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Television Review: Fargo – Season Two

After initially assessing and at least partially dismissing the first season of Noah Hawley’s television adaptation of the Oscar-winning American film classic Fargo for FX as half-baked, comically-challenged Coen Brothers fan fiction, I returned to reconsider. While I did not find a work that rose to the level of the original source material (which, to be fair, is one of the great American films of the past quarter-century), watching the full season on its own terms allowed a unique, idiosyncratic work to emerge of its own accord. It was a more pitiless and sensationalist violent crime potboiler than the Coens’ Fargo (or any of their films, really), and although often funny and amusing, it could never convincingly approximate the Coens’ comic voice.

We can forgive this and resist characterizing it as a failure, given the exceptional nature of the brothers’ precisely modulated, entirely singular writing style. But Fargo the TV show was carried through by strong writing nonetheless, as well as a batch of excellent performances from the likes of Allison Tolman, Keith Carradine, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and even an oblique, seemingly-improvised supporting appearance from comedy duo Key and Peele.

The second season of Fargo therefore became a more anticipated event, especially when reviews and returns labelled it as being far better than the first, even a veritable television classic. Imagine my concern, then, when after observing how the show wore down my preliminary objections as its first season went on, I found those objections creeping inescapably back in as its second season moved forward. The television Fargo is undeniably its own beast with its own ideas and appealing features, regardless of how many themes, character types, plot elements, settings, musical selections, writing and storytelling devices, or filmmaking techniques it borrows, recycles, or repurposes from the Coens canon. But with every callback and reference to the Fargo film or another Coens joint, its fanfic core became harder to transcend, especially when its own extrapolations on top of that core rely so heavily on standard-issue crime drama gangland dick-measuring clichés.

Set in 1979, about 35 years before the roughly current-day events of the first season, Fargo Season Two fills in a darkly hinted-at portion of that narrative’s backstory. In Season One, Lou Solverson is a retired Minnesota state trooper (played by Carradine), father to keen local cop Molly Solverson (Tolman), who is the central detective figure unravelling that season’s web of crime. Recurring dialogue references back to a disturbing and violent event that took place in Sioux Falls, Minnesota while Lou was on active duty as a younger man. The most he ever brings himself to say about what happened there, during a tense conversation at his roadside diner with cold-blooded contract killer Lorne Malvo (Thornton), is that it was more “animal” than human.

The viewer of Season Two, when judging the all-too-human errors, betrayals, pride, and resentments that lead up to a bloodbath at a motor motel in the penultimate episode that caps a series of murders strewn across three states, might find that the older Solverson’s description constitutes a certain abdication of responsibility. Fargo, like the Coens canon it is in creative conversation with, is fundamentally concerned with human choice and the dimensions of morality, but like the Coens’ work it also recognizes, with a bitter ironic sting, the limits of human agency and the ambivalent caprices of an arbitrary universe. Actions have consequences in the world of Fargo, but just as often, those consequences arise unbidden, manifesting not as karmic justice but as cosmic randomness. This combination of human fallibility and forces beyond our comprehension inevitably leads to catastrophe.

This particular catastrophe stems from an organized crime turf war in the snowy northern Midwest (actually shot in and around Calgary, Alberta, like the show’s first season). When the steely, aged patriarch of the Gerhardt family crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota suffers a debilitating stroke around the same time the youngest of his sons, Rye (Kieran Culkin), goes missing after murdering a hostile judge and a pair of witnesses in a diner, the Kansas City mafia decides to exploit this moment of perceived weakness to expand into the family’s sovereign territory. Represented by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), encyclopedically-minded Mike Milligan (a bemusedly verbose Bokeem Woodbine), and an imposing, mute pair of twin brother enforcers (Brad and Todd Mann), Kansas City seeks to negotiate a favourable settlement of spheres of influence with the interim boss of the Gerhardt clan, matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), whole rule is supported by her middle son Bear (Angus Sampson), but any attempts at peaceful resolution are undercut and turned towards an all-out war by the belligerence and violence of her eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand man, sinister Native American tracker and triggerman Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon). Meanwhile, Dodd’s rebellious daughter Simone (Rachel Keller) tries to play both sides, and Bear’s son Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) chafes at his father’s protectiveness and yearns to participate in what he sees as the glamourous life of the family criminal business.

