It might be a bit too dense for its own good, but “Welcome to the Alternate Economy” kicks off the new season of Fargo with a promising sense of style and mystery.
This recap of Fargo season 4, episode 1, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy”, contains spoilers.
You don’t have to look far in “Welcome to the Alternate Economy”, the fourth season premiere of FX’s Fargo, to see the usual sights. Here’s the ostensibly normal person being pulled to and fro by competing forces of darkness. There are the memorably-named and silver-tongued characters who natter back and forth in long stretches of razor-sharp dialogue. Everywhere evokes the same tone; the same sense of looming violence and spiraling despair. The show might have moved to a post-war Kansas City, where two sides of the criminal underworld vie for dominance, but it’s as Fargo as ever, for better and worse.
The first character we meet is 16-year-old Ethelrida Smutney (E’myri Crutchfield), who narrates a brief history of gang violence that you can just tell is going to involve her somehow. In a way, as a precocious kid who feels like a smarter-than-her-years character rather than any teenager you might meet in real life, she almost seems to be asking for it. She’s not asking for the unsubtle 50s racism that defines the Kansas City as experienced by her mixed-race mortician parents, Thurman (Andrew Bird) and Dibrell Smutney (Anji White), and where Ethelrida is constantly subjected to snooty profiling, prejudice, and authoritarianism, especially at her high school. Compared to that place, the city’s underworld, which largely remains centered in Joplin’s department store, as it has since the turn of the century, seems a more just place.
Fargo season 4, episode 1 is long-winded and a bit needlessly convoluted in its explanation of Joplin’s and the various criminal syndicates that have operated from it over the years. In the early days, rivalrous Jewish and Irish gangs formalized a swap system in which the sons of the family heads go to live with their arch-nemesis as an insurance policy. Needless to say, this ends in tears and bloodshed, but it’s agreed to again years later, this time between the Irish and the Italians, and a double-cross ensures a decade-and-a-half of uninterrupted Italian rule through the Fadda family before the son-swap thing comes up again, this time between the Italians and a Black syndicate, The Cannon Limited, headed by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock). Zero Fadda (Jameson Braccioforte) is exchanged for Satchel Foy (Rodney Jones). The peace holds, but tentatively, at best.
The obvious point of comparison – outside of the Coen oeuvre, obviously – is Epix’s The Godfather of Harlem, a less stylish and more historically considerate show nonetheless about Black and Italian gangs at war. But “Welcome to the Alternate Economy” proves itself interested in wider ideas than just this conflict, ones that inform its central ethnic squabble. Loy wants to go straight, to some extent, and has, alongside his associate Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman), come up with a new invention called a “credit card” that the very white banker they present it to has no interest in. This banker is one of the premiere’s few characters who are actually considered white – the Blacks obviously aren’t, but neither are the Jews, the Italians, or the Irish. Rabbi (Ben Whishaw), the now grown-up turncoat who was loaned to the Jews and then returned only to sell out the Irish to the Italians, still speaks in a Dublin lilt, an outsider even among his new family. None of these men, as Ethelrida explains in voiceover, truly belongs.
In some ways, this helps to subvert the usual tropes of your average gangland drama. So few shows about this kind of thing would bother to pull a comedic fake-out with Josto (Jason Schwartzman) and his father Donatello (Tommaso Ragno), which presents a giant fart as a heart attack and then, after the beat, mortally injures the senior man anyway in a freak pellet gun accident. Almost no show at all would then see Donatello being turned away from St. Theclas, a private hospital run by Dr. David Harvard (Stephen Spencer), for not being “American” enough. It’s the underworld figures like Donatello who’re supposed to hold the power in these kinds of stories. Here, he’s ferried off to Saint Bartholomew’s, a more accommodating place of healing for his “kind of people”, where what seems like a miscommunication between Josto and Nurse Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley) results in Oraetta poisoning Donatello’s IV.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the conversation that precedes this since both Josto and Oraetta are high at the time. This is intentional on the part of “Welcome to the Alternate Economy”, which spares a fair amount of time for Oraetta, who is casually racist to Ethelrida and is, for some reason, surveilling her parents’ funeral home. But many other characters – perhaps even most – are poorly served by this opener, which moves so quickly and introduces so many players and working parts that it feels as if it’s running on fast-forward. This is, of course, the way of Fargo, and such a dense, obviously interconnected premiere bodes well for this latest season.
Thanks for reading our recap of Fargo season 4, episode 1, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy”.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.