A review of “Camp Elegance,” this week’s episode of Fargo, coming up just as soon as my dolls rise up and become citizens of this apartment…
“I never got to choose.” —Rabbi Milligan
There’s a scene midway through “Camp Elegance” where Loy Cannon is in his office, contemplating ways to get his son Satchel back without setting off a full-blown war with the Faddas. The man he’s discussing this with? None other than the late, great Doctor Senator. For a moment, it seems as if perhaps this is a fantasy sequence: Loy conjuring up an image of his longtime advisor because he has no one living in the organization who’s trustworthy enough to go to for advice. Eventually, it turns out to be a flashback to a conversation they had before Gaetano and Constant Calamita murdered our beloved non-medical, non-senatorial attorney, and soon we are back to the story’s present, watching Loy work through the plan he discussed with his old friend.
It’s not that unusual for Fargo to insert a flashback into the story, nor would it have been had the conversation actually been an imagined one between Loy and his dead consiglieri. But the placement of the scene feels off, and distracting. And given what Noah Hawley has said about how he re-edited this season’s middle chapters to Frankenstein together an additional episode, I can’t help wondering if the Loy/Doctor discussion originally appeared in sequence, before his assassination, and got moved here once Hawley and the editing team started taking these episodes apart and reassembling them in a different order.
I start with the flashback not because it’s the most important scene for this week’s plot, but because it feels symptomatic of some of the strain Season Four is showing at its midpoint. Every episode is a hectic tangle of set pieces and menacing speeches. The season still largely works so far, because the most of the acting and writing is really strong in these individual components, but the whole doesn’t feel like the sum of those parts.
And generating an additional episode out of extraneous bits from the others doesn’t really solve the problem of the season’s general overcrowding, and the way that all these characters have had to fight for screen time. Ethelrida, who in theory is the protagonist of this whole complicated story, barely appears at all this week, while the climactic conflict involves a Fadda soldier who has barely spoken prior to this episode: Antoon Dumini, played by Sean Fortunato.
It takes a while to get to Dumini’s surprisingly crucial role. First, Loy makes various moves, including scaring Odis into betraying the Faddas, then sending Zelmare and Swanee to the Italians’ HQ to pose as ladies of the night so they can get close enough to kill a bunch of Fadda soldiers and take Gaetano prisoner. Gaetano ends up shackled around the neck and suffers a beating at the hands of ex-boxer Omie Sparkman(*). Loy then tries to send Odis to retrieve Satchel from the Fadda house, only for one of his moves to counteract the other: Josto is so aggravated about the situation with Gaetano (including New York’s request that he make peace with his brother in order to secure their help) that Odis is ordered to the club before he can get his hands on Satchel.
(*) Omie is one of several Cannon soldiers who were clearly meant to be prominent and then had their role drastically reduced either at the script stage or in editing. Corey Hendrix, who plays him, is a cast regular this season, which is not the case for, say, Kelsey Asbille as Swanee, even though she’s had much more to do thus far.
Loy doesn’t realize that he has done Josto something of a favor by abducting and torturing his troublemaking sibling. But the kidnapping nonetheless demands a response, and Josto decides to solve multiple problems at once: He will have Dumini kill poor Satchel, and then blame the disloyal Constant Calamita for it when Loy inevitably rages at the death of his son. This puts family man Dumini in the uncomfortable position of being ordered to execute a kid around the same age as his own.
It’s not impossible to build a compelling conflict around a previously obscure character. Season Two did that to a degree with Hanzee Dent, though he was always much more prominent in that season’s early episodes than Dumini has been here. But to make it work, “Camp Elegance” would have had to go the full Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead route, and temporarily reorient itself around one of the story’s bit players. Instead, it’s an episode largely built like the ones before it, where the emotional fulcrum in the last act is a relative nobody whose backstory is delivered only moments before he opts to spare Satchel, but is nonetheless shot and killed by Rabbi Milligan.
It’s all rushed, forced, and clumsy. Even Milligan’s comment to Satchel about how he never got to choose what to do when his family kept trading him away to rivals doesn’t hit as hard as it could, because he’s had to jostle for screen time just as much as everyone else. The character stands out more for Ben Whishaw’s raw screen presence than anything he’s been given to do or say to this point.
There’s some very good stuff coming up, including some material involving Rabbi and Satchel that’s easily the season’s highlight. But this has been an imperfect season, and many of those imperfections come to the forefront this time out.
Some other thoughts:
* Ethelrida begins the episode haunted by the family ghost, as her parents sing “Happy Birthday” to her with the repaired cake. She ends it potentially endangered by Oraetta Mayflower, who appears to have figured out who sent the damning letter to Dr. Harvard about her conduct. If given a choice of opponent at this point, I’d probably take my chances against the ghost.
* Chris Rock has his ups and downs when Loy is conversing with others — J. Nicole Brooks acted him off the screen last week in the scene where Loy’s wife Buel tears into him about Satchel — but dammit if he doesn’t give good monologue. He gets a few choice ones this week, including the lecture to Odis about how Loy is fighting not just the Italians, but a 400-year-old mindset that tries to deny him his basic humanity, and his boxing talk with Gaetano.
* Finally, I can’t be the only Coen brothers fan who saw Zelmare and Swanee using a carpet to haul Gaetano’s sizable bulk out of the house and thought, “That rug really tied the room together, did it not?”