FX’s critically acclaimed anthology series “Fargo” recently wrapped up its fourth season, and its impact most closely resembles that of its own snow-blanketed setting: The first drops are magical and fresh, all while evoking the nostalgia of previous snowfalls. But it keeps on coming. All the loose snowflakes start packing together under a thick layer that is impenetrable — perhaps on purpose. By the time the clouds have passed, all that’s left is pounds of slush to shovel through, just a watered-down, quasi-beautiful version of something that used to be much better.
This season of “Fargo” had all the elements of previous seasons but no sense of where to place them. There are exceptional monologues, moments oozing style and a plethora of colorful characters, without any rhyme or reason behind their actual use. One episode is filmed entirely in black and white, which is certainly different — it’s also different to drive on the left hand side of the road, although there’s no good reason to do that, either.
In general, “Fargo” relies too much on the elements that have elevated past seasons from good television to exceptional television, but the groundwork of strong characters and plot have not been laid, making season four more aimless than special. Prioritizing plot was a risk — which is by no means a bad thing — but the rest of the show’s formula remains stagnant. It leaves the viewer in a madcap hurricane where each character is trying to outpace the other’s eccentricities, but the narrative crux of the season, the rivalry between the Fadda Family and Cannon Limited, acts as a mere backdrop for the zaniness.
To compare this season’s characters to those in previous seasons requires there to be a distinction between strong and interesting characters. An interesting character may be quirky, like Oraetta Mayflower, or short-tempered, like Josto Fadda, or withholding, like Loy Cannon. By having these attributes, scenes can be more explosive and memorable and can help differentiate the show’s tone from others. But, fireworks can’t be seen during the daytime, and when characters present more for one scene than for the overall story — or their personality isn’t built upon in favor of repeating the same tricks ad nauseam — it becomes grating.
There is also a strange lapse in the show’s brand of universal ambivalence that is exploited but not capitalized on in the fourth season. “Fargo,” from film to television, has made a staple of turning chance events into the most significant.
Happenstance dictating the plot — a cardinal sin in normal storytelling — is one of the show’s main virtues. A lead character suddenly slipping, falling and dying isn’t lazy writing: It’s trademark “Fargo.” The only reason the show gets a pass is because it capitalizes on these coincidences to have the rest of the story spiral out of control and build thematic tension. In the fourth season, however, randomness is used to tie up loose ends, which results in a wholly unsatisfying conclusion and a misuse of the show’s core conceit.
There are some bright spots within the season. The dynamic between Rabbi (Ben Whishaw) and Satchel (Rodney Jones III) blossoms from beginning to end and is one of the show’s few fleshed-out relationships. Jessie Buckley provides the best performance this season as Oraetta, although her character is more of a sideshow act than a premier attraction.
The negatives outweigh the positives. The inclusion of outlaw couple Zelmare (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee (Kelsey Asbille) makes for an unbearable amount of chaos, which strains the already disorderly nature of the show. Chris Rock’s performance as syndicate leader Loy is about as intimidating as a teddy bear — and just as goofy. Gaetano Fadda (Salvatore Esposito) improves as a character throughout, but his initial impression as a tough guy with an intense stare never really leaves. “Fargo” has been amazing in the past, but season four proves that it has a far way to go if it wants to be amazing again.