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Fargo S4E10: The Gospel of Ethelrida Pearl Smutny

“Happy”

Fargo S4E10 leads us into the finale with a brutal episode that nevertheless ends with a triumphant Ethelrida Pearl Smutny striking a deal with Loy Cannon that could save her family. In keeping with the religious symbolism seen all throughout Fargo Season 4, Ethelrida’s bold actions make a compelling parable about justice and mercy. But it goes much further than that in creating a mythological allegory about social revolutions that has been the cornerstone of this season. This episode introduced the beginnings of a biblical plot to betray Cannon to the Faddas—Josto even proclaimed “we’re the goddamn Roman Empire,” all the way back in S4E1

But there’s a lot to get to before that. First, there’s the revelation that the “Snowman” haunting Ethelrida is a curse passed down through her mother’s side of the family. Dibrella tells Ethelrida about one of their grandfathers killing the captain of a slave ship named Theodore Roach. “The Roach,” as Dibrella refers to him, has his eyes sewn shut and both she and Ethelrida experience strong odors of the sea. Notably, Dibrella says that Zelmare tried to take The Roach but he wasn’t interested because, according to her, he prefers “sunshine.”  

Ethelrida Smutny looks away as she is confronted by Nurse Mayflower, and Lemuel Cannon stands between them.

Dibrella leaves Ethelrida on the front porch with Lemuel, who attempts to continue flirting over jazz, but Ethelrida tells Lemuel she wants to meet with his father. Shortly after, Nurse Mayflower arrives and Ethelrida tells Lemuel “don’t let her get me,” a phrasing that implies the harmless looking nurse is more monstrous than she seems. After a tense hello, Mayflower indeed lunges at Ethelrida yelling “give me back my ring,” but Lemuel holds her off. Mayflower flagrantly touts her white supremacy and privilege, asking Ethelrida “What does it feel like to be so sure you’re right and know that nobody cares?” 

There is also the wonderfully bittersweet brotherly friendship that develops between Josto and Gaetano. I’ve loved both of their performances this season, and S4E10 gives them plenty of awkward character developments. Gaetano, now looking up to Josto, manages to be a rather patient and wise advisor and really starts to open up to him while they are staking out Detective Weff, who has gone all in with the Cannons and rounded up a good chunk of the Faddas’ men at the beginning of the episode. 

I don’t have much to say at the moment about Odis Weff, other than despite a truly phenomenal performance by Jack Huston I think his arc was one of the weaker aspects of this season. On top of an obsessive compulsive disorder that mostly earns derision from his peers, Weff’s PTSD from the war causes him to inexplicably shoot the wrong people when he’s nervous. For the most part, I expect there are and will be a lot of takes on the show’s decision to subvert its own hero cop trope, but they did so while also clumsily using mental illness as an excuse for violence.

But I would like to point to something I completely missed all season that a reddit user noticed, which is that Weff’s Hummel figurine collection appears to be arranged in some sort of altar, and anyone who violated his sanctuary by handling them without permission winds up dead. But like all the other curses we’ve seen in Fargo, this offers Weff no protection. Gaetano shoots him in his car as he attempts to leave his apartment. Weff’s corpse appears to be smiling somewhat at Gaetano, who in turn looks rather disturbed by his own actions for once. Turning to walk back to Josto, Gaetano trips and falls face first toward the pavement, his loaded gun firing on the ground and through Gaetano’s skull. Of course, it wouldn’t quite be Fargo without some gore. Josto sees the entire thing unfold, and Schwartzmann takes a full moment to let the reality sink in with an entirely appropriate, “what the f*ck?” 

We then see Nurse Mayflower attempt her revenge on Ethelrida as she breaks into the Smutny home at night past a sleeping Lemuel and sneaks up to Ethelrida’s room. The camera glides up the stairway emphasizing Nurse Mayflower’s inhumanity. Or, it’s the perspective of Ethelrida’s spiritual protector. As Mayflower prepares a syringe, The Roach appears behind her with the sound of waves. Unlike her failed attempt at an authentic scream when she attempted to murder Dr. Harvard, Mayflower shrieks. When she frantically returns to her apartment, the police are waiting for her. In a classic Fargo arrest scene, she tries to sneak past them with polite dismissal before they haul her away. 

Nurse Mayflower, holding a syringe in a dark room, looks horrified as a ghostly apparitions stands behind her

The Coen brothers manage to treat religious allegories in their films so well because they understand the role of words and metaphors in religious texts and culture myths, and the show Fargo is mostly a meditation of mythmaking in the surreal haunted landscape of the  post-industrial American Midwest. The themes aren’t just lazy parallels to bible stories, but deconstructions of their logic in ways that give them relevance, like the tension here among the varying levels of integrated families and melting pot reality that shows up in Season 4.

