Fargo is back, so strap yourself into the wayback machine, because this time show creator Noah Hawley and company are going back — way back into time. Unlike previous seasons of the anthology series, which were set in the upper Midwest in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Fargo Season 4 is set in 1950 in Kansas City, Missouri, my longtime home.
Once again Fargo has served up a whimsically gruesome vision of life here in the flyover that’s as much fun to watch for its aesthetic choices as its the story lines, where bad people and good people are slowly pulled into a morally tangled web.
For Season 4 we get the backstory to the Kansas City syndicate that was first introduced to Fargo viewers in Season 2. That season, you’ll recall, was set in 1979 and featured Brad Garrett as a middle manager for the family looking to expand their influence beyond Missouri into Minnesota.
The Italian Mafia in KC
Season 4 connects the 1970s Kansas City mob to the previous generation. In the aftermath of World War II, much of KC was still in the grips of organized crime, a thoroughly Sicilian affair and a leftover from our heyday as the city that partied through Prohibition. Italian-run organized crime continued to be a local headache until the 1980s.
This actual history is colorfully embroidered upon in a documentary-style history lesson that opens Season 4. It is told by Ethelrida Smutny, a Black 16-year-old in 1950 Kansas City played by E’myri Crutchfield, who serves as the narrator of the show. Despite her confident tone, though, Ethelrida’s history lesson should be taken with a grain of salt.
The Irish Connection
For one thing, Fargo asserts that there was an Irish mob before the Italian mob, and that the family running it was named Milligan. That should ring a bell to Fargo fans, since the Black hitman for the KC syndicate in Season 2 was named Mike Milligan.
In reality, the Italians ran the underworld, while the Irish were above-ground, barely, running Kansas City’s corrupt political machine for half a century. Under the watchful gaze of Democratic boss Tom Pendergast, KC in its heyday was as colorful — and musical — as any mob-controlled city in America, including Chicago (where Season 4 of Fargo was actually shot).
The Pendergast machine could be just as ruthless as the mob, especially on Election Day. Bribery and kickbacks seemed to be how a lot of business got done in Jackson County back then. Meanwhile, booze flowed 24/7 at the jazz clubs that nurtured such greats as Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, and Count Basie, which later inspired films from Robert Altman and Bruce Ricker.
Alas, the party had to end — corruption and criminality were causing problems for FDR and the feds. In 1939 Pendergast got the Al Capone treatment, sent to prison for income-tax evasion.
The Black Mafia in KC?
The arrival of Chris Rock and a large supporting cast of Black actors announce Fargo’s boldest move — a storyline about African-American progress in the years after World War II. Even though Black soldiers on the front lines and Black women on the home front were vital to U.S. victory, white America did not exactly show its gratitude. Across the North, segregation remained a fact of life for two more decades.
Yet living in segregated northern cities was usually a far sight better than being in the South, coping with Jim Crow and the constant threat of violence. That’s the genesis for the arrival of Loy Cannon (Rock) in KC. He heads up an aspirational Black crime family that forms an uneasy truce with the longer-established Italian syndicate headed by Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno).
Whether there was an actual Black syndicate in postwar Kansas City or not — the historical record is dubious — there’s no doubt that KC was home to many African-Americans fleeing racist violence in the Jim Crow South. Racism wasn’t exactly out of style in Missouri, but even now you’ll hear older residents speak with pride of their all-Black schools and cultural institutions, like Negro Leagues baseball, that flourished before the civil rights era.
At any rate, the tension between Blacks and Italians in KC was real. In 2010, my colleagues at the Kansas City Star reported a breakthrough in a 40-year-old cold case involving the murder of a local civil rights leader, Leon Jordan. They traced it to Jordan punching a mob-connected politician in the face.
For people who do not live in certain parts of America, the insertion of Mormons into the Fargo storyline might be a head-scratcher — though remember that line from The Book of Mormon about Christ’s second coming in Jackson County, Missouri? Outside of Utah, the most important sites in Mormon history are located here. That’s the explanation behind Timothy Olyphant’s character, a Mormon U.S. marshal (yep, he’s wearing a badge again) who gets caught up in the mob battle.
“America is a vast country with so many different points of view, and often, we just get a narrow window of points of view on the world,” Hawley said recently. “I included Tim Olyphant's character because I wanted to really try to get in the diaspora of American life.”
Fargo’s master plan
You may be wondering, with each season of Fargo referencing characters from an earlier season, whether Hawley has a master plan for the TV series that he created from the 1996 Coen Brothers film. The answer is no. When he began producing Fargo as an anthology series for FX, Hawley didn’t have any plan other than getting all the Season 1 episodes written. Four seasons in, he has help writing the shows now, but there’s still no grand plan. Hawley says he likes to be completely immersed in each season’s characters and stories — “when I get four or five episodes into a season I’m like: This is all Fargo ever was,” he said recently — and figure out what to do next after the episodes are in the can. That took an especially long time this year, as production shut down in March. The final two episodes of Season 4 only just wrapped.
Fargo premieres on FX with back-to-back episodes on September 27th at 9:00 PM ET
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.