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Just before the finale, Fargo gets interesting again

Illustration for article titled Just before the finale, iFargo /igets interesting again
Photo: FX
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One of the more unpleasant aspects about watching a mediocre season of a show like Fargo—a series that holds its cards close to the vest, building tension by suggesting anything can happen while also promising us it will all come together in the end—is the slowly draining hope that, eventually, the story will figure out how to justify itself. Every time something is confusing or goes in a direction that doesn’t make much sense, every time a character interaction meanders instead of going for the gut, you tell yourself, “Ah, but clearly, they’re just biding their time. Clearly, all of this is exactly what it’s supposed to be.” But the longer that wait goes on, the harder it is to completely believe in it. After a certain point, you have to accept that no story turn could completely make up for all that came before it.

Fargo’s fourth season (not terrible, still very nice to look at and listen to, but hobbled by a lack of focus and an uneven ensemble) passed that point an episode or two ago, which makes “Happy,” maybe the best entry of the season so far, somewhat bittersweet. By the end, we’ve got Ethelrida making her boldest play yet; multiple plotlines finally converging in meaningful ways; and a thorough enough thinning of the cast that (barring Hawley just deciding to bring in a busload of new folks next week) it’s more or less guaranteed the finale is going to spend its time on people we actually care about. It’s tempting to look back and say “Oh, clearly they were playing the long game here,” but I don’t think that’s true. There’s just too much chaff, too much meandering, and too little time spent on actually building up the most interesting aspects of the season, for it to get a pass.

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And it’s not like “Happy” is a complete win, either. We see the end of Odis’s story here, and while there are immediate, unexpected consequences, I’m still not sure this character was ever compelling enough to justify the screen time. Yes, his decision to go over to Loy’s side and shoot Deafy and Swanee was momentous, as is the fact that Gaetano manages to trip and shoot himself in the head right after executing the poor sap, but in terms of who he actually was… Well, does Odis’s twitchiness and need for control really mean much for the season’s ostensible larger themes? And is “turncoat with a tragic backstory” so inherently fascinating that it’s automatically worth watching?

I don’t think so on either count. And it’s just strange watching all of this play out in “Happy,” because there’s no cleverness to it, no reversal of expectations (excluding, of course, Gaetano’s abrupt exit; an exit which has nothing to do with Odis himself, apart from proximity). For a while, Odis worked with the Faddas; then Loy threatened him, so he went over to Loy; and when he raids Josto’s place mid-dinner, Josto swears revenge and, a few days later, gets it. Odis has no plan to escape. There’s maybe a suggestion near the end that he finally finds some peace in death, and the sequence where he comes home to find his apartment ransacked and the walls closing in is very well shot. Huston is a fine actor, too. It’s just, there’s no reason to tell any of this. It happens like you’d expect it would, and if that’s supposed to be the point, surely it could’ve accomplished the same in less time.

As for Gaetano’s unexpected exit, well, it was definitely unexpected. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. It’s an inarguable subversion of expectations; after spending the whole season building up Gaetano as a bad-ass, to have him go out by his own hand in a moment of moderate triumph is a shock. I don’t think I’ll miss him much, either. But it’s just such a stupid exit that it borders on being too overtly random. It’s not that it’s implausible that he would trip, exactly, although it is relatively unlikely that he would’ve tripped in such a way as to immediately shoot himself in the head; part of the point of scenes like this is to remind us that life is often strange and random and weird, unlike stories, where everything happens for a reason. But it’s possible to play that card either too late in the game or too often, and this scene feels a bit like both. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of pressure this puts on Josto, now that the muscle in the family is gone, and there’s some pathos in it, especially considering that the two brothers were friends again. And I dunno, maybe it’s underlining the emptiness of Gaetano’s bravado or something. But it feels more awkward than anything else.

Now that I’ve spent half of what was supposed to be a positive review being all negative: “Happy” finally, finally brings Ethelrida back to center stage, making her once again the main character of the narrative in her efforts to save her family from Loy’s clutches (and maybe see some rough justice done in the process). Turns out she wasn’t entirely satisfied with sending a letter to Doctor Harvard re: Oraetta’s crimes, and decided to do some more research at the library, where she discovered the origins of that ring she stole from Oraetta’s murder closet oh so long ago. The end of the episode has her visiting with Loy and laying things out for him: not only have her parents long since repaid the loan Loy gave them, she also has the means for him to end the war with the Faddas, a means which Loy is in no position to refuse.

