Fargo recap: American family values

James Hibberd Notes How ‘Fargo’s’ Production Delay May Have Increased Its Fourth Season’s Cultural Relevance

EW Editor-at-Large, James Hibberd, shares why the new season of ‘Fargo’ might resonate with viewers more right now, and discusses Chris Rock’s performance, and why this season feels different than previous ones.

No one’s ever quite sure what anyone else is up to in Fargo, but that begins to change in “The Pretend War,” which finds the show’s contentious factions all gaining a greater understanding of the motives and machinations of their rivals, neighbors, and significant others. Except, that is, when it comes to the mysterious specter who appears to be haunting the Smutny clan.

In the dead of night, Ethelrida writes at her desk. Upon hearing a noise, she slowly opens her bedroom door and spies an elderly white stranger sitting in a chair. He turns to reveal a gaunt, pasty face with no nose. Ethelrida promptly shuts the door, freaked out by this ghostly vision.

With dawn still an hour or two away, Constant and a young kid are driving a flatbed truck full of oranges — and, it turns out, 300 semi-automatic guns. Their path is halted by a wall of flames that soon encircles them. Trapped in this ring of fire, they’re accosted by a trio of African American men, including Leon and Omie Sparkman (Corey Hendrix). For objecting to this stick-up, the kid gets tossed in the fire. Omie dips the tip of his shotgun in the inferno and then places it on Constant’s cheek, giving him a circular brand. They steal the truck.

At Spud’s All-Time diner, Ebal sits down with Doctor. He says that when he first came to this country, he heard the phrase “American values,” which he soon understood had to do with money and family. When he learned more about the dark side of American history — slavery, small pox in blankets, the theft of Native American land — he realized the core value was that “to be an American is to pretend.” He asks Doctor if they’re pretending to be at peace when they’re really at war. Doctor replies, “Not yet. But we’re trying real hard.” Ebal mentions the recent theft of Fadda guns, and Doctor counters by asking about the attempt on Lemuel’s life, and the robbery perpetrated by Zelmare and Swanee. Ebal is unaware of these incidents and promises to get back to Doctor about them.

Looking over the guns they’ve just acquired, Loy tells Doctor to sell 200 of them to Mort Kellerman in Fargo. This is the first connection between this season and earlier series installments: Kellerman is the crime boss from season 3 who took a knife in the back of the head from young Dodd Gerhardt in the movie theater, as payback for Kellerman killing Dodd’s grandfather Dieter and trying to assassinate his dad, Otto. Though Loy doubts Zelmare and Swanee are working with the Faddas, he has Doctor look into it, as well as who’s calling the shots in the Italian mob.

Oraetta and Josto have sex; with her on top, and her hands around his throat, it looks like she’s trying to strangle him to death. Afterward, she muses dreamily about Istanbul and the Amazon, entranced by the idea of heading out on the open road and exploring the world. Josto grumbles that he has mouths to feed, concerns about his ball-busting brother, and a desire to kill Dr. Harvard. “Your mind’s a clutter of grievances,” remarks Oraetta. Josto says that where he comes from, you sleep with one eye open and a razor in your teeth. “You sleep with a mouthful of razors, it’s your own throat that gets cut, believe you me,” she responds.

After being playfully scolded for smacking her behind, Josto gets drugs from Oraetta. On his way out, he runs into Ethelrida, who wants to accept Oraetta’s housekeeping job offer. Ethelrida’s “gumption” gets her the gig, and she begins right away. Before leaving for work, Oraetta instructs Ethelrida not to go into a particular closet. Ethelrida agrees and negotiates a $1 sum for her three hours of toil.

Outside the apartment building, Rabbi clues Josto in about the botched hit on Lemuel, which he didn’t want to do. Josto pitches a minor snow-throwing tantrum over news that Gaetano is orchestrating hits on his own, and asks Rabbi to keep an eye on everyone for him. He also instructs Rabbi to summon Weff.

At the police station, Defy and Weff are interviewing a gas station attendant who claims to have overhead Zelmare and Swanee discussing plans to skip town for Chicago. It’s clear that Weff has put the guy up to this, and Defy patiently lets the amateur-hour ruse play out, replete with Weff slipping the man some cash as he departs. Weff thinks this “news” about the fugitives going to the Windy City means Defy is now free to pursue them (and leave Kansas City). Defy, however, demurs, saying he’ll stick around for the time being. Weff gets the message from Rabbi and heads to Joplin’s with Defy in tow.

