Fargo and the anatomy of a perfect season of television…
by: Michael Shields
Few things in life can be described as perfect. I mean, there’s always some catch, right? A flaw here, a hiccup there. Without fail, there seems to be a blemish, even within the midst of greatness, or a critique present even if a hair or two is split. In the second season of FX’s anthology series Fargo, based on the Coen brothers’ Oscar winning film of the same name, what transpired over ten glorious episodes was so consummately impressive that what unfolded wasn’t just one of the better seasons of television ever produced, but rather a quintessential example of perfection. With its riveting storyline, well-developed and nuanced characters played by highly-proficient actors, shrewd callbacks to the Coen brother’s film catalogue, beguilingly covert easter eggs, scrupulously vetted musical accompaniment, and engrossing and bold cinematography — Fargo’s latest season was an extraordinary achievement, a mesmerizing and distinctly cohesive work of art.
When Fargo debuted in April of 2014, I am sure I was not alone in questioning the necessity of adapting the concepts from the film version to the small screen. But it didn’t take long for Fargo to win me over. Within weeks of its premiere, Fargo proved that the curious world of the snow-clad Midwest that was so alluring on the big screen could live another, wholly distinctive life. Fargo went on to amass three Emmy awards during its first season, including outstanding miniseries, two Golden Globe awards and a Peabody Award, all while reminding the world of the depth of Billy Bob Thornton’s talents and making a star out of showrunner, Noah Hawley. But while Season One was fantastic and wholly satisfying, Season Two dramatically raised the bar for excellence in television.
Fargo’s second season takes place in 1979, acting as a prequel to the first season’s storyline. The season followed a young Lou Solverson (this time played by Patrick Wilson) – while he was still a Minnesota State Trooper – as he became deeply entwined in the events that led up to The Massacre at Sioux Falls. A triple homicide at a roadside Waffle Hut begins a series of extraordinary incidents that ultimately wedged Officer Solverson (along with his father-in-law, Hank Larsson, and Ed and Peggy Blomquist) between the rock that was the nefariously ruthless Gerhardt family and the hard place of a brutal Kansas City crime syndicate. But what is remarkable, in hindsight, is that while Season One was just finding its footing, the groundwork for Season Two’s enthrallingly tangled web of murder and deceit, that climaxed in a pile of bodies outside a motel in South Dakota, was already being lain. In his diner one evening during Season One, an older Lou Solverson (then played by Keith Carradine), waxed nostalgic about a case that affected him deeply, ruminating that he “Had a case once. Back in ’79. And I’d tell you the details, but it’d sound like I made ’em up. Madness, really. One after another. Probably, if you stacked [the bodies] high, could have climbed to the second floor. I saw something that year I ain’t ever seen, before or since. I’d call it animal, except animals only kill for food. This was….Sioux Falls.” It is remarkable to now look back upon that scene and the power of its foreshadowing, and to think that those very humble beginnings were the groundwork for Fargo’s utterly majestic – yet menacing, pulpy and suspenseful – second season.
Fargo’s second season was huge in scope. So gargantuan that it was able to easily encompass a massive gang war, multiple jurisdictions of law enforcement from various counties and states, a loquacious lawyer (Nick Offerman!) with an appreciation for conspiracy theories who holds court at the local VFW hall, former president Ronald Reagan (played aptly by Bruce Campbell), two twin, muted mobsters with the last name Kitchen, and on top of all that – aliens. But even within the grand scheme of things, the smaller, and ultimately more important moments in life were never glossed over. Like a father (Hank Larson, played brilliantly by a white-bearded Ted Danson) who can’t find the right words to comfort his ill daughter. Or that daughter’s husband trying to cope with the looming possibility of losing the woman he loves and the mother to his daughter (Molly Solverson, the central character in Season One and the glue that binds the two seasons together). Or a man who would go to any length in order to attain his version of the American Dream, even if that requires him to feed a dead body through a meat grinder. And a woman, that man’s wife, who is sure she is meant for more than the predictable, subdued life of a midwestern housewife (“I just wanted to be someone”) who fought tooth and nail to escape the box society closed her into. While bullets flew with reckless abandon, and blood soaked the frosted, rolling plains, Fargo never was without a heartbeat, and never ignored the pain that resulted from measureless debauchery.
Season Two’s premiere, entitled “Waiting for Dutch,” was a spectacle. Opening with a bizarre and completely enthralling reference to a nonexistent Ronald Reagan Western film1, Episode 1 had a certain strut to it, one that reeked of self-assurance. It was clear right off the bat that Noah Hawley and the Fargo team were going to be taking chances, and what was even more obvious as the show progressed through a canvas of montages, theatrical overhead shots and split-screens, is that these risks were paying off, heightening the overall venture and enveloping the viewer with a dynamic visual experience. By episode’s end, with a shootout in and around a Waffle Hut that is one of the more visually stunning scenes to unfold on television – this or any year – the stage was neatly set, but the intensified level of dramatics set to take place upon it was only slightly discernible. And with the intrusive lens flares from an unidentified flying object2 and the thudding crash of a body (Rye Gerhardt, the runt of the Gerhardt litter, played pitch-perfect by Kieran Culkin) as it slammed through a car windshield – the game was dramatically afoot.