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I’m not exactly sure why knowing who really killed Donatella Fadda is going to fix all this; I guess Loy can offer the information up in exchange for a deal to end the fighting? (Although that’s a cessation of hostilities, not a victory.) But regardless, I’m interested in seeing how it plays out, because the episode does a good job of both reminding us of Ethelrida’s resourcefulness and establishing Loy’s desperation. The episode title, “Happy,” is a reference to a nickname of the crime boss Loy turns to for help, a boss who’s none too pleased with how Loy treated his (Happy’s) nephew Leon a few entries back. After agreeing to provide Loy with the added muscle he needs against the Faddas, Happy then has a meeting with his nephew and Josto, setting up to betray Loy and install Leon in his place.

It would’ve been nice if these machinations had been spread out a little better, and if more time had been spent showing Loy losing his grip on the gang war, but it’s still nice to see this play out, as it gives us clear stakes heading into the finale. And that’s not the only storyline that finally decides to wake up and get serious. The confrontation between Oraetta and Ethelrida on the Smutny front porch is great, throwing aside any pretense of politeness and letting Oraetta’s sense of outrage build until she decides to get proactive and sneak into the Smutny house after dark. She has a syringe with her, and the only thing that stops her from getting her revenge is a sudden appearance by the ghost that’s been off-and-on haunting the whole season, a ghost whose origins we only learned a few scenes earlier.

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It’s unclear exactly how the Roach (as in Theodore Roach, the captain of a slaving vessel who one of Ethelrida’s ancestors killed) factors into all of this, and I’m not sure what it means to see him seeming to protect Ethelrida—my best guess is that he showed up to watch her get killed and inadvertently got in the way when Oraetta, in her madness, was able to sense his presence. Or maybe he thwarted Oraetta because there’s something worse coming for the Smutny family, some final crushing irony after Ethelrida, who is brilliant and brave and true, saves the day. All I know for sure is that I feel like all of this was intentional in a way that hasn’t always been present this season. Same with Oraetta coming home to find the cops waiting for her; like Gaetano’s sudden exit, it’s a subversion of expectations, but it’s one that’s been built up to, and, given Ethelrida’s conversation with Loy, it’s not like Oraetta is out of the story for good.

This could all still fall apart again next week, but “Happy” has more momentum to it than the show has managed to build in a while, and, however foolishly, I once again have some hope that this is heading towards something worth watching. That doesn’t make up for uneven writing over the rest of the season, but it does, at least, save these final weeks from falling over themselves on their way to the finish line, and for that, I’m grateful.

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Stray observations

  • I get the idea of wanting to build a sense of mystery, but I can’t help wondering if Dibrell’s monologue about Roach would’ve been more useful earlier on. It’s a good story, and I would’ve loved to have spent more time exploring how long the ghost has been following Dibrell and her family.
  • We check in with Satchel for a bit; he swipes a bottle of milk off a porch and scares off a couple of racists in a truck with the gun Rabbi gave him. I’m glad that last episode wasn’t the last we saw of him, since his story would’ve felt incomplete. As is, I’d bet he shows up in the finale.
  • Josto’s potential father-in-law, who is dumb, shows up to tell Josto the wedding is off and throw out some anti-Italian racism. Gaetano punches him, which is satisfying.
  • “How does it feel to be so right and know that nobody cares?” (Oraetta getting caught because Doctor Harvard failed to die just underlines how sloppy her attempt to murder him was. Is the idea that Ethelrida’s anonymous letter rattled her so much that she took a poorly considered chance?)
  • Zelmare is still alive, and with Odis dead, she can’t avenge Swanee’s death. Maybe she’ll go after Loy.
  • Is Gaetano’s death a reference to a similar accidental gunshot in a Coen brothers movie? I can’t think of one; the closest that comes to mind is a scene in Burn After Reading, but it’s not self-inflicted in the literal sense.
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