Warning: Spoilers ahead for season one of 'Fargo' as well as the first episode of the second season.
I was, I admit, a Coen brothers skeptic. To me, their 1990 small-town gangster film Miller's Crossing was the perfect crime movie, so perfect that I assumed that no one could make a movie like that twice—and I was right. Their next films, Barton Fink and Hudsucker Proxy,__ did nothing for me, so even though I was living in Minneapolis when Fargo came out in 1996, I didn't go. It was a blisteringly cold winter, and I didn't need to trudge through the snow to see some Minnesota murder-mystery squander the legacy of Miller's Crossing.
These days, Fargo is one of my favorite films. In fact, I'm so protective of that film that when news of FX's plan to produce an homage series broke, I went through the same process of skepticism, reluctant viewing, and quick realization that something special was happening on the screen in front of me. Despite occasional missteps, the show located the core of the Coens' dark, comedic, savage worldview in a new tale of small-town murder and surprising heroism.
Season two premiered last night. As a skeptic, I doubted that FX could pull off the impossible a second time. I'm delighted to say that, again, my fears were unfounded.
The show continues to capture the pace, feeling, and savagery of both the first season and its cinematic source material.
In the first scene of the new season, Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin), the youngest son of a small-time but savage North Dakota criminal mob, enters a Waffle Hut in Luverne, Minnesota, just across the border from Sioux Falls. It's an icy night in the winter of 1979. The ugly light of the diner reflects off the snow and cheap plastic of the restaurant's tables as Rye sits down at the bar. But he's not there to order food. He plans to pressure a Fargo judge, sitting at nearby booth, into unfreezing the accounts of his business partner so the two of them can go into the IBM Selectric Typewriter business.
By the end of the scene, Rye has shot three people and fled; soon his family, the cops, and members of a criminal syndicate from Kansas City are looking for him. Unfortunately for everyone, he's already dead, his body disposed of in a scene reminiscent of the famous woodchipper from the Coens' film. Peggy and Ed Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Daniels), a hair stylist and butcher, become involved, even as the KC syndicate and Gerhardt family go to war. It's going to be a cold, bloody winter.
Fargo is the latest "anthology series" from FX. Anthology series tell independent stories connected by a theme, setting, or possibly a continuing character or two. Seasons jump back and forth in time and space, drawing in viewers not by making us love (or hate) specific characters, or by telling a story we want to see unfold over many years, but by hooking us on a feeling. It's an old genre, perhaps best characterized by shows like the Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits that began anew with each episode. A few years ago, American Horror Story, also on FX, reinvigorated the form for the modern era, and has proved season after season that it can lure us back with another creepy context. Murder House, Asylum, Coven, and Freak Show all played with the horror genres in explicit and effective ways. Hotel, their latest, just came out last week.
The anthology series can fail, though. HBO's True Detective tried to do for crime drama what AHS did for horror. Season one was great. Season two, on the other hand, was one of the biggest disappointments of the past year. Such are the risks of tearing up your setting and hoping consistent genre will get you through. On the bright side, a bad season of an anthology series doesn't mean that the next year won't be wildly successful. While Kit Harrington has been stuck with years of long hair in Game of Thrones, big stars can sign up for a single season of an anthology series as a finite commitment.
So what is Fargo's theme? It's not as cut and dry as "horror" or "crime" (or the forthcoming "family drama" from HBO), although the plots are about crime, to be sure. It's American Gothic, but if the husband had stabbed someone with the pitchfork and the wife disposed of the body in her award-winning meat pies she's taking down to the county fair. This is the Coen brothers' America, a land of violence, absurdity, small-time gangsters who think they're Al Capone, vengeance, and a nihilistic optimism—or maybe an optimistic nihilism. A Coen brothers movie has a particular feel to it, a power to capture a mood or a place, and I thought Fargo season one felt just right. Season two, with its story of corporate America versus the family business (the family business being crime), does it even better.
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I wasn't alone in this assessment. The first season won a lot of awards, occupied the top slot on best-of lists, and was hailed as a terrific homage to the movie. Set in 2006, a bullied and henpecked insurance agent, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), happens to meet a diabolical assassin, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Nygaard murders his wife; Malvo murders the chief of police. The plot takes off from there. Freeman and Thornton were the big names, each playing anti-heroes, but the show succeeded because of its true heroes. Alison Tolman played detective Molly Solverson, the best heroine on TV in a long time. She's a small-town cop who is the only person to put all the pieces of the crime together, but has to deal with all kinds of good-old-boy sexist bullshit that interfere with her pursuit of justice. The show pairs her with Gus Grimley, a Duluth cop who is too afraid to act against Malvo in episode one, and spends the rest of the season trying to redeem himself. Molly fights patriarchy, Gus fights his cowardice, and eventually they fall in love. These things kept me happy with the show, despite its many missteps and weird side plots.
The bad news: There is no Molly Solverson in season two. In fact, in the four episodes I've seen, the heroes are all just a little too standard-issue "good cop" heroic, though that might change. The good news is that there's also no Billy Bob Thornton to soak up the screen. I liked Lorne Malvo, but he somehow distracted me from the world of northern Minnesota and North Dakota and its inhabitants. He was an outsider disrupting the order of things. In season two, the order of things is revealed as dysfunctional all by itself, no malevolent force needed.
The new season's 1979 setting is embodied most interestingly by the prevalence of post-Vietnam PTSD among the menfolk in their 30s. It turns out that here in the north, an environment as different from Vietnam as is possible to conceive, the war has come home. One of these men is Lou Solverson, Molly's dad, here in the prime of his life. His daughter is four. His wife is dying of cancer. It picks up a thread from season one, the "Sioux Falls incident" that turned Lou from a cop to a restaurant owner, and promises to reveal all the terrible details. Four episodes in, the crime war is about to get serious, too many people are paying attention to the hapless Blomquists, and I can't quite tell how we, the viewers, are supposed to feel about Peggy and Ed. That ambiguity feels right.
The show continues to capture the pace, feeling, and savagery of both the first season and its cinematic source material. It's a Coen brothers world: excessive, at times uneven, but never, ever boring.
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Fargo airs on Mondays at 10 PM on FX.