spends 20 minutes developing Rye Gerhardt as an underdog character with a season-long trajectory. This might be a shocking twist, but it still is a plot point that serves multiple functions within the arc of the season. The death is the entrance to one of the main stories of the second season, while also critiquing the American dream, a rags-to-riches narrative that the character has internalized.
The death of Donatello in season four does not have the same effect for the season. The show placed this mobster’s death so quickly after his introduction that his personality is virtually unknown. Also, he is killed by a deus ex machina instead of a major character, and, unlike season two, this death does not really cause any significant changes to the story.
There are many underwhelming moments like this in season four’s premiere, in which storyline upon storyline is introduced without any clear meaning or hint as to where it could lead. Two hours later, when the final scene rolls around, introducing Timothy Olyphant’s U.S. Marshall, the audience is too confused and disoriented to have any feeling of excited anticipation. They’re most liking thinking (as I thought), “another character?”
The lack of cohesiveness is just one among several reasons as to why season 2’s first episode is more finely crafted than that of season four.
That is not to say that season four could not coalesce into something spectacular as it continues. I applaud the show’s ambition and remain curious to see if it leads to something truly interesting. But, as of now, I do not feel any anticipation or excitement at the prospect of watching the next episode. Instead, I feel more of an itch to rewatch season two. Even though I know how the season unfolds, I want to rewatch tense scenes like Lou’s standoff with Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers, or replay fun lines like Dodd nonchalantly saying, “give me a chocolate glaaze” with an absurd North Dakotan accent in a donut shop after a fight. This is a much more exciting prospect than finding out how Odis Weff connects to Oreatta Mayflower in season four. I just hope that by the time I do, the show will have organized itself in a way that makes me care.
Isaac Slomski-Pritz can be reached at email@example.com