If the first episode is any indication, season two of FX’s Fargo is going to be an almost pitch-perfect sophomore effort for the TV miniseries.
Fargo. Monday nights at 10 p.m. on FX. Created by Noah Hawley.
By Alissa Darsa
By all accounts, nobody expected much from the first season of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s adaptation of the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name. The cry heard round the Internet following the announcement of the show’s upcoming release largely arose from the many fans who felt that there was no way to improve on the film’s nearly flawless formula. But against all odds, Fargo was a considerable success, drawing praise and a slew of awards. In addition to its critical accolades, the miniseries shined a spotlight on FX, which has been steadily coming up behind networks such as AMC in the realm of prestige programming.
Season two, which premiered on Monday, opens on an outtake from the film Massacre at Sioux Falls. It’s an odd scene (intentionally so). There’s a Native American actor in full garb standing on a field of fallen soldiers, and there’s the film’s director, engaging in some seriously awkward chit chat. Both are waiting for the movie’s star, Ronald Reagan, to appear on set—he, of course, never does. Cue the opening credits: Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech is laid underneath the familiar “true story” disclaimer (which appeared in both the movie and at the beginning of every episode of season one), followed by a series of images meant to establish the show’s tone. This year, Fargo takes place during the tumultuous period following the Vietnam War, and the people who populate Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1979 are also just pre-Reagan. “Waiting for Dutch,” the episode’s title (and Reagan’s childhood nickname), anticipates his impending ascension to the office of president—whose leadership centered on reversing the ‘crisis of confidence’ that supposedly afflicted the American psyche by the end of the 1970s. But if I had to guess, I would say he’s never going to appear here either.
Against this backdrop, the show introduces us to characters in crisis. First, we meet the Gerhardt crime family, whose control over the Midwest syndicate faces an uncertain future after the patriarch, Otto Gerhardt (Michael Hogan), suffers a stroke. But, more importantly, it is through the actions of his youngest son, Rye (Kieran Culkin) that the show explores a familiar theme—a theme which fans of the Coen brothers will recognize. In Fargo, we see men pushed to their limit by elements over which they perceive they have no control. Feelings of impotence, fears of emasculation, drive them to extremes: in this case, murder. In season one, it was the beleaguered Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who struck his wife in the head with a hammer. And in season two, it’s Rye, who is described by his older brother Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) as the “comic in a piece of bubble gum.”
Rather than waste his considerable lack of charm and talent languishing at the very bottom of his family’s totem pole, Rye, it seems, is running his own side business (something to do with typewriters). But like any D-list criminal, Rye has a cash problem: the funds he needs to get his business off the ground are tied up in legal proceedings. Taking the scenic route to the Waffle Hut in Luverne, Minnesota, Rye tracks down the judge responsible for releasing the cash. And so they face off. The judge (Ann Cusack—delivering a really nice performance here) offers Rye a biblical parable about Job and the devil: if the devil couldn’t convince Job to renounce God, then how does he—at this point, a soupy blend of bug eyes and flop sweat—expect to convince her through coercion. Again, the Coen brothers are here in essence if not in execution: spirituality has long pervaded their films, from the mild hippy wisdom of The Dude to the more purposeful proselytizing in 2009’s A Serious Man. It’s a nice touch, a brief moment of quiet in a scene that’s about to get very loud.
At this point, Rye is just beginning to flex his big-boy muscles when he gets a shot of bug spray to the eyes. This is the final push—the cherry on his emasculation sundae. The triple homicide that follows brings in police officer Lou Solverson (played in the second season by Patrick Wilson—and whose daughter, Molly, was the focus of season one) and his partner Hank Larsson (Ted Danson). The two cops exchange brief pleasantries, only barely circling the problems Solverson is facing at home: a wife undergoing chemotherapy. Another hallmark of this show is present here, for these characters, their tension and struggles—their worries, fears, and doubts—are defined as much by the things they don’t say as the things they do.
We also meet married couple Ed and Peggy Blomquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst), whose conspicuous marital issues are put on hold after it is revealed that Peggy drove away from the Waffle Hut with Rye’s body thrust through her windshield. After hitting him with her car, in a panic, she continued driving home, believing she had killed him. After Rye comes to in the couple’s garage and goes after Ed with a knife, Ed stabs and kills him. The couple agrees to cover up their actions rather than go to the police, and thus they become one more piece in this bizarrely delightful puzzle. It begs the question, now that the apparent antagonist is out of the picture—who is the devil? And who is Job? It may be a while before that question is answered. Also on the horizon is another crime syndicate, a Kansas-based operation led by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), looking to expand northward, and with eyes on the now-vulnerable Gerhardt’s.
Much like the show’s first season, season two serves up a distinctive brand of believable absurdity, one that is ever so slightly heightened. It is as if all of the action is lifted up to a place just a few inches above the ground and then run through an Instagram filter. Viscid violence is layered on top of dark humor. The characters seem like they should, if moved over an inch, step into parody. But the people who inhabit this universe, with their Farrah Fawcett flips and candy-colored cardigans, make sense. The world Hawley establishes is so fully realized that every player functions quite convincingly there, delivering deadpan earnestness via sprawling Midwestern accents. Once again, Fargo proves that it knows how to use its actors. The show proudly parades its “hey, it’s that guy” cast across the screen, from the table pounding, alcoholic, Vietnam vet Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman) to Gerhardt matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), along with half a dozen other recognizable fixtures of TV and film.
Still, for all the beautifully orchestrated moments in “Waiting for Dutch,” the show may be a little heavy-handed for some: the landscapes a bit too bleak, the soundtrack too neatly on the nose. The symbolism, sly winks, and frequently stagey dialogue elicit strong reactions on both sides: its too-clever-for-its-own-good attitude either delights or annoys. But there’s no denying the talent of this show’s creator, nor the mastery of its performers.
Though its characters may be in crisis, Fargo certainly is not. If the first episode is any indication, the miniseries is poised to deliver a nearly pitch-perfect sophomore season, one that is worth tuning in for, you betcha!
Alissa Darsa is a writer, editor, and educator. In addition to her work for The Arts Fuse, she has previously written for online arts news site artnet News. She received her MA from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education in media, culture, and communication, and her BA from Ithaca College in art history and theater. She enjoys reading, cooking, and podcasts about pop culture.