Into this volatile situation drops Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst, who’s rarely been better), a small-town beautician with a resourceful but semi-delusional mania for self-actualization, and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons as a deep sigh in human form), who has modest dreams of saving up to buy the main-street butcher shop in which he works as an assistant. Peggy strikes Rye with her car after he commits the Waffle Hut murders, and rather than go to the police, she and Ed follow a string of decisions that lead to Rye’s death and their pursuit by the vengeful Gerhardts and the inquiring police for their deepening involvement in the gang war. Those police include not only the young Lou Solverson (that perennially underrated gem of a quasi-leading man, Patrick Wilson), whose wife Besty (Cristin Milioti) is dying of cancer, but his stalwart, wry sheriff father-in-law Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and the squirming, unreliable Fargo PD Detective Ben Schmidt (Keir O’Donnell). Nick Offerman also shows up for a clutch of episodes as an alcoholic local lawyer and, like Solverson, a Vietnam vet with a key role to play.

Hawley and his writers maintain a strong ear for the accented speech and polite understatement that constitutes the verbal element of “Minnesota Nice”. If it’s not the Coens’ ear, well, see the disclaimer in the second paragraph, but it’s still quite good. The dialogue approximates their indie-film avatars’ fondness for contrasting polite middlebrow misunderstandings with vicious crimeland hostility, as well as digressive but thematically/metaphorically reflective monologues and speeches (the writers really like those; some characters, such as Milligan, express themselves almost entirely in them). Punctuated by outbursts of gory violence, such tone and material can veer closer to the influence of Quentin Tarantino as opposed to the Coens, a bit of an easier creative touchstone to try to copy.

A braver and more difficult choice in Season Two’s construction, indeed its most contentious turn, is the way Hawley and his writers insert fantastical science fiction into their essentially realist (although fictionally exaggerated) crime narrative. At two key junctures in the plot – following Rye’s massacre at the waffle house and during the Sioux City shootout – a UFO appears in the night sky, distracting characters at important moments with fateful results. Hawley has only offered vague, cultural-history-type justifications of the flying saucer’s appearances, which vlogger Ryan Hollinger attempts to make sense of here (a little dissatisfactorily, I must admit). I do agree that the UFO has a precedent in the Coens-verse (Billy Bob Thornton sees one in The Man Who Wasn’t There, though its function there is more symbolic or metaphorical and has no direct bearing on the plot, as it does in the show), and that the alien visitation can be understood in terms of the concept of random, extra-human forces acting upon human lives, also a frequent Coens theme, as discussed.

But I can’t shake the thought that the flying saucer, integrated into the world of Fargo as it is, is a device for meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling and plotting itself. It’s a species of atomic-age deus ex machina for a world (in 1979 as in our own times) that can’t bring itself to trust gods to exist, let alone to intervene in human affairs for any sense of greater good. Its interference is nearly indirect; it hovers and spotlights characters, but their paralyzed awe (and the ability of others around them to overcome that sense of awe to act) carries the consequences, not extraterrestrial chess-mastering. In an America absorbed in wishful, fantastical thinking in its blockbuster entertainments (Star Wars and the sci-fi wave of the late 1970s; the superhero-driven speculative explosion of contemporary Hollywood) as well as in the supposedly more sober political sphere (Donald Trump now; Ronald Reagan in 1979, played here in a masterful satirical cameo by Bruce Campbell), a UFO as catalyst for human drama, for tragic, pointless slaughter, is an apt image, both reflective and a subtle critique of rampant fantasism. Contrary to popular blather about destiny and fate, Fargo and its UFO shine a spotlight (quite literally) on fraught human decisions. The responsibility for, and thus the crushing weight of, those decisions lies with us, not with lights in the sky, divine, extraterrestrial, or otherwise.

With such ideas in play, I can’t be entirely clear-cut in declaring Fargo an elaborate but pale Coens homage as opposed to a sophisticated and original (if highly referential) engagement and exploration of the world and the themes of their films. There are times, in the space of a single episode for certain and even in the space of a single scene, at which in can be both. Doubts aside, Fargo remains a rewarding watch. Even pale Coens homages are superior to a vast swath of what’s on television screens, just as their films are greatly superior to a vast swath of what’s on movie screens.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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