David L. Garcia
How good was the first season of “Fargo”? It was miraculous. Spectacular. Dope A.F. FX’s television adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ classic crime film was better than I could have ever dreamed, and when the second season premiered a few weeks ago, I was forced to pester every friend, co-worker, and casual acquaintance I have to ask for the password to their parents’ DirecTV. I snooped around those illegal streaming sites and tried to sign up for a free trial of Hulu Plus (both proved fruitless). Eventually, I was forced to watch the new episodes on some DVDs burned by a professor of mine who, inexplicably, still has a first-generation TiVo. (Such is the struggle for those without cable).
Fortunately, the work paid off. The second season of “Fargo” is a bigger and even more winding maze of Minnesota crime and corruption than its predecessors, bolstered by great writing and some of the best direction on television today.
Showrunner Noah Hawley sets the second season in 1979, in a morally hazy, post-Watergate America, and focuses on Lou Solverson (the always affable Patrick Wilson), the father of season one heroine Molly Solverson (who appears here as a little girl). Solverson is a gruff Minnesota State Trooper investigating a (seemingly) random triple murder at a local diner, while trying to readjust to post-Vietnam civilian life and deal with his wife’s cancer diagnosis. We’re also introduced to the Gerhardts, a local crime family fighting to keep their territory from falling into the hands of the Kansas City mafia, and the Blumquists (played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), a young married couple who decide to cover up a hit and run murder. I’m not going to get into the plot; take my word for it, the surprises and twists are a lot more fun when you don’t see them coming. Let’s just say that the Gerhardts are connected to the murder at the diner, and the Blumquists’ bloody cover-up creates more problems than it solves.
Sound like a lot for one season? It certainly is. There’s at least six main characters (with almost twice as many supporting) and they’re all connected in a spider’s web of intrigue, coincidences and, you know, murder. It’s rare to see a show develop such emotionally complex characters; most shows struggle to have more than one. But “Fargo” is stuffed to the gills with rich, deeply developed characters, all important to the story as a whole. Solverson is technically the protagonist, the main character. But he is not, overall, more important than either of the Blumquists, or the Gerhardt brothers, or Mike Milligan (a cheeky Kansas City crime associate portrayed brilliantly by Bokeem Woodbine). All of the characters are essential, and I applaud the writers for keeping everything from tangling up.
The show is also beautiful to look at: stark white landscapes, graceful camera movements, split screen shots designed to emphasize the characters interconnectedness. “Fargo” is one of the best directed shows on air, complementing its wit and depth with some of the most cinematic direction on television.
Like FX’s other big hit, “American Horror Story,” “Fargo” is an anthology series, meaning the plot, setting, and characters change each time. Unlike “American Horror Story” which seems content to deliver the same thrills for increasingly smaller returns, “Fargo” uses this trope to experiment, and to escape the limits of its source material. While the first season played like a (fairly brilliant) reimagining of the original film, expanded and more modern but still essentially the same plot and format, season two abandons the Coens’ film almost completely; aside from the snowy landscapes, Minnesota accents, and bloody crimes, hardly anything resembles the film. It’s a risk to expand your focus, especially on an already successful show, and, once again, my hat is off to Hawley and the writers.
The obligatory opening statement, “This is a true story”, still opens every episode, but I get the sense that Hawley doesn’t want to limit the show to being a farcical, quasi-true crime story. There’s a much deeper exploration of cynicism and moral corruption happening in these episodes, as the characters directly wrestle with the question of whether good, moral people can last in a place that seems surrounded by wickedness. It is a question that Solverson, and the audience, is forced to come to terms with, as they both fall deeper and deeper into a crime spree so confusing, twisted, and horrendous that it could only take place in the soft, snowy landscape of “Fargo.”
Photo courtesy of FX Network