Awards spotlight: Ben Whishaw (‘Fargo’) movingly plays the beating heart of Season 4

Every installment of FX’s anthology series “Fargo” boasts an incredibly impressive ensemble and its current fourth season certainly continues that trend. From legend Chris Rock giving an uncharacteristically dramatic performance to the bold and brilliant newcomer Jessie Buckley and industry veterans like Jack Huston, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Schwartzman and Glynn Turman, this 1950s-set batch of episodes features no shortage of star wattage and killer performances.

Even among this murderers-row of talent, Ben Whishaw stands out as the emotional center of this unrelentingly bleak and utterly compelling season, which chronicles an escalating war between the Italian mafia and a Black crime syndicate in Kansas City. Whishaw plays Rabbi Milligan, an Irishman under the employ of the Italians. As a child, Rabbi was traded twice to criminal enterprises opposing his family — first the Moskowitz Syndicate and then the Italian Fadda family — as a way to maintain peace.

SEE Awards spotlight: Jessie Buckley stuns as a disarmingly maniacal nurse in ‘Fargo’ season 4

This tradition continues at the top of the season when Chris Rock’s Loy Cannon trades his son Satchel (Rodney L. Jones III) to the Faddas. Rabbi knows the isolation that Satchel feels and he takes him under his care, feeding him and making sure he continues his education. When Josto Fadda (Schwartzman) orders Satchel dead, Rabbi foils the hit, betraying his bosses and putting his own life in danger, and the unlikely duo goes on the lamb. It’s a heroic moment for Whishaw’s character and the actor movingly conveys Rabbi’s rage and panic; his usually slumped body language stiffens and through his physicality alone, Whishaw commands the audience’s attention as he becomes the guardian to Satchel that Rabbi never had.

Excellent throughout the whole season, Whishaw takes center stage in the brilliant ninth episode “East/West,” which focuses solely on Rabbi and Satchel as they lay low in Liberal, Kansas while the Fadda family chases them down. A cinematically gorgeous hour, “East/West” pays tribute to “The Wizard of Oz,” as the episode is shot predominantly in black-and-white and bursts into full technicolor after — you guessed it — a twister touches down.

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The tornado scene will no doubt garner attention and hopefully an Emmy nomination for Michael Uppendahl’s exquisite direction, but Whishaw’s performance truly elevates the outstanding material. Over the course of the episode, Rabbi’s good intentions to safeguard Satchel constantly run into unforeseen setbacks. Whishaw walks a tightrope of emotion during the hour, as he sets rules for Satchel while grappling with his own frustration, desperation, and almost deadly anger. The biggest heartbreak arrives at the episode’s climax, when Rabbi quietly slips away to get Satchel a candy bar for his birthday, unknowingly crossing paths with not just one of the Fadda’s goons, but also the cataclysmic twister that (likely) seals his fate.

Whishaw’s heart-wrenching performance in “Fargo” Season 4 could bring the actor back to the Golden Globes, where he won in 2019 for “A Very English Scandal.” Though he currently sits way down in 27th place in our combined odds, the series has an excellent track record with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, earning eight acting nominations for its first three seasons with wins for Billy Bob Thornton and Ewan McGregor. Whishaw trails in our combined SAG odds, too, where “Fargo” has performed far less well, but a nomination and victory at the Globes could help him solidify a nomination at the distant 2021 Emmy Awards, replicating his awards trajectory for “A Very English Scandal.” For Whishaw’s beautiful and tragic arc in the season, those nominations would be so well-deserved.

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