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The Story Behind The Kansas City Mobsters On This Season Of FX's ‘Fargo’

Courtesy Fox Networks
Jean Smart is having none of what the Kansas City mob is offering in FX's 'Fargo.'

In May 1978, three masked men strode into the Virginia Tavern east of downtown Kansas City and shot up the joint. Michael Spero was killed and his brothers Carl and Joseph injured. In his book The Mafia and the Machine: The Story of the Kansas City Mob, Frank Hayde called it "the most aggressive gangland hit" since the 1933 Union Station Massacre.

In the '70s in Kansas City, organized crime was actually organized. Just a year before the Spero murder, bombings in the River Quay — today's River Market area — left a ghost town of boarded-up buildings and peep shows. But by the mid-1980s, older figures in the various families went to prison or died off, leaving the Kansas City mob on life support.

Now the old Kansas City mafia is new again thanks to the second season of the FX series "Fargo." Derived from Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning movie, the series borrows the geography, the weather and that long-O accent but is spinning its own anthologized stories. The current one is a doozy, as perfect and binge-worthy as TV can be.

The show is set in 1979 and begins with the claim that "This is a true story." Arriving in Fargo to "acquire territory" are supposed members of the Kansas City mafia Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), his right-hand man Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), and twin accomplices in white leisure suits.

Local mobsters of the time made similar efforts but, according to a organized crime writer Jay Ambler, their targets — California, Florida and Washington D.C. — were considerably more upscale than the North Dakota tundra.

Family rivalries were common, and in "Fargo" the Kansas City crew has a clear vendetta against one that's getting a little too big for its britches: Reigning due north of Kansas City are the Gerhardts, headed by the steely matriarch Floyd, played by Jean Smart as Lady Macbeth in flannel.

Kansas City mobsters sense a lame duck and think they have the North Dakota and Minnesota region in the bag. What's unclear, though, are the rewards. One might be North Dakota's generous oil supply since, once wire fraud and money laundering fell out of fashion in Kansas City, the local mafia dabbled in energy-related crimes involving oil and gas wells.

The real mob of the time orchestrated a theft ring targeting Sears stores, aided by an accomplice who was a store security officer. The only relation to retail on "Fargo" is a quaintly old-fashioned typewriter store with a manager prone to nerves and loose lips.

Crime bosses have testified for years that violence is a last resort if diplomacy fails. By the end of the fourth episode of "Fargo," negotiations between Kansas City and the Gerhardts have crumbled. As soon as the former team leaves the latter's compound, Floyd utters the inevitable "It's war" and the bloodbath amid the birch trees that opens the fifth episode attests she's not kidding.

Several of the show's scenes take place at a body shop where Kirsten Dunst's hairdresser character, Peggy Blomquist, is having her car repaired after hitting one of the Gerhardt sons, leaving him gruesomely embedded in the windshield. The coincidence with this locale involves evidence found on the crumpled Ryder truck Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. After fanning out to body shops throughout the region with evidence gathered from the bomb-site rubble, Kansas City-based FBI agents were able to secure enough witness reports to arrive at McVeigh's well-detailed composite sketch.

Sucked into the maelstrom as of episode five are Peggy's butcher husband, Minnesota state troopers, a Camus-quoting cashier, and Ronald Reagan. What sounds chaotic becomes grand and operatic in the hands of the show's creative team.

It's like Shakespeare in the snow, and so far Kansas City is losing face.

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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