Fargo season 4 rights the wrongs of the past with a chaotic queer romance

Note: The following article contains discussion of sexual assault that some readers may find upsetting.

Fargo season four spoilers follow.

Fargo season four is righting the wrongs of its second instalment with a female queer storyline at the intersection of race, gender and history.

After introducing a clichéd, predatory lesbian character in season two, Noah Hawley’s show seems to be on a different path this time round thanks to Swanee Capps (Kelsey Asbille) and Zelmare Roulette (Karen Aldridge), the series’ first female queer couple.

When asked what she and Zelmare intend to do after breaking out of prison, Swanee replies, “Being outlaws,” perfectly encapsulating the chaotic evil energy of the pair.

zelmare roulette karen aldridge fargo

FX

Unusually for an LGBTQ+ storyline, coming out isn’t the main conflict here. These are two women — a Native American and a Black character — being unapologetically queer from the get-go. Swanee and Zelmare simply dream of living on their own terms. Their morals may be questionable, but their romantic relationship is never up for debate. Not even when they show up unannounced at Dibrell’s, Zelmare’s no-nonsense sister.

The couple get caught in the nerve-wracking, bloody war between Black migrants and the local Italian mob in 1950 Kansas City, Missouri. With a noble intent, no less: helping Dibrell deal with loan shark Loy Cannon, portrayed by a never-better Chris Rock.

Because in Fargo’s fourth season, men are seasoned, organised criminals. Their alpha-male type toxic masculinity is on full display as they follow ritualistic codes of honour. Women, on the other hand, are still formally excluded from this hierarchical structure.

So what other choice is there? Waiting on a husband to die to be able to sit at the table, as Floyd Gerhardt does in season two, if you want to play the game at all, that is. But Zelmare and Swanee do not. Although they were convicted for robbery and murder, the two women don’t see themselves as criminals. They’re self-proclaimed outlaws — and this makes all the difference in the world.

Swanee and Zelmare are up in arms against a system that benefits men, especially if they’re white. Fargo challenges this privileged point of view in season four by telling the stories of immigrants and outcasts that made America. Jewish people, Irish and Italian immigrants, Native Americans, the Black community… You name it. Still, male criminals like Rock’s Loy and Jason Schwartzman’s Josto Fadda would play within a set of well-established norms. They’re dressing and talking the part to fit in a society that is clearly rejecting them.

chris rock

Michael Buckner

On the opposite end of the spectrum, women like Swanee and Zelmare have no interest in conforming. This defiant attitude is apparent from the way they present as well as act and love.

When they get to Kansas City, the couple trades their prison uniforms for a more appropriate look. Zelmare opts for a ladylike number, whereas Swanee robs a catcalling man of his cowboy ensemble. While their outfits of choice might mirror the dynamics of a femme-butch relationship, Swanee’s look might also be a nod to gender fluidity within Native American tribes.

“Indigenous people in that part of North America didn’t use gender pronouns and instead took on roles and identities that are best described as gender-fluid,” explains Gregory Smithers, Professor of Indigenous History at the University of Hull.

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“That goes for their sexuality, too. This is particularly true in matrilineal societies in which women formed intimate relationships with both men and women and had the power to break them to meet the needs of their kinship group and community,” he says.

Despite the controversy surrounding Chinese-American actress Asbille’s heritage, Swanee’s storyline attempts to be a beacon of representation for Indigenous culture. In “The Land of Taking and Killing,” she brings an uncomfortable yet necessary conversation to the table.

“You’d have thunk the white school they shipped me to from the reservation would have seen to my English, but they was mostly concerned with raping the Native out of me,” she says.

swanee capps kelsey asbille fargo

FX

It is not impossible to see Swanee’s case as correctional rape, given her attraction to women. A sin in the eyes of Christianity.

“Non-indigenous peoples brought Christian traditions of female subservience with them to the ‘New World,'” adds Joy Porter, Professor of Indigenous History at the University of Hull. “They associated female leadership with an affront to the male Trinity.”

With Fargo’s signature dark humour, Swanee addresses the atrocities Native American women had to endure at the hands of white, Christian colonisers. If you think that is a thing of the past, the 2018 report “Our Bodies, Our Stories” proves otherwise. The risk of rape or sexual assault is still 2.5 times higher for Native women than the rest of the US, and perpetrators are more likely to be non-Native.

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But Fargo’s’ tonal shift is unparalleled. The show also provides the couple with a number of romantic scenes, including an unusually sweet smooch-in-a-coffin moment in ‘Raddoppiarlo’.

Both coming from marginalised backgrounds, Zelmare and Swanee live their queerness in the most freeing, natural way. For these two women bandits, existing outside of the law could be the reason why their sexual and/or gender identity is never questioned. It’s when male authority actively interferes that their plans to live together as outlaws fail. Chased by policemen and mobsters, the two women make a grand exit in episode eight, ‘The Nadir’.

The gunfight can be reframed as a gender-reversed reenactment of the 1933 Union Station massacre, as Den of Geek points out. The real-life shooting saw men on both sides of the barricades. Fargo, instead, decides to flip the narrative to put female outlaws under the spotlight.

This gender reversal is extremely significant. Non-conforming American figures from the 17th and 18th centuries have been consistently written out of history books and myths; their legacy watered down.

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“Despite a strong legacy of diversity, popular mythology constructed the notion that is was the rugged, solitary white male, straight and cisgender cowboy who established the American West,” says Dr Molly Merryman, Research Director for the Queer Britain Museum.

“Because settlers could escape the legal and cultural norms from the east, we see single women owning property and establishing cities. Some of these women were also able to present themselves as men or simply subvert gender roles,” she continues.

Unfortunately, the likes of San Franciscan pickpocket Jeanne Bonnet, known for her relationships with women and gender-bending outfits, or trans army laundress Mrs. Nash are still little-known. Not an outlaw, but the first Black woman mail carrier Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, had a tough reputation nonetheless.

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If one could see Zelmare in Mary’s badass demeanour, Native American warrior leaders Mary Quilax and Bíawacheeitchish could have inspired Swanee. None of these figures, however, will be afforded the same mythical aura of their white, straight, male peers.

Swanee and Zelmare’s gunpowder show at the train station has the power to immortalise them as anti-establishment heroes. The reality of queer, female, non-white, real-life outlaws and adventurers paints another picture.

But Fargo is a true story after all; not a real one. It toys with the most poignant moments of American history, making changes where it sees fit, where it can uncover a speck of truth. And the difference between truth and reality the show serves us week after week is everything. Just like that between criminals and outlaws.

Fargo season four airs weekly each Sunday on FX in the US. A UK air date is yet to be announced.


Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.

Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.


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