Season 4, Episode 5: ‘The Birthplace of Civilization’
“This country loves a man who takes what he wants. Unless that man looks like you.”
Of all the monologuing that’s been done this season on what America means — on this show, targets have to endure an earful of philosophizing before taking a bellyful of lead — Josto Fadda’s words to a cell packed with Cannon’s men underlines the most important theme. “Fargo” has presented the power struggle between Kansas City crime syndicates as the story of America, how different tribes gain a foothold in the “alternate economy” before they gain legitimacy and acceptance in mainstream society. But African-Americans are a special case, and this week’s episode finally makes that resoundingly clear.
For weeks, we’ve been treated to watching the diminutive Josto, a man literally too small to sit in his father’s chair, be outmaneuvered by his younger brother Gaetano, who’s arrived from Italy with the conviction that brute force is the best way to settle a gang war. (Or a substandard cup of coffee, for that matter.) What Gaetano doesn’t fully grasp is that a more indirect form of power is at his disposal — and at the disposal of any American who isn’t Black. With just a little arm-twisting, Josto gets Odis to lead a police raid on a jazz club, and it’s no coincidence that Leon and Lemuel, the targets of Gaetano’s failed hit, are swept up in the dragnet.
“Avisto,” he tells Gaetano. “That’s how it’s done.”
The Faddas probably didn’t need a cop on the payroll. A simple phone call would have done the trick. Nevertheless, Josto understands that the Faddas have a significant institutional advantage over the Cannons, a legitimate ally in the fight over illegitimate business. Five episodes into the season, it’s obvious the Cannons are the better organized and more cohesive unit: Loy’s strategy so far has been mostly to stand back and allow the Faddas’ leadership vacuum to hobble them without his assistance. And that internecine battle continues this episode, too, as Josto is warned about an influx of Italian muscle loyal to his brother. But the Faddas, by virtue of the color of their skin, have more tools at their disposal.
In the meantime, many of the other shoes from last week are dropping. Loy makes the Smutnys aware that he knows they used money stolen from him to pay off their debts to him. And so for the Smutnys, unfavorable interest rates are no longer the worst consequence of borrowing money from a mob syndicate. Loy wants the deed to the mortuary and the location of the lesbian outlaws who ripped him off. Meanwhile, Deafy does some arm-twisting of his own to get the same information from Ethelrida, which leads to a situation in which multiple parties descend on the fleabag hotel where Zelmare and Swanee are holed up. Loy finds them first.
“Dying’s too easy,” Loy tells Zelmare and Swanee. “You owe me and I’m putting you to work.”
And with that, Loy’s leadership philosophy crystalizes a little. Perhaps his thinking is Smutny-specific, but he’s not the type to let emotion overwhelm his decision-making, even when his anger does rise to the surface. (It’s telling that he gets angrier at his wife for criticizing his ability to protect their children than he does at the Smutnys for ripping him off.) Like Josto with the police, he seizes the opportunity to leverage power rather than lash out. His army could use some “invisible soldiers.”
Yet societal forces are stacked against him. Gaetano does indeed learn something from his brother when Josto gets the police to do his bidding: There will be no legal consequences to shooting a Black man in the streets. Doctor Senator isn’t pleased to see Gaetano and Constant Calamita (Gaetano Bruno) replace the consigliere in their regular diner meetings, but he’s not intimated by their more heavy-handed approach to negotiations, either. This proves to be a fatal mistake. These are white men with the police at their disposal and more muscle coming into town. They can act with impunity.
The death of Doctor Senator is, nonetheless, a big shock, because there was never a moment when he didn’t seem entirely confident in his actions. Perhaps the real lesson from his Nuremberg story was that he should never feel that he is in control, even when he has successfully gotten the goods from a Nazi war criminal. He saw Gaetano and Constant as “just boys making a mess,” not as imminent threats to his life. How Loy’s thinking is changed by the death of his right-hand man remains to be seen.
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One Coen brothers reference in this episodes: Several crates of guns are driven away by “Treehorn Trucking,” a nod to Jackie Treehorn, Ben Gazzara’s character in “The Big Lebowski.” (The surprise manner in which Doctor Senator is killed, with bullets penetrating his chest, recalls the death of Wade Gustafson in “Fargo,” but that’s a bit of a stretch.)
Odis’s badge gives him power, but Loy and Deafy are both smelling weakness from him. Loy taunts him about his shameful past as a minesweeper in the war, in which his carelessness cost an officer his life, and Deafy keeps tracking his movements, knowing that he’s in cahoots with the criminal element.
There are signs of racial harmony amid the discord here. Milligan is determined to protect Satchel, whose life depends on an arrangement between the Faddas and the Cannons that is currently falling apart. (Loy is less sentimental about his Italian “son,” but he does at least procure the boy a piece of chocolate cake.) And there’s some respect on Deafy’s part for Ethelrida’s intellect and civility, even while he’s trying to get information about her aunt’s whereabouts.