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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
The fourth season of "Fargo" stars Chris Rock as Loy Cannon, a ruthless Kansas City crime boss battling an Italian American gang for power in the 1950s. In order to keep the peace while doing business, Loy and his rival swap their youngest sons as hostages.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The series is both an immigrant tale and a migrant tale viewed through the familiar lens of a gritty mobster saga. Though true to the Coen brothers' sensibilities, creator Noah Hawley injects it with darkly oddball humor and characters. I'm Glen Weldon.
HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Fargo" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HARRIS: Welcome back. So the fourth season of "Fargo" - or fourth year, as creator Noah Hawley prefers to call each new installment - premiered on FX in September. Now, if you're familiar with the series, you'll know that it is part of the Coen brothers' cinematic universe. It's very loosely connected to their 1996 movie of the same name. And each season takes place in a different era with a new cast of A-list stars and character actors.
This time around, Holly moves the action to Kansas City in the early 1950s. Chris Rock plays a Black mob syndicate named Loy Cannon. He challenges the reigning Italian American gang led by Jason Schwartzman's Josto Fadda. Now, aside from these warring factions, we've got Jessie Buckley playing a nefarious nurse, Timothy Olyphant playing a determined sheriff on the hunt for a couple of outlaws and lots of monologues about what it means to be an American. There is so much going on here (laughter). Glen, what did you make of this season so far?
WELDON: (Laughter) Well, I mean, just generally speaking, I'm all in for Noah Hawley as a rule, though if you put a gun to my head - which is a thing that happens a lot on the show...
WELDON: ...I would have to say that I prefer his other FX series, "Legion," and not just because it's a superhero riff, which it is, but because it's even weirder, even more stylized, even more idiosyncratic. It's also, not for nothing, funnier. When "Fargo" isn't firing on all cylinders, when it's not at the peak of its powers, it can't help but feel like a Coen brothers pastiche. And that's unavoidable. I get it. It's in the DNA of the show. But I think his voice is stronger on "Legion." Also, "Legion's" about mental health and addiction, where "Fargo" is about, as you mentioned, violence - capital V - in America - capital A. And I just kind of...
WELDON: ...Gravitate toward one more than the other. Now, we should note that production of this season was halted by COVID-19, and it started up again later.
WELDON: And I've seen some speculation that that might explain why this season feels disjointed. But I think the real issue here is just how overstuffed these episodes are with storylines and with characters. I mean, I'm looking at this cast list. And I stopped counting at 25...
HARRIS: (Laughter) Yeah.
WELDON: ...Which, for television, that is a Russian novel. I mean, that's a lot.
WELDON: They were also supposed to originally just be 10 episodes. But he realized midway through the season that he had too much material. So he got FX to agree to do an 11th episode. I could have told him that was going to happen 15 minutes into the premiere of Season 4...
WELDON: ...Because there's just so many things going on here. And because there are so many very, I don't know, quirky, I guess, outsized, bigger-than-life characters and just performances, which are, to be fair, a hell of a lot of fun to watch, you could almost convince yourself that this is a character-driven show or even a character study. But this show has never been that. This is a potboiler. It is a purely plot-driven machine in which, yes, as you mentioned, characters occasionally get to deliver monologues. This season, it's about, you know, what America is. But every time that happens, I keep thinking about all these storylines we haven't caught up with in a long time. Like, what's going on with the nurse? What's going on with the prison escapees? And, Aisha, what the hell's going on with the ghost?
HARRIS: Wait. Ghost?
WELDON: (Laughter) What is the - when do we go back to the ghost?
HARRIS: Wait. Am I forgetting about a ghost?
WELDON: That's right. I'm always having a good time watching this show. I want to make that clear. It doesn't look or feel like anything else on television even in the prestige era. And there is a joy to just kind of laying back and surrendering to these plot mechanics and the way they intersect. For example, when a poisoned apple pie gets introduced, you just sit back and wait for the Chekhov's pie to pay off. And when it does, it's really satisfying, but not because you care about these characters - right? - because, in a very real sense, you don't have enough time with any one character to generate much empathy for them. In my case, I just admire the craftsmanship of the storytelling. But it is a purely intellectual response.
HARRIS: So I mean, I think I might actually like this a little bit more than you do, Glen. I will say I almost gave up on it after the second episode. The second episode - there's just so much happening, and there are so many characters. And I'm already very bad with names and faces, like, in real life.
