Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Ordinary People

Well, it’s been a couple of weeks, whew. If you missed me, I spent the last week co-leading a five-day, four-night watershed education workshop for a group of teachers. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of work, and I ended the week thoroughly exhausted. I also came out with yet further affirmation that our nation’s teachers are top quality people who are getting far too much shit right now from people who would better serve our nation by keeping their mouths shut, but that’s not what I’m here about.

A few weeks ago, I finally finished watching season 4 of Fargo, the FX program that’s a spin-off of the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name. I admit, I was skeptical when I first heard about this show back in the 2000-teens: What was the point? What was the need? How could anyone make a TV show out of that? Turns out Noah Hawley and his crew did a fantastic job answering the last question, anyway, as they crafted a show that was entertaining, thought-provoking, and captured much of the tone and spirit of the original film, which is a favorite of mine. Crime, drama, comedy; the vast, snow covered prairie; lots and lots of ‘Minnesota Nice.’ (Side note: I’ve often wondered how real Minnesotans feel about the depiction of their manners and accents in the silver and small screen editions of Fargo).

Borrowed from

Season four had plenty of action, drama, twists, turns and sudden, unexpected deaths as ever, and was stylish visually and musically. All in all, it was solid, and yet I found it lacking. Something just didn’t quite click, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was off. And then I went back and watched season 1. And season 2. Last night I finished season 3. As I worked through the first thirty episodes of the series, I had it. What was missing from Fargo season four? Ordinary people.

Each of the first three seasons presents us with several regular Joes and Janes who find themselves face-to-face with the horrors that men are capable of while simultaneously dealing with personal and professional problems like cancer, being a single parent, or incompetence at best and sexism at worst in the workplace. Much of the tension of the show comes from watching how these otherwise ordinary people either warp to the pressures of their unexpected, unasked for circumstances, or stand tall and resist. Some characters are admirable, some become hopelessly irredeemable, and at the end of the season we’re left pondering some of the same questions Marge Gunderson pondered near the end of the first film. Each season had some form of Marge Gunderson, except for season four.

Season four of Fargo felt empty of ordinary people. There was no Marge Gunderson, Lou Solverson, or Gloria Burgle to ground the show. And there was no Ed or Peggy Bloomquist, no Lester Nygaard, no Emmit or Ray Stussy, either. These are the ordinary people who find themselves in seriously hot water, the ones you often root for and hope can pull themselves out of the mess. Instead, the primary characters in season four were gangsters whose potential redeeming qualities were overshadowed by the fact that they were gangsters who ordered and committed murders by the score. Meanwhile, the character who could have been the moral center of the show, Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, was frequently sidelined or lost in the glut of other characters for long periods of time. Instead, we largely had to watch the machinations of two crime families as they vied for primacy in Kansas City. It was far less interesting than the war between the Gerhardt family and Kansas City mafia, which was a key plotline in season 2 but not the plotline in season 2.

I don’t necessarily need to see myself in every story I consume, and I don’t need main characters to be the ‘good guys’ all the time, either. Hell, my appreciation for Breaking Bad is well-documented, and I’m anxiously awaiting when the next season of Better Call Saul makes its way to Netflix. These series have characters who cross and recross the lines of decency all the time, but there’s always something relatable in their struggles, and I just did not find that in this past season of Fargo. Maybe I’m simply a victim of my own expectations for the series, and there was nothing wrong with it at all.

What do you think? If you’re a Fargo viewer, did season 4 ring the bell for you? How do you feel about the role of ordinary people in books, movies and TV?

2 Responses

  1. I don’t watch a lot of series TV because it feels like they do stupid stuff with the characters after a while, take them in directions that don’t make sense. I’m also about resolution, and some series just go on and on an one. The few I stream now are ones like NCIS. I’m guessing Fargo is a police procedural? I remember when the film won an Academy Award.

    “from people who would better serve our nation by keeping their mouths shut,”
    This! So this!

  2. Donna, one of the interesting things about Fargo is each season takes place in a different time and place, with different characters, so each season has resolution. Each season takes place in the same “universe”, so there can be overlap in characters or events (for example, one of the main characters in season one is a 30-something year old police officer in the city of Bemidji, MN; in season 2, we see her as a six-year-old girl and her father is one of the central characters). Police procedural? Not in the way of NCIS or Law & Order. It’s a little hard to pin down at times.

    And regarding what you quote, I tried to be as nice as possible about that. Doesn’t sound very nice, though!

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