Lionel "Happy" Holloway, played by Edwin Lee Gibson, sits in the foreground wearing a grey suit, maroon bow tie and stetson, while a man stands in the background holding two framed black and white portraits

So I might have been a little off in my initial analysis of Loy as a representation of Christian mercy, which required overlooking some of his less-inspiring actions. For instance, he lashed out at his wife and mother-in-law before ever losing his cool in front of his men, but he also violently beats Leon. This comes back to haunt him, as Leon’s cousin is another powerful gangster named Lionel “Happy” Halloway (Edwin Lee Gibson). And of course, he trades his son with the Faddas and is generally kind of callous about it. But it finally clicked in this episode that he’s more like the God of the Old Testament, who disperses justice far more than mercy. This also reframes the scene earlier with Ethelrida and Lemuel, who already made a point of referring to the biblical origins of his name back in S4E1, and now stands in as a sort of angelic figure that speaks to Loy on Ethelrida’s behalf and also stands as her guardian when she is threatened by the angel of death. 

Of course, to modern audiences the biblical concepts of sin and justice are based on arbitrary and outdated ideas, but Fargo S4E10, and Season 4 in general, gives these abstract concepts tangible expression. The spiritual debt often referred to in religious traditions is a literal debt in Fargo, taken on by Ethelrida’s parents to save their mortuary, which itself can represent the terrestrial world or mortality. When her father goes back to repay Loy money that was stolen from him to begin with, it plays out like a perfect parable for Sunday school if you replace the gangster with God and the smug mortician with mankind attempting an insufficient offering. 

Now, Ethelrida has an offering to Loy that actually means something. Oreatta Mayflower is a serial killer, and Ethelrida knows it, but she also knows that she murdered Josto’s father and Loy’s former enemy, and (assuming she knows who Josto is) knows that the two of them are having an affair. She already has Mayflower in a trap, but now she’s doing much more with that than just preserving herself, she’s wielding her domination of the angel of death to bring peace.

Loy Cannon holds a ring that once belonged to Donatello Fadda.

Hawley and Fargo’s creative team wanted to tell a story about a paradigm shift in mythological terms, and they turned to another point in history that is rich with meaning as well as historical lessons. The setting of Fargo Season 4, with factions of marginalized and oppressed communities fighting real and spiritual wars while institutions of oppression around them crumble to ambition and corruption is also a decent representation of the political and historical context of Jerusalem in the first century compared to most popular depictions. Similarly, the American Midwest of the 1950s is often mythologized as a golden age of our own era, despite the grim realities for most Americans during that time. 

It also represents the evolution of traditions in a new world as the old one loses relevance, and how the keepers of the old traditions react to these evolutions. If Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, he would have been seen as one among many radical sectarian leaders during a period of epochal transition in the Roman Empire, creating tension in parts of the world where clashing cultural identities felt threatened by the rapidly changing social dynamics. In these situations, entrenched powers of oppressed communities can find themselves protecting the status quo. Cannon finds himself in a similar situation as he tries to wrestle power from the Faddas without Happy’s blessing. When Happy meets with Cannon, he insists that someone stand to the side holding a pair of photos of their ancestors like Moses and the stone tablets. Just as the plot to crucify Jesus began among the Jewish elites at the receiving end of his criticism seeking a political alliance with Rome, Happy and Leon side meet with Josto Fadda and plan to kill Loy Cannon in an effort to bring the gang war to an end. 

The religious symbolism in Fargo works because it’s more than just aesthetic symbolism. It’s easy to conclude from this analysis that this means Ethelrida is somehow doomed, but is she? Or is Loy the one who is going to be sacrificed? Maybe the sacrifice all along was Satchel, now a sort of anti-Christ out on his own ready to become the future Mike Milligan? He is, after all, presumed dead by his family. We see him briefly on the road in Kansas, accosted by a pair of men in a red truck. But he wards them off with his pistol and a commanding, “no,” while proclaiming that “this is my world. Now f*ck off.” If he manages to make it back to his family in Kansas City this season, will they see it as a resurrection? We still have to wait until next week to see whose story ends up getting told.

Satchel Cannon has a small terrier on a leash and points a gun at two men in an old red Ford truck on the side of a country road.

Written by Cody Shafer

Cody Ray Shafer is a writer and artist with some thoughts on video games, music, comics, and Twin Peaks.

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