WELDON: (Laughter) And this show is really bad with names.
HARRIS: Yes. Yes. In the first episode, they do give you, like, you know, title cards for various characters as they're introduced. But that's not really helpful if you're watching a weekly show and not necessarily...
HARRIS: ...Bingeing it. So I have a hard time telling a lot of these, like, henchmen, like, side characters who aren't Jason Schwartzman or Chris Rock or Glynn Turman. I don't know who these characters are, and so I had to follow it. Now, one of the things that I appreciate about what it's trying to do is it is telling this familiar story about the American dream, blah, blah, blah. But I feel like there are moments and scenes that really stood out for me. I came into this very skeptical about Chris Rock and whether or not he could play this, like, menacing mob boss. I have to say most of it is this bias I have ever since I saw him in an episode on "Empire"...
HARRIS: ...Where he's supposed to play a drug lord who's, like, feared by everyone. And he was - Chris Rock was not giving me fear. He was giving me, I'm reading these cards. You can see me reading this line. And my voice is...
HARRIS: ...Disconnected from my body. So I came into it with that. And I actually think him and Jason Schwartzman, who is another person you don't necessarily expect to see playing a mob boss - I think they are doing really interesting things with their roles. They're not menacing. They're not supposed to be menacing. They're instead calculating. In Jason Schwartzman's case, his character, Josto Fadda, is very kind of bumbling and awkward and weird. He kind of gives me Roman vibes from "Succession." Like, he's kind of...
HARRIS: ...Squirmy and just awkward.
WELDON: And overcompensating. Yeah.
HARRIS: Totally overcompensating. And Chris Rock, he wants to do better for his family. He has all of these ideas. There's a scene early on where he talks about - he actually goes to meet with a bank and the white bank owner and talk about this idea for a credit card. And he's forward-thinking. He's kind of like the Stringer Bell of this, where he's like, yeah, I'm in this sort of dirty crime business, but I also want to think ahead and try and, like, go a different route and take, like, a more businesslike approach to these things. I liked all of that.
I will say that, yes, it's trying to tackle so many things at once that it doesn't quite land. And neither you or I have seen the entire series yet because they've only made nine episodes available to critics ahead of time, but I kind of wonder where all of this is going to wind up and where it's going to land. And it's just - there's a lot. It's just a lot. It is excess.
WELDON: There is a lot. And I think, for me, what I was grappling with is the E.M. Forster distinction between flat characters and round characters. Or maybe I should say that the way it just sounded coming out of my mouth - the E.M. Forster distinction between flat characters and round characters. I mean, you do need both in fiction, and flat characters are your secondary, tertiary characters. They serve the plot. They're built around a single idea, a single trait, a single characteristic. And every time you see them, they execute it. They do the same thing. They don't surprise you. They're not built to surprise you.
But you want your main characters to be round. They've got to have nuance. They got to have facets. They got to grow, and they have to be capable of making a choice that surprises you. I'm looking around this thing. I see nothing but flat characters, which is what happens a lot of times when you're doing pastiche or satire or farce. I mean, Jason Schwartzman, I agree, is great. But you go to Jason Schwartzman when you want Max Fisher the mob boss, right? That's what you go to that guy for.
And I agree. Chris Rock - he's surprised me here because he's digging in, and he's serving you anger. But there's no humor in what he's doing, no nuance. And I really like the performance of Jessie Buckley as Nurse Mayflower. She is not recognizable from when she was in "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things." That's completely different. This actress has huge range, but she's doing a very specific thing every time we see her. It's a hell of a lot of fun to watch, but that character's only got that one note to play.
The only exception I see possibly is the character of Ethelrida, a young girl played by E'myri Crutchfield. But that character is so kind of impassive. She's not showing us much. I suspect we're going to see something from her, but we're not seeing it yet because we are getting such thin slices of each of these characters.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think with Ethel, her storyline is also very frustrating because she narrates the very first episode, and then she kind of gets pushed to the background for the next couple of episodes, when they focus on all the men and the gang warfare. I think to me, she is passive. But I also think the relationship she has with her mom and her aunt and - we haven't even mentioned yet that the two outlaws - and I think this is where I kind of really like this show and the way in which the women...
