Fargo S4E9 is the best standalone episode of the season so far. Like the blizzard in Season 1, or even the UFOs in Season 2, it culminates in a terrifying act of god that reminds our characters of their meaninglessness in the universe. While S4E9 is a brief reprieve from the escalation of tensions back in Kansas City between the Cannons and Faddas, it’s also the most intense episode of the season. In keeping with the themes throughout Fargo, “East/West” is a parable about the origins of the decline of late-capitalism, exploring the manufactured divisions of demographics that were sustained through meaningless marketing.
It is presented mostly in black & white as homage to The Wizard of Oz, another famous story set (partially) in Kansas. I think the choice to frame this episode like the film has a deeper meaning about storytelling as well. The first moments of Fargo S4E9 are still in color, as the camera pans over a demolished house and shows a copy of the fictional book The History of True Crime in the MidWest by Barton Brixby. It showed up in Fargo before back in Season 2 but I think its reappearance at the beginning of this episode suggests the story we’re witnessing here is what’s printed in the book, not necessarily what really happened even by Fargo’s already flimsy “this is a true story,” rules.
In any case, Rabbi (Ben Whishaw) is trying to take Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III) far away from the mayhem of Kansas City. Meanwhile, they are being pursued by the Faddas most lethal hitman Constant Calamita (Gaetano Bruno). Back in Kansas City, Loy Cannon mistakenly believes that Calamita killed Satchel as well as Rabbi, and has sent Omie Sparkman (Corey Hendrix) to hunt down Calamita.
With a Fadda henchman, Aldo, stowed in the trunk, Omie finds a gas station in the middle of Kansas and figures out that Calamita will have to stop by eventually, so he volunteers to repaint the building. Along with the numerous Wizard of Oz references, it layered in some more Twin Peaks imagery by taking place at an eerie convenience store. There’s obviously something primordial about gas stations in the dark side of the American psyche, as the expansion and infrastructure of the plains through the west was driven by the oil and automobile industries at the expense of indigenous people and the global climate.
Fargo S4E9 is having some fun with locations. The title “East/West” is clever, especially considering Omie’s position somewhere in the middle of Kansas. When Omie opens the trunk at the beginning of the episode, Aldo asks where they are and Omie sees a plaque commemorating the childhood home of Dr. Clyde Tombough, the astronomer who discovered Pluto. Though the place is not, in fact, named Pluto like Omie tells Aldo, it might as well be. They are in the middle of nowhere, and unsure of their destination. Kansas is often depicted as a spiritual center of American contradictions as much as the literal center. Aldo can’t remember if Calamita was headed to Liberty or Liberal Kansas, one on the west side of the state and the other all the way on the east. So instead Omie decides they’ll wait for him to pass back through again.
Meanwhile, Rabbi and Satchel find themselves staying at the creepiest boarding house they can find. Outside, there’s another plaque that describes the house as the ancestral home to a family of serial killers who were never actually caught. The receptionist asks Rabbi and Satchel a series of apparently arbitrary questions, which decides whether they stay in the west or east wing of the house. “Plymouth Rock or Sutter’s Mill? McCarthy or Eisenhower? Old Testament or New?” When Rabbi responds to the second question that he doesn’t follow politics the receptionist replies, “Eisenhower then.” She gives them a room in the west wing.
The division of the house is a construct of the owners, Picola and Iola Crumb, elderly sisters whose portraits hang above the reception desk. One of the sisters looks more conservative and dour while the other is dressed more flamboyantly and smiling. The scene plays out as a precursor to the shift in both advertising and politics toward demographic targeting, a seemingly harmless tactic of dividing people into demographic groups that advertisers can aim their message to specifically. Fargo S4E9 points out how these kinds of marketing groups can be completely manufactured. The result divides the house’s guests into the East and West.
Notably, the receptionist tells Rabbi that the owners “don’t much care for colored folk.” When Rabbi attempts to leave she reassures him, “Didn’t say they had a rule. Just said they don’t care for us. Steer clear of them, you’ll be right as rain.” We see how this plays out at dinner when one sister at first objects to Satchel sitting at the table before the other interjects, “My side, my rules.”
