A staple of the Fargo extended universe is its opening — the “This is a true story” title card. But the events are never true. Perhaps a grisly murder is ripped from a local newspaper’s metro section. But Fargo is not a biopic, docudrama, or even a very loosely based on — it’s a work of fiction. Be that as it may, the FX anthology series, which wrapped up its fourth season on Sunday (November 29tth), has a central thesis forged in truth: the cornerstone of gang activity in America is born out of necessity. The United States of America is a nation inseparable from capitalism, terror, violence, and racism. Thus, the natural order of things when America’s subjugated or disenfranchised peoples are denied access to American institutions is to find a way to survive outside of the parameters of a hostile system, but within the bounds of its soul. It’s either you or me and if it’s dog eat dog, you need to be a wolf. Behind the veneer of gunplay and family drama, Fargo is a period piece fecund in overt and covert messaging on how disenfranchisement breeds alternate economies.
Fargo‘s fourth season began with narration from Ethelrida Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield), a precocious teenager who, as a young Black woman, often has her insurmountable wit taken for granted. She acts as our sherpa, guiding us through the history of Kansas City’s underworld within the show’s lore up until present day. She explains that, at the start, “Hebrew” immigrants formed the Moskowitz Syndicate, then Irish people came and formed the Mulligan Concern. After the Mulligan Concern came Italian immigrants whose Fadda Crime Family gained power. She leaves viewers in 1950, where the season takes place with the Cannon Limited, the new stalwart in town that is composed of Black people who immigrated from the South. To keep peace and get at least a surface level understanding of one another’s cultures, each of these families had their boss trade their youngest boy to the other.
What we quickly become aware of is that these exchanges always prove futile for the parties involved. The trade only delays wars between the crime families rather than put them to bed. What propels the drama during the season is Chris Rock‘s Loy Cannon, the head of Cannon Limited who trades his youngest boy Satchel to the Fadda Family, only to realize that violent conflict between the two is imminent regardless of any offering. The Fadda and Cannon crews operate outside of the prosaic trappings of institutional capitalism, yet their thirst for power and wealth leads them down a path of inevitable destruction. This is Americana in its malignant truth.
Nativist discrimination has always been a tenet of American fervor. In 1855, mobs in Louisville, Kentucky, ravished Irish-Catholic neighborhoods, leaving more than 22 people dead. In the aftermath, five people were arrested but none were convicted. This incident would later be known as Bloody Monday. In 1891, an angry mob in New Orleans took to the streets and lynched 11 Italians after suspects put on trial for the murder of a police chief were found not guilty. Coupled with acts of terror like these, in the mid-1800s and early 1900s, immigrants — chiefly Italian and Irish-Catholic — faced an abundance of discrimination. Propaganda was drawn up and placed in newspapers that depicted these people as diseased savages, lazy ne’er′-do-wells, and job-stealing monkeys (sound familiar?) with “No Catholics Need Apply” signs adorning storefronts. Smutny’s narration speaks to this, as she goes on to say the following about the families in the first episode:
“And here’s what you need to know. None of the people in that room were white. They were dagos, Negroes, micks, all fighting for the right to be created equal. But equal to what? And who decides?”
At this point in history, Irish and Catholic people were not fully welcomed into the fraternity of whiteness. According to the established white supremacist pecking order, they meandered in a cloudy space below white, but above our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. With subjugation and ordained poverty at the hands of the malevolent state — which demands participation in the economy in order for us people to survive — they created their own alternate economy. One that, at its core, mirrors the selfish, violent, opportunistic trappings of capitalism.
Italian and Irish immigrants established organized crime in the 1800s with gangs in New York City like the Forty Thieves and Dead Rabbits. But the season takes place in an interesting time. By the 1950s, Italian and Irish Americans were beginning to fully integrate and assimilate into society — into whiteness. This sentiment is mirrored by Jason Schartzman’s Josto Fadda, the leader of the Faddas, who states that although he’s a mob boss, by the time his son is of age, he’s got a real shot at becoming the president. He has the presence of mind to sense these tides shifting, even though his dying father is denied admittance into a hospital because of the Fadda heritage. Since the great assimilation of the 20th century, mob activity has been on a precipitous decline. Currently, and by no coincidence, Black and Latinx folks — the most disenfranchised people in America — are predominantly involved in organized crime. This historical context is important because it is a testament to what is possible for us when we are seen as fully human, and what is a near obligation to so many when we aren’t.
Loy Cannon has dreams, too. He and his highly educated consigliere, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), walk into a bank with a multi-billion dollar idea. Cannon pitches the idea for the first credit card and is summarily denied because he’s Black. The banker thinks white people are too “hard working” and “honest” to ever want to use a thing called credit. He’s offered some lollipops on the way out and later in the season, he sees a large advertisement introducing credit cards to the world on the white side of town. Neither Cannon or the Howard-educated Doctor Senator actually want to be at the head of a criminal enterprise. They just want any opportunity to live and be successful. But Cannon Limited is sadly all the world had to offer these men, no matter how brilliant they truly are.
Fans of the Fargo series probably immediately recognized that the fourth season isn’t like the three that preceded it. Fargo is typically a bloody comedy of errors, packed to the brim with strange characters, intense politeness, and buffoons. As an anthology — one that doesn’t have any direct throughline from the film that it derives its name from — these are the idiosyncrasies that bind the series. The ways in which series creator Noah Hawley seamlessly weaves zaniness, suspense, comedy, surrealism, power plays, and crime capers together, is what has made Fargo a sleeper pick for the best one-hour television program over its six-year run. The bulk of the fourth season only dabbles in Midwestern oddity and is predominately a study in realism. There is one major callback and bit of fan service, with the end credits revealing the origin story of fan-favorite — and perhaps the best character of the series — Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), the intelligent, cold-blooded, debonair who was once Satchel. Fargo presents a hard truth: that white supremacy and capitalism birthed the underworld in America. By effectively prohibiting large groups of people from opportunity for nearly two centuries, the disenfranchised are basically given a choice between poverty and living outside the law, where we’re forced to try and find our way, and are oftentimes pitted against one another, regardless of our station in life. Today, that means a litany of Black and brown people in the most neglected parts of the country, where they’re often painted as villainous scoundrels or superpredators. But they’re none of these things — they’re just trying to survive in America.
H. Drew Blackburn is a writer based in Dallas, Texas, whose work has been published by Texas Monthly, GQ, Complex and more. He’s working on a few screenplays. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @hdrewblackburn.
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