HARRIS: ...Get to have fun in some ways. But Ethel's character, she has an aunt who is one of the outlaws. Her name is Zelmare Roulette, and she has a partner/lover named Swanee Capps. They're both bank robber escapees. And they have a really interesting couple of scenes with Ethel where they kind of talk about - and, again, we've already said this, but there's a lot of, like, we're going to talk about crime and talk about America and what it means. But they had a really interesting scene where they talk about the difference between being a criminal and being an outlaw.
And I like the way they play with that and the way it kind of sparks Ethel's desire to not be as passive as she is in the first episodes. And so there - we won't spoil it for those who might not be completely caught up. But she does kind of take action in a way that I think will propel her story forward, hopefully, and will make it a little bit more interesting.
I want to talk a little bit about just the way this relates to the "Fargo" universe in general. Now, I have to say that I - this is the first time I'm watching "Fargo."
HARRIS: I've seen the movie, of course, but I have not watched the series. And so I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I know you said "Legion" is something you prefer, but, you know, when it's firing on all cylinders for you, what does that look like based on the past seasons of "Fargo"?
WELDON: What Hawley does is he usually puts a somebody who is entirely sympathetic, empathetic in the center of the piece - like, usually law person who is kind of pursuing justice and is kind of a Marge Gunderson from the film "Stand-In." This time, the lawgiver we get - the main guy, anyway - is played by Timothy Olyphant, who doesn't drop till Episode 3 - you know, he goes against what I was just saying. He is kind of a rounded character because he's got sides to him, some of which are very, very ugly.
One of the things that I really like about this series as it's developed is that there are connections between seasons - or years - and there's connections to the original film. But they come at a slant. They come at oblique angles. And I suspect - we can't talk about this 'cause I don't think these episodes have aired yet. But I think there is a very clear connection between this season and Season 2 of the show.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. We haven't even talked about Ben Whishaw, who plays...
HARRIS: The Irishman, I guess, is what they call him. But his nickname is Rabbi, so it's like, Irishman, Rabbi. That also brings us to the central conceit of this, which is that, as we mentioned earlier, the two families swapped sons and took them as hostages just so that they could keep things peaceful. And, of course, this is "Fargo," so things go awry.
But the Irishman, played by Ben Whishaw, is a character who was one of those kids who was traded when his family was part of the - like, the war against the Italians. And so he has, like, a sort of backstory there. And I actually thought he had a little bit more of a rounding, as you talk about, than some of the other characters do just because he kind of waffles back and forth between loyalties and whatnot. And sometimes you don't know necessarily how he's going to react or what he's going to do. But I also think I just kind of have a love for Ben Whishaw, so any time he's in something, I'm just taken by him.
WELDON: Oh, I completely share that, absolutely. And he is playing it much closer to the vest than a lot of these other actors are doing. And the guy who plays Jason Schwartzman's brother - he's played by Salvatore Esposito, and he is going big. He does not have a scene where he is not bugging out his eyes in a very unblinking way to be threatening.
But Ben Whishaw, of course, is Ben Whishaw. He can do that in certain movies, but he certainly - that's not his wheelhouse. And at the end of the day, though, because of that switching of the sons and how we see how that happens across generations, I am not convinced this show has as much to say about race as it seems to think it does. It feels like it's pushing these characters into slots, as I mentioned before, to affect the story beats instead of having the story grow out of choices these characters make. But that said, I'm...
WELDON: ...In for the long haul. I will watch to the end even if that end is one episode longer than I thought it was going to be.
HARRIS: (Laughter) I mean, to that point about race, I have to completely agree with you on that. I think that the way in which the show almost always - or this season almost always deals with race is through big, sweeping monologues, and some of them work. Glynn Turman, who is a great character actor and plays Loy's, like, right-hand man - he has a couple of those scenes where he's talking about - there's one monologue where he talks about being in the war in WWII and coming back and the double V for victory and how, you know, Black people were not given what they were promised for fighting for the war. And, oh, man, that was probably my favorite scene hands down.
WELDON: I agree.
HARRIS: But then Chris Rock also has another very obvious one where he's talking about, oh, well, you know, we're not just fighting for territory. We're fighting 400 years of oppression. And I was like, I mean, yes, but do we really need to (laughter) - do we need to sign this so much? I wish there was just a little bit more nuance. But overall, the race part aside, I really do enjoy a lot of it. So I find it very entertaining.
HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about Season 4 of "Fargo." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh on Twitter at PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Glen, for being here as always.
WELDON: Thank you, Aisha.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And if you have a second and are so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We'll see you next time.
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