Fargo Season 4: Episode 5: The Birthplace of Civilization (2020) - Reviewed

Photo Courtesy of FX

Fargo returned with a vengeance this week. Spawned by Josto’s (Jason Schwartzman) call to action near the end of last week’s episode, The Birthplace of Civilization begins with several members of the Cannon Limited being arrested at a jazz club, allowing the Faddas to show just how vile they can be.

 Using Otis (Jack Huston) to control the police, more of Loy’s (Chris Rock) men are arrested and his money seized, but not before Loy is able to taunt Otis about his time during the war sweeping for mines. When Otis asks Loy if he fought during the war, Loy responds by saying: “Why would I fight for a country that wants me dead?” echoing the current state of affairs in the U.S. quite aptly. Later, when Josto visits Loy’s men in jail, he says “Do you know why America loves a crime story? Because America IS a crime story.” 

The first four episodes of this season aimed to set up the world, introduce the characters and set certain events into motion. Episode 5 feels like it also took a cue from Josto and said, “we’re not fucking around anymore.” This week, the show very quickly became a gangster saga, with echoes not only from the Coen Brothers’ filmography, but of films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Case in point, Gaetano (Salvatore Esposito) finally reveals what a short fuse he has by killing a busboy who laughs at him when he falls on the ice, followed by a bartender who refuses to make a decent cup of coffee, a la Joe Pesci’s scene in Goodfellas with Michael Imperioli.

Later, Calamita (Gaetano Bruno) and Gaetano meet with Doctor Senator (Glynn Turman) to tell him that they’re done talking. When Doctor Senator tells Calamita that they haven’t earned his respect, both men follow him to the street and kill him instantly, leaving his body for Loy and his men to find. So much for my theory about Doctor Senator being the equivalent of Breaking Bad’s/Better Call Saul’s Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).

I have to say, that scene devastated me. Doctor Senator’s run was short but impactful. Even when he realized his fate, he showed no fear and maintained his lack of respect for Calamita and Gaetano. They may have taken his life, but he had the last laugh. That counts for something. 

The actions taken by the Faddas this week also gave Rock several opportunities to show off his acting chops as Loy, first in the aforementioned scene with Otis, where he taunts him about his inability to save the life of his superior during the war; later when he tells his wife the reality of their situation and how he is unquestionably in charge, not her; and finally when he visits the Smutny’s home, threatening to kill them or worse if they do not do what he asks. 

I believe I’ve already said this, but to re-emphasize, Rock is doing some of the best work of his career. For those who have said they don’t buy or enjoy his performance, we must be watching different shows. If anything, The Birthplace of Civilization proves my point more than any previous episode. 

Speaking of wonderful acting, up to this point I didn’t think anyone could upstage Timothy Olyphant in a scene, but I was proven wrong in a delightful way. 

Deafy confronts Ethelrida (E'myri Crutchfield) at school and, much like Josto and Loy (are you seeing a pattern here?) he is done playing nice. He wants to know the whereabouts of Zelmare (Karen Aldridge) and Swanee (Kelsey Asbille). He tries to appeal to her “civilized” nature, and Ethelrida instead informs him that the birthplace of civilization originated in Africa, meaning that she and Deafy both are descendants of the people who lived there. Deafy is left speechless and, rather than getting the usual Olyphant wit, he threatens to get Ethelrida expelled if she doesn’t cooperate. Much like Doctor Senator, even if Ethelrida is forced to comply, she still wins. 

Fargo has been great from the beginning, but this week’s episode was refreshing because it seemed to throw a wrench in the pace that this season had established thus far. Noah Hawley and his writers are clearly letting the characters speak for themselves and, rather than restricting them to the story the writers want to tell, the characters are dictating where it goes. Members of both families are fed up and the time for talking is done. Even if it ends in bloodshed, the fight for power outweighs logic on both sides. 

It’s sad, frustrating at times, but thrilling all around to watch unfold. That’s the brilliance of Hawley’s writing.

--Matt Giles