Josto confronts Gaetano about his conduct. Gaetano raises a blade, and Josto sticks a gun in his brother’s crotch. But this latest round of brotherly hostility comes to nothing. Defy and Weff visit Joplin’s, and while Weff is inside, Defy chats up Gaetano, who’s pacing on the sidewalk, furious over his argument with Josto. He and Constant act threateningly toward Defy, but the U.S. Marshal is cool under pressure, munching on a carrot and telling the duo that in Salt Lake City, they stopped newly arrived Italians from turning their sons into junkies and their daughters into whores by tying them up and dragging them through the streets via horses.

In Josto’s office, Ebal instructs Weff to let Loy know that a war would mean fighting not only the Faddas, but the police and city hall. Josto orders Ebal to visit their mafia superiors in New York. He wants Ebal to assure them that everything is under control, and to get more men. Ebal points out that such a tack sends a contradictory message: if they need more men, things aren’t under control.

Listening to French records as she does the dishes and folds the laundry, Ethelrida decides to take a peek in Oraetta’s forbidden closet. What she discovers are shelves full of medical supplies — including poisonous laudanum — and a variety of trinkets. Oraetta’s cat knocks over a bottle but Ethelrida catches it before it breaks. She then accidentally spills a box stuffed with newspaper obituaries. Beside it, she finds another box filled with jewelry. She takes a ring (which was Donatello’s) and realizes that the names inscribed on a bracelet match those found in the obituary for Lamar Huddle, who died from complications from surgery and is survived by his wife June. When the phone rings, Ethelrida puts everything away, pockets the ring and Huddle obit, and bolts — in the process accidentally leaving her notebook on a closet shelf.

Outside a grocery store, Rabbi is greeted by Loy, who slashes his hand and asks about the hit on Lemuel. Rabbi assures Loy that he protected his son and that he’s still protecting Satchel. Loy informs Rabbi that he knows about his father-murdering treachery, and contends that Rabbi isn’t respected by the Faddas because he’s not one of them. Loy thinks this is grounds for Rabbi to backstab his adopted clan and bring Satchel to him. However, holding his white hand up beside Loy’s black face, Rabbi makes it clear that they’re not family either. Following another threat, Loy lets Rabbi go.

At the New Parie Hotel, Zelmare washes the stolen money in the bathtub, as a moaning Swanee continues recovering from the poisoned pie in bed. Drying the scrubbed bills on a clothesline, Zelmare shuts her eyes, and a ghostly old man in a suit — the same one Ethelrida saw earlier — emerges from the tub and makes his way to the bedridden Swanee. Muck from the specter drips onto Swanee’s face, but when Zelmare opens her eyes, he’s gone. She rouses a seemingly dead Swanee from her slumber, and the sick girl rolls over and pukes some more.

The next morning, Zelmare delivers a bag of still-smelly cash to Thurman, telling him to pay off his debut to Loy, even if Dibrell winds up angry about it afterward. Thurman complies. Loy accepts the payment (“I can’t remember the last time a white man tried to make my life easier”), but he’s suspicious. After Thurman exits, Loy catches a whiff of the money’s vomitous odor and realizes he’s been paid back with his own (stolen) money.

Thurman returns home in a euphoric mood, dancing around the kitchen with Dibrell and Ethelrida. Over drinks, he admits that the reason he’s so happy is that they’re now out of danger. Comprehending that Thurman has paid off their debt thanks to Zelmare’s criminal activity, Dibrell demands to know specifics. “Whatever I did, it’s done,” he asserts. Their future course is now set in stone, thus proving Ethelrida’s episode 1 comment: “History is made up of the actions of individuals, and yet none of us can know at the time we act that we are making history.”

Oh Geez!

  • The pins, patches, and valuables stashed in Oraetta’s closet indicate she’s been at her angel-of-death trade for some time — she’s a serial killer.
  • Josto and Gaetano’s feud will no doubt come to a head at some point, but for now, it’s a subplot stuck in neutral.
  • Zelmare advises Thurman that erasing his debt is more important than angering his wife, because, “What we don’t get over is being dead.” Nonetheless, one wonders if any course of action will keep the Grim Reaper at bay.

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