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On Fargo, bold choices don't always make for good stories

Illustration for article titled On iFargo/i, bold choices dont always make for good stories
Photo: Elizabeth Morris/FX
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Looks like I should’ve saved my mini-treatise on Doctor Harvard’s name for this week; sort of “paying tribute” kind of deal. It’s a bold enough way to start the episode, with Oraetta deciding to take matters into her own hands so she can figure out who sent the anonymous letter about her murderous ways. I’m not sure “giving her boss a poisoned macaroon” is the most straightforward approach here, but I appreciate the shock value, and the fact that she seems to get away with it, at least for now. It’s odd, though. I get that Oraetta’s creative approach to problem solving is intended to be a hallmark for her character, to make her more frightening and interesting to watch, and that’s true to an extent. But there’s an edge of randomness to her that makes her difficult to see as an actual character. Jessie Buckley is doing good work, and her basic motives at this point are sort of clear, but she could still do just about anything and I wouldn’t be that surprised by it.

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That’s a dangerous area to be playing with, in terms of storytelling. Unexpected behavior can be a boon in a narrative—it keeps things fresh, it shakes the audience out of their assumptions, it puts them on their guard. But go too far and it becomes just novelty for its own sake. I complained about this earlier with Odis, and to be fair to the show, we absolutely did get a decent explanation for his quirks in the subsequence episode; so I haven’t given up on us getting a clearer idea of why Oraetta does what she does. But that sort of clarity should come sooner rather than later. We’re over halfway through the season now, and while I don’t need all the answers, I’d be a lot more invested in the coming war between Oraetta and Ethelrida if Oraetta made a bit more sense.

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It’s a problem with the season as a whole at this point. “Lay Away” doesn’t lack for characters making big swings; as Oraetta murders her boss and rifles through his desk, Josto decides to go all in on getting his brother killed, and Loy decides not to take the bait. This should all be pretty exciting stuff, and the episode isn’t without its share of tension. But the same lack of cohesion, of forward motion, plagues this season almost as much as it did season 3; and while there, the choppiness felt like it might be moving towards an intentional point about modern life, here it’s like a story trying to remember why its being told.

Take Loy. This is a big hour for him. He learns from Josto (erroneously) that Satchel is dead, and he struggles with his rage and grief before deciding not to indulge either. He tries to do the “right” thing and send Zelmare and Swanee out of town to keep them from getting killed, threatening Zelmare’s sister if they don’t follow his orders; he sees that his credit card plan has either been stolen or scooped by the bank; and he decides to let Gaetano go and sow some chaos in the Faddas, rather than give Josto what he wants.

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These are interesting choices. It’s just, I’m not exactly sure what drives any of them. Like Oraetta, Loy is unpredictable, but where Oraetta’s unpredictability is built into the design of who she is, Loy should be easier to parse. One of the hooks of the season was the idea of a Black crime syndicate—it’s not a new idea, but it feels new to Fargo, and a story about people of color turning to illegal means to get the power they’ve been denied in their ordinary lives has a lot of potential. But it doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten that at all. I have more of a sense of how the Fadda family works, partly because the show has spent a little more time behind the scenes of their operation, and partly because I’m just more familiar with the concept of the Italian mafia. Josto starts as a caricature and gets depth as he goes. But Loy hasn’t really made that jump. All I feel like I know about him at this point is that he invented the credit card (although we only really saw like, what, one scene with that?), and sometimes he’s angry, and sometimes he isn’t.

Chris Rock’s performance isn’t really making up the difference here, unfortunately. But he’s not helped by writing that seems reluctant to actually spend much more than a perfunctory amount of time on his side of the story. When Loy starts beating on one of his men (the fella who “let” Lemuel get picked up by the cops), it’s clearly intended as an expression of his rage and helplessness, taking out his frustration on someone who had the misfortune of making themselves an easy target at the worst possible moment. But while it’s shocking, it doesn’t change how we view Loy, or put him in a different context, or do anything more than check the box that reads “burst of unexpected violence.” It’s not a bad scene, it’s just not one that does much for anything else, because we don’t have the context needed to make it upsetting.

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Same with Loy’s flashback memories of his son, Satchel. It’s just repeating scenes from earlier in the season in an attempt to convince us of the depth of Loy’s grief; but it doesn’t really land at all. Admittedly part of this is because we know Satchel is still alive, but mostly it’s just lazy writing. Instead of actually putting in the effort to build this relationship at all, the show simply repeats itself for a bit, and trusts that innate horror of losing a child will be enough to carry the distance. It benefits some from the fact that Loy doesn’t ultimately give in to his rage, instead deciding on a cannier play, but it still feels way too much like dead air.

Same with Odis’s brief flashback to his wife. It’s pretty, and the song she’s singing is good, but the repeated insistence that I care about what happens to Odis is starting to wear thin. Even with his backstory, he’s not all that interesting (for one thing, we don’t get any sense of how losing the love of his life and having a bad time in the war lead him to being a crooked cop), and I’m not emotionally invested in what happens to him. The biggest problem with this season is how poorly it’s managed to make any of this more than just a curiosity. If you are honestly wrapped up in the Fadda/Cannon war, more power to you, but outside off the novelty value of figuring out just who’s going to die when, it’s hard for me to get worked up about any of it.

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The exception to all of this is Ethelrida, who continues to be defined more by her absence than anything else. Ethelrida is interesting and compelling and unique; even with her comparatively limited screentime, I feel like I have a good sense of who Ethelrida is, and I care about what happens to her. Oraetta is sure to be on her heels soon enough, and the on-going misery at the Smutny funeral home is one of the few aspects of the season that isn’t just going by the “warring crime families” rulebook. And yet all she does this week is show up and be uncomfortable as Loy’s men use the funeral home to store stolen goods. The worst thing I can say about “Lay Away” is that exciting things happen in it, and yet it still feels like we’re just killing time until the actual story arrives.

Stray observations

  • I guess Josto isn’t going to worry about getting revenge on Doctor Harvard anymore. I wonder if Oraetta will go to him next.
  • It’s not a good sign that I was disappointed about Gaetano surviving. Possibly the least successful character on the show at this point.
  • Josto sends Calamita to kill Rabbi Milligan and Satchel, and then he tells Loy that Calamita already finished the job, claiming it was on Gaetano’s orders.
  • One point in defense of Loy’s loose characterization: I was pretty sure he wouldn’t kill Zero (the Fadda hostage), but I wasn’t absolutely sure. Still, better writing would’ve made that moment as heartbreaking as it was unsettling.
  • Loy does give a speech to Odis that sounds vaguely adjacent to a theme, but it’s like he popped over from a different series for a bit to try and give clarity to this one. Apart from the scene in the first episode where he failed to sell the credit card idea, we have so little sense of what it means for Loy and his men to live in this world that any discussion of what it means for “America” comes across as forced.
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