It’s the rarest of feats that the second season of a brilliant television show outdoes the first, but Noah Hawley’s Fargo has done just that. This time out it’s a prequel, moving from the year 2006 in the first season to 1979, and events that were alluded to throughout those initial episodes. UFOs, warring crime families and menace in ordinary things all populate these episodes. Absurdity, central to the 1996 Coen Brothers film that started this all is here, via references to Sisyphus, Camus and Ronald Reagan’s first bid for the White House. There are also those nagging moral and philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil that rear their heads from time to time. There’s even some laughter.
The moment at which this season is set is perfect. We’re surrounded by veterans of a war that mainstream American still can’t talk about, one largely perceived as a defeat and a disgrace, but which was no less a war than the ones that preceded it. We’re also surrounded by a changing world and a changing America. The corporate Kansas City mob wants to swallow up the small Nebraska clan that has held the plains in its grips for so long. In short, we have an elegy for an America that died in January 1981. We also have an allegory for the way that corporate America declared war on the individual.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The basic story is this: The Gerhardt Family of North Dakota is placed in a compromised position when the family patriarch, Otto (Michael Hogan), suffers a stroke. With Otto rendered incapable of ruling, two of his three sons (Jeffrey Donovan as Dodd, Angus Sampson as Bear) are left to fight off a Kansas City syndicate that wants to move in and control the territory. It’s all complicated by the fact that a third son (Kieran Culkin as Rye) has gone missing and is believed to have fallen victim to the Kansas City mob.
If you’re reminded of King Lear, so be it. The scope is positively Shakespearean, as are the bloodshed and political maneuverings.
The cast is predictably superb. Patrick Wilson plays Lou Solverson (portrayed by Keith Carradine in the show’s first season), a state trooper whose wife is in the early stages of cancer, and whose father-in-law, Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), is the sheriff. In the opening episode they’re called in to examine a bloodbath at a local waffle joint that foretells the bloodbath to come in later episodes. Sort of.
Foreshadowing and other devices, tropes and whatnot that work their magic in other genres become subverted or even cast aside in this world. Chance can play a short game and find us dead while waiting for our dinner at the local greasy spoon. It can go for the long con as well, and set in motion a series of seemingly unrelated events that will ultimately unravel a life or a marriage or both. It’ll cause our worlds to intersect with the worlds of others in ways that are impossible to predict or describe.
Evil doesn’t always seem so bad in Fargo. Bokeem Woodbine plays the cold and calculating Mike Milligan, whose deceptive affability arguably makes his cruelty all that more malevolent. Like Billy Bob Thorton’s Lorne Malvo in the first season, Milligan’s moods and motivations are sometimes unpredictable and his charms are at best superficial.
Murder at the waffle joint becomes central to the lives of Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and Ed (Jesse Plemons) Blumquist, an ill-matched couple who quickly become bound together by secrets, lies and the dark tendencies both hide from the world at large and from each other. Dunst delivers one of her best performances to date, and Plemons proves impossibly watchable as he maneuvers this way and that in an attempt to get close to something that seems like redemption. That he becomes one of the most feared men in all the Midwest adds the kind of darkly humor twist that Fargo viewers can’t resist.
The Blumquists are the kind of ordinary people whose selfish desires and incompetence pull them into a world they can only navigate through haphazard guesses and a tenuous grasp on competence. Their machinations only give them a firm grasp as their innocence erodes. When we meet them they are, in short, small time. Peggy’s a beautician in for self-improvement, even if it means cutting corners to get it. What Ed thinks he wants and what he’s capable of become two radically different things, as circumstances lead him on a course that, ironically, brings him and Peggy closer together.
Their pains are nothing compared to the cancer that’s eating Lou Solverson’s wife (played by Cristin Milioti) alive. She’s part of a cancer study that gives her hope, but is actually hastening her demise. Lou is a good man, the kind who suffers tragedy harder than most. He sees enough bloodshed and violence to know that he can’t go one fighting crime. Why fight something, after all, that you can’t possibly defeat? He and his family are troubled by major philosophical questions about the fleeting and elusive nature of good and the dark insistence of evil.
As circumstances draw these seemingly disparate lives closer together, the opposing forces pace against each other like dogs fighting through a thin fence. As these circles move inward and eventually collapse we find that there’s an increasing sadness in the tone of the series. Like the character The Misfit in Flannery O’ Connor’s classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (a story, by the way, that seems to quietly inform much of the work the Coen’s have created) we discover that there are few joys in living and that bloodshed brings nothing more than suffering.
Events that take place in the 1979 of the first season hold sway over those that come to roost in 2006 and even the hints here and there that the original film provided are not exempt from the realities of this universe. That’s fun and all, but the best thing about this story rests in the questions it causes us to grapple with in our own lives: What are our motivations? To what length would we go to in order to protect what we have? How well do we know ourselves? Our family? Our neighbors?
That thin line that keeps us on this side of the jailhouse or the nuthouse gets dramatically thinner in Fargo, and so when the end comes we have to say we’re glad to be gone and on our way to somewhere (presumably) safer. What about those UFOs? Maybe they represent the zeitgeist, a hope that something would be able to come and show us all the way. God knows that some felt that way about Ronald Reagan. Maybe they’re that long-awaited something that never arrives but instead lingers at the edge of the frame, teasing us into believing in something that really isn’t there.
Isn’t that what Fargo is about, after all, the futile dreams and dashed hopes of Americans who want just a little more from life?
The collection includes numerous special features including a variety of highly entertaining featurettes and some audio commentary from Bruce Campbell who plays Ronald Reagan.