It’s one of the best feelings, not knowing where to begin. When reviewing a show as rich as the fourth season of FX’s “Fargo,” there are so very many good and great things to point to — characters whose evil is a thing of warped beauty, plots that balance thrillingly on contingency and bad timing, dialogue whose comedy is cloaked in murderous intention and gluttony, resonant cinematography that speaks of a grimly Disunited States — I don’t know which one to start with. Series creator Noah Hawley has come up with yet another ambitious, dazzling, and entertaining season of his Coen brothers-based anthology series, this time with a story that brings in themes of racism, assimilation, and the fraught promise of America while telling a very specific story of mob clashes and quiet heroism.
The “Fargo” canvas this time out is especially broad, with a few different camps of characters whose crossovers emerge slowly but surely. The action begins in 1950 Kansas City, with Hawley delivering a brisk backstory of the current power struggle between an Italian crime family and the local Black syndicate. We see the Jewish mob give way to the Irish mob in a montage, before the Italians take over, now led by Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno) and his temperamental son Josto (Jason Schwartzman). And we see them fending off the Black organization, led by the shrewd Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) and his trusted second-in-command, Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman).
The war between the two factions over the area’s illegal businesses is kept under control by a very odd tradition. The two mobs exchange their young sons, so that the Faddas are raising a Cannon boy and vice versa. That gives each one leverage against the other, at least in theory; if you know how “Fargo” rolls, you can guess how well that theory works in practice. Ben Whishaw is on hand, and touchingly heavy-hearted, as an Irish guy named Rabbi Milligan who was raised by the Italians as part of their trade with the Irish. Still with the Italians, now that the Irish are long gone, he takes a special, compassionate interest in Loy’s boy, building to a road trip episode — the ninth of 11 — that is magical and, like so much on this movie-conscious show, highly allusive.
In the midst of this central tension, there are a number of distinctive characters, each one with his or her own at times curious ways. There is a Black teen named Ethelrida Smutny (E’myri Crutchfield) who is trying to get an education, despite her teachers' disdain and punishment of her for being Black. A narrator in the first episode, she owns the season’s only truly stable conscience, it seems. There is Ethelrida’s escaped convict aunt Zelmare (Karen Aldridge), Zelmare’s escaped convict girlfriend Swanee Capp (Kelsey Asbille), and her funeral-parlor-owning parents, a mixed-race couple acutely aware of their customers' bias against them. There is Timothy Olyphant as a slick marshal (as he was in “Justified”) who is indefatigable and a Mormon, and Salvatore Esposito as a Joe Pesci-esque Fadda family member who lusts for blood.
The list goes on, but there are two characters I found impossible to shake. One is the nurse who lives across the street from the funeral parlor. Named Oraetta Mayflower — because Hawley’s strange characters generally have strange names — she has a habit of killing her patients. She’s not trying to save them from suffering, alas; she’s just a psychopath with a polite demeanor and a kindly Minnesota accent that belie her actions. She is played by Jessie Buckley (from “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) with an almost joyous energy that is simultaneously funny and disturbing. I paid extra close attention whenever she showed up, and I expect her to win an Emmy nomination. Likewise a cop named Odis Weff who has a serious kind of OCD that finds him knocking on doors in patterns. He’s a haunted figure in the hands of Jack Huston (from “Boardwalk Empire”), and his backstory, as it emerges, adds poignancy.
As Loy, Rock is solidly good. He plays a strong leader with a full awareness of the role his Blackness plays in his business interactions. He delivers lines with full authority, such as his comment about the war: “Why would I serve a country that wants me dead?” The script doesn’t give Loy much emotional range (at least in the nine episodes made available to critics), but that’s who he is: a fierce man whose strength comes from his lack of emotional range. As his gangland opposite, Schwartzman is boyish and bratty, a son whose entitlement is about to be challenged both inside and outside his organization. Like almost every character in the show, he has humorous moments that might make you laugh but don’t ever undermine the dramatic tension.
In those future debates about which seasons of “Fargo” were better than others, I have a feeling season four will have some strong advocates. It was worth the three-year wait.
Starring: Chris Rock, Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley, Jack Huston, E’myri Crutchfield, Timothy Olyphant, Salvatore Esposito, Andrew Bird, Anji White, Gaetano Bruno, Glynn Turman
On: FX, premiering with two episodes Sunday night at 9 p.m. (available the next day on Hulu)