Season 4, Episode 4: ‘The Pretend War’
Underneath the expected mélange of funny names, regional dialect, Coen references and knottily orchestrated mayhem, this season of “Fargo” has sought to make a big statement about America. That was clear from the opening sequences in Kansas City, which depict the succession of immigrant groups who turned to criminality as a path to legitimacy. Becoming a true American, the show suggests, involves surviving a cycle of discrimination and conquest — and no single group of people is going to hand power to another willingly.
In other words, you have to fake it till you make it.
That’s the message sent by Ebal Violante (Francesco Acquaroli), consigliere to the Faddas, when he takes another meeting with Doctor Senator, his counterpart in the Cannon crime syndicate, over the recent violence that has threatened their fragile arrangement.
“To be American is to pretend, capisce?” he says to Senator, in the sort of side-winding preamble that begins a lot of conversations in the series. The founding of America — and who gets to tell that story and how — is a topic of fierce political debate right now, but Ebal is enlightened enough to recognize the hypocrisy at the core of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
And so as some Americans find ways to talk around the foundational evils of slavery and stealing land from its Native people — though not this enlightened consigliere — they cling to a rosier fiction about who they really are. For the Faddas and the Cannons, the rosy fiction is that they’re abiding by a power-sharing arrangement — the same kind that has unraveled between clans in the past. And what Ebal wants to know is whether the Cannon’s armed takeover of the slaughterhouse, answered by the attempted hit on Loy Cannon’s son, can be called “war.” Because even in America, not everything can be pretended.
Or can it? Tensions are on the rise between the Faddas and the Cannons, but there are still some questions that Loy needs to sort out. Who ordered the hit on his college-age son? And who was behind the Spring Street stickup? Loy seems to have a good read on both situations, but it may not be worth opening up a front against the Faddas when they appear to be heading toward civil war. And it may be worth holding back on retaliating for the Spring Street stickup until the parties involved can be squeezed for all their worth. When poor Thurman Smutney (played by the musician Andrew Bird) inadvertently settles his debts by handing Loy a bag of his own money, Loy seems to sniff out this nervous man’s ridiculous story before a literal whiff confirms it. He could chase him down immediately, but he doesn’t. The time to strike is later.
This week’s episode unfolds as an effective series of cliffhangers, ratcheting up tension across the board without resolving it. It becomes perfectly obvious, for example, that Deafy knows that his shifty partner, Odis, has some connections to the Italian mob. Watching Odis coach a witness to talk nonsense about Swanee and Zelmare’s whereabouts is the first tip-off; Deafy’s chat with gangsters outside the building where Odis is having a meeting is the second. The seeds are also planted for a conflict between Oraetta and Ethelrida, who happens to stumble onto the obituaries and trinkets of former hospital patients. Ethelrida takes some souvenirs and leaves her notebook behind, so a she-knows-that-she-knows-that-she-knows situation is inevitable.
“It’s sigh-of-relief o’clock around here at the ol’ Smutney household” is the line of the night. One Smutney has paid off a murderous loan shark with his own stolen money, and another Smutney has uncovered evidence of a different murderer. Plus the cops are sniffing around the Smutney household looking for Dibrell’s fugitive sister and her partner-in-crime, who’s still reeling from the poison Oraetta intended the whole family to endure on Thanksgiving. It’s now only a matter of time before one of these parties tries to boost the Smutney’s mortuary business by adding their bodies to it.
This is the type of pulp entertainment “Fargo” does well, and the director of the episode, Dearbhla Walsh, keeps the camera active as the stakes are raised. Walsh pushes in on characters as they face consequential decisions — Loy as he sniffs at the cash that Thurman has given him, Dibrell as she realizes it’s definitely not sigh-of-relief o’clock for the Smutneys — but leaves the tension to dangle. It’s the first episode this season to make you want to barrel through to the next one.
3 Cent Stamps
Did we just see an episode without any Coen references? The score quotes Carter Burwell’s original “Fargo” music at the end, but that’s not uncommon. Otherwise, I’m at a loss.
OK, if we’re really pushing it, the ring of fire that engulfs the truck hijacking that opens the episode recalls the final act of “Barton Fink,” when John Goodman’s insurance salesman rampages through the halls of a burning hotel. It’s a strong sequence, too, and more evidence that the war between the Faddas and the Cannons is not pretend.