In its first three seasons, “Fargo” found a surprising amount of elasticity within its constrained format. Each installment borrowed the tone of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 Midwestern noir, which places human greed against a setting of frigid climate and rigid propriety, to tell increasingly complicated crime stories. Until now, the show’s big swings — like the 1970s-set, UFO-bedecked second season, still the best — have proved creator Noah Hawley’s ability to find moments of lived reality amid chaos. The show has excelled in winding up resonant tales that still feel fundamentally of “Fargo,” even as they range further afield.
Which makes the show’s fourth season, led by Chris Rock and written by Hawley as the most decisive move yet away from the tone and setting of the Coens’ film, a misfire. This season, depicting gang rivalry in 1950 Kansas City, sets out to tell a story more sweeping than any of its predecessors, and comes away overstuffed. The first nine episodes move without Hawley’s (or the Coens’) usual buoying confidence, as though the volume of incident packed into the season is compensating for an uncertainty about what the story here really is.
That is not to say that what’s on-screen is weak, exactly. As Loy Cannon, the leader of a local crime family, Rock works to wring menace from his role; though he doesn’t always deliver fearsomeness in his outbursts, shutting off his charisma creates a threat that grows in power. Cannon has traded his son with a son of the Italian mob as a sort of peacekeeping gesture, one that, designed as it is as the wildly unrealistic premise of a fantastical season of television, predictably fails to keep peace. Amid swelling acrimony — with the Italian side taking its cues from the ambitious and tempestuous Josto Fadda (a florid Jason Schwartzman) — various other characters enter the scene. These include a deranged and homicidal nurse (Jessie Buckley), a doleful foot soldier (Ben Whishaw), a humorless lawman (Timothy Olyphant) and, in perhaps the season’s only nod to the purity of intention that’s been a “Fargo” standby since Frances McDormand took the Lundegaard case, a schoolgirl (E’myri Crutchfield) with ambitions to do more than a Black girl in 1950 might be allowed.
These pieces don’t consistently fit together: Buckley, in particular, is delivering a tic-laden performance vastly too big, though it’s hard to blame her. (Her character is a black-widow nurse named Oraetta Mayflower who bakes desserts full of ipecac; one sees why she overplayed this one.) The scenes she shares with Crutchfield represent an unbridgeable gap between monstrous mania and the balm of normalcy; far from bringing out much of anything in one another, each occupies her own orbit. Outsize characterizations are not new for “Fargo,” but a balance has been lost here, with many characters standing in for the grandest sorts of evil and too few giving us what the series at its best possesses — soulfulness.
Rock gets those notes, though, and plays them well. His observations, in a showdown with a character played by Jack Huston, about the way America “tricks you into robbing yourself” sparkle with a painstaking understanding of what it means to be on the outside, one that makes the viewer wonder why other aspects of the series are so tonally off. And deep into the season, he balefully shares the frame with a giant poster for the newly invented credit card, after he, in the first episode, pitched a bank on the idea and was rejected as not their class of person. Is the idea that a character missed out on the ahistorical opportunity to take part in the creation of the credit card a somewhat thinly written way to get at issues of racism and exclusion? Sure. But against the context of a show that kept the wackiness of the Coens’ work but has ditched the harder and more satisfying notes of human connection, Rock’s real human wistfulness, a break in the season’s showy nuttery, feels like a flicker of the show that might have been, and could be still.