Last year, FX debuted a Fargo TV show by Noah Hawley, designed as a limited series that was a kind of spiritual extension of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film. For many people, it was a watershed series that boasted big stars, a stylish presentation, and a complicated premise. I wasn’t one of those people. But Season 2’s reinvention has made me a convert.
As an anthology series (like True Detective), Fargo had the opportunity to reset, and it did so by moving to 1979 and focusing on a crime alluded to in the first season. Police officer Lou Solverson (played by Keith Carradine in Season 1, and Patrick Wilson in Season 2) finds himself pulled into a twisted murder investigation that connects together a Fargo crime family, a Kansas City syndicate, some regular folks in Minnesota who made a series of bad decisions, and a typewriter salesman. As the unsettling details of the connections start to become clear, the Fargo police chief says to Solverson, “I’m thinking it’s better to confess to the crime myself and spend the rest of my life in a comfy cell with hot and cold running water.”
Fargo kicks off with a flash of violence that unfolds brutally, but not unexpectedly. In fact, almost nothing in the new season could really be called a twist, but that’s also part of its beauty. Watching the new season’s many characters and moving parts start slowing moving together is a rich experience, one painted with bright and bold 70s fashions, and crisp colors standing out against the mostly white background.
Wilson, as the staid Solverson (whose character was one of the best parts of Season 1), anchors the proceedings, which are not as desperately quirky or cartoonish as Season 1. This time, everything connects, and though there are some choices that could be read as too-precious, for the most part Hawley restrains himself and his production in order to focus on dynamic interactions between the characters.
There are many, many standouts, including Kieran Culkin as the misfit youngest son of the Gerhardt crime family, Jean Smart as his tough-as-nails mother, and Jeffrey Donovan as the ice-cold oldest son looking to take over the family business. When a Kansas City syndicate arrives looking to take over the family’s business, it’s led by Brad Garrett, who rumbles on about market numbers and research (in deciding who should live or die), as well as the truly fantastic Bokeem Woodbine as a loyal hit man. In a smart course-correction from Billy Bob Thornton’s overwrought role last season, there are no excessive monologues or faux-moralizing from this crew, or anyone else. (It’s worth noting that Hawley didn’t write every episode this season — a little goes a long way). And while the new season’s pace is by no means swift, every moment is taut.
Perhaps the greatest performances of the new season so far though are from Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons as Peggy and Ed Blomquist, who get caught up with the Gerhardts without realizing it, with Peggy acting as a kind of Lady MacBeth to her simple husband, manipulating him into covering up their mistakes rather than taking it to the police. Dunst is spellbinding as the fast-talking Peggy, who has aspirations of “discovering her best self,” and seems to want a life beyond a sleepy Minnesota town. And yet, she is capable of calmly orchestrating such brutality that it’s fascinating to watch.
On the other end are the Solversons — the link from Season 1 to Season 2 — giving the new season a heart that it needs, but one that doesn’t hold it back from exploring its violent world. Lou’s wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) is dying of cancer, but she’s a brave fighter and a warm presence onscreen. Her father, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), is Lou’s boss and now family, and the interactions between the two men, and among the entire family, are great moments that work emotionally, comedically, and as a representation of midwestern minimalism.
Fargo’s new season unfolds with a cinematic style directly referential to the late 70s, and every episode’s opening employs a split-screen technique and a soundtrack that envelops viewers in the time period. Some of it is a little heavy-handed, but what saves it entirely is the production’s subtly brilliant use of soundtrack, which augments the story’s tense atmosphere in a way that is never distracting (or if it is, its boldness is meant to startle).
But its greatest triumph is its connectivity. No characters this season feel ancillary, and no deaths are arbitrary. It’s clear that the various factions are marching towards a bloodbath, but everyone’s part in that means something within the context of the story. We already know one person who survives, but beyond that, everyone else could be wiped out — it’s just a matter of when, and by whom (and whether they, in turn, will suffer retribution). The moral world Fargo is directly causational, and no bad deed goes unpunished. But this time around, there are actually a few characters whose deaths might actually mean something emotionally for viewers.
So far, Fargo’s first few episodes show great restraint, both in the way they portray the characters and their interactions, as well as with the violence. Everything seems part of a greater whole in a way Season 1 never quite managed — its world was almost fully chaotic, whereas Season 2 finds a narrative world that is completely connected. It’s a beautiful thing, both stylistically and substantively, showcasing some of the best acting of the years from nearly everyone in the cast. This time around, Fargo is firing on all cylinders.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
Fargo Season 2 debuts on FX Monday, October 12th at 10 p.m.