The dinner scene itself is like a Lynchian Normal Rockwell painting run through a corrupted Facebook algorithm. One of the guests, an older white man, won’t stop talking about Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book How to Win Friends And Influence People, a book that confuses manipulative sales tactics with good personal relationship skills, further eroding the divide between commerce and personal life. He manages to mishandle every interaction however, like mistaking the pastor’s mother for his wife.
We find out that Rabbi chose this stop because he has some money hidden away in town. When he goes to retrieve it, he unfortunately discovers the building where it was hidden is no longer standing. He goes into the appliance store and inspects the spot where it should be and sees that a stone wall has been torn out. The salesman explains how he and his brother bought the place at auction and Rabbi leaves.
Later he stops to ask about an unfinished sign for a housing development that reads “The Future Is…” Rabbi asks the man working on the sign what it’s going to say, but the man doesn’t know. Rabbi is frustrated about it, which prompts the guy to say “If I finish the sign I’m out of the job. Anyway, what do you care it’s just a sign?” I think there’s a lot going on here with Rabbi’s reaction to a seemingly mundane part of the cultural landscape, and it could reflect an aspect of Rabbi’s Irish identity. As an Irish-born immigrant first sent to live with a Jewish family–hence his nickname “Rabbi”–and now working for an Italian crime family, Rabbi’s immigrant experience uniquely extends outside the Irish diaspora. Among many of the cruel practices of British imperialists during the Great Famine, landlords insisted that local Irish workers build endless stone walls dividing up the land. Often, the walls were unnecessary other than to keep workers employed rather than face starvation. The sign painter’s job is far less brutal, and yet it nonetheless serves the same purpose. It is setting aside a plot of land to be sold and bought for escalating prices, a fortune that the sign painter will never see. The point is made even clearer when Rabbi finds that the stone wall where he stashed his money, foolishly thinking it would withstand the test of time, has been torn down and replaced with advertisements for appliances.
Satchel, meanwhile, finds a stray dog hiding in the wardrobe of their room. The dog’s collar says her name is “Rabbit,” oddly similar to his guardian, Rabbi. Rabbit now accompanies Satchel as Toto did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rabbi tries to get rid of the dog, but Satchel tells him he just wanted one thing for his birthday. It’s heartbreaking, and Rabbi realizes this, but it also crossed my mind that with all the deceit Satchel has seen play out over his life that it could be another lie with devastating consequences. Rabbi takes him at his word and immediately sets out to find him a proper birthday treat, and notably does not give his traditional goodbye, “if I don’t come back I’m either dead or in jail.”
Rabbi’s primary motivation throughout this season has been to protect Satchel, and he’s never once given any indication that his loyalty is to anyone else. When he finds out that Antoon took Satchel back in S4E6, he severs ties with the Faddas immediately by shooting one of their men and holding Josto’s sister at gunpoint. Since we can likely infer that Satchel grows up to be hitman Mike Milligan, there was always an impending doom associated with Rabbi’s attempts. We already know that Satchel would end up a cold blooded killer, which doesn’t quite seem in line with Rabbi’s goals for the kid.
Rabbi ends up back at the gas station where we already know Calamita has arrived. He first sees the body of the attendant framed similarly to the Wicked Witch of the East, but finds Calamita inside with the upper hand on Omie. Calamita turns his attention toward Rabbi just as a tornado arrives, giving Omie a window to fire at Calamita, who shoots back and kills Omie. Rabbi loses his weapon to the storm, but Calamita isn’t fast enough to finish him off. The tornado swallows Calamita along with the gas station, while Rabbi closes his eyes and lets himself get swept away by the winds of change.
When Satchel wakes up the world is in color, a la Dorothy’s arrival in Oz. His first encounters aren’t nearly as pleasant as Dorothy’s, though. After a brief creepy encounter with a Baron Harkonnen-like man in bandages next door and seeing the pastor and his mother wearing white robes like klansmen, Satchel retreats with his dog and pistol and waits for Rabbi to return. When he leaves in the morning, realizing he and his dog, Rabbit, are on their own, he is greeted by the finished sign across the street. “The Future Is Now,” but unlike Dorothy, he and his dog are still just in Kansas.