Episode 2, entitled “Before the Law,” introduced who I found to be the most captivating character encountered all season (and that is saying a lot!) in henchman Mike Milligan (played almost too naturally by Bokeem Woodbine). Milligan, flanked initially by his two mute companions, Wayne (Todd Mann) and Gale (Brad Mann) Kitchen, subtly channels Billy Bob Thornton’s evil, predatory character Lorne Malvo from Season One, and commands attention with a brooding confidence. His sarcasm, dark humor, and anomalous yet thoughtful insight exemplifies what makes Fargo so special. Milligan is the sort of character you would expect to find inhabiting a Quentin Tarantino film, yet – somehow – he fits in perfectly in Fargo, stealing every scene he’s in with a fascinating and deadly charm. “Before The Law” also featured Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) step up and become the matriarch of a powerful and ruthless North Dakota crime syndicate, taking control of the family business in dire times. Her will was unflappable, her grit palpable, and there was never a question to the extreme lengths she was willing to go to for the sake of her family.
In an obvious ode to William H. Macy’s bubbling car salesman in the Fargo feature film, the third episode of the season, “The Myth of Sisyphus” acts as a study in futility and follows a hapless typewriter salesman named Skip Sprang (Mike Bradecich) as he wades in way over his head into a world of crime he was never meant for, eventually being laid to rest beneath a pile of steaming, hot asphalt. Episode 4, “Fear and Trembling,” is spectacular for many reasons, but chief among them was the speech that Officer Solverson gives the Blomquists. Lou is on to Ed and Peggy (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons were masterful throughout the entirety of the season as an ill-fated couple), he knows they are involved in Rye Gerhardt’s demise and that they have no idea the depths of the danger they are in. He recalls his days in Vietnam, and the horrid occasions when his fellow soldiers would be wounded beyond mend. Often the afflicted had no idea of their predicament, and that they were surely at death’s door, but those around them knew the score. “You’re already dead!” Lou told Ed and Peggy, likening their situation to his dying brothers, attempting to open their eyes to the impossible predicament they were caught in. But Lou’s sage words fell on deaf ears and as the episode comes to a close, the war had begun and everyone, both friend and foe, was on to the Blomquists.
In the opening act of Episode 5, “The Gift of the Magi,” all hell had broken loose. In a montage that was artfully cut with a variation of Reagan’s “City on a Hill Speech,” the Gerhardt’s make their move. Amongst a whitewashed forest backdrop, the Gerhardt’s ambush the Kansas City syndicate, killing ring-leader Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), one of the Kitchen brothers and a slew of nameless thugs. What could have been a triumphant close to an episode, was the opening sequence for “The Gift of the Magi,” an episode that also brought Lou face to face with Ronald Reagan. In that poignant encounter Lou follows up on the rhetoric spewed by Reagan, and politicians of his ilk unto today, asking a simple question, “how?” to which Mr. Reagan simply, and predictably, shrinks away from. And not to be outdone, “The Gift of the Magi” expounded upon the misadventures of Charlie and Simone Gerhardt, the youngest of the family who were doomed from birth, born only to suffer for the sins of their fathers, and their grandfather Otto3.
Episode 6, “Rhinoceros,” belonged to Nick Offerman’s character Karl Weathers. The drunken, yet capable lawyer is called upon to intervene with Bear and the rest of the Gerhardt clan. Weather’s ability to flow from drunk, full of bravado and overtly suspicious of all authority to fearful of the chaos and uncertainty surrounding beautifully illustrated his character’s dynamism, and depth. And the brand of humor that results from this encounter is enchanting and a sound illustration of the boundless talent of Offerman, and of Noah Hawley’s crafty writing. In the closing moments of “Rhinoceros” we are once again confronted with the unrelenting resolve and shrewd skill set of Mike Milligan, where even a man known simply as “The Undertaker” proved to be of little match for Mike and the deadly “ace” he held up his sleeve. Episode 7, “Did you do this? No, you did it!” finally sees Simone Gerhardt laid to rest, gravely at the hand of her uncle, Bear Gerhardt. In Fargo, all deaths are impactful, but there is something so affecting about Gerhardt on Gerhardt violence throughout the season4. The impact of a family forced to rid the world of its own was profound, and indicative of the twisted world they occupied.
The Native American decorated war veteran, Hanzee (played Zach McClarnon), who is employed by the Gerhardts, takes center stage in Episode 8, entitled “Loplop.” Hanzee’s plight is that of an American outsider even though he has served his country in the most admirable way possible. His tragic tale is that of the hypocrisy of a country perplexingly referred to as a “melting pot,” when it has embarrassingly been nothing of the sort. Hanzee’s heart, we find out, is not malevolent as viewers might have gathered from his actions, but rather his murderous position with the Gerhardt’s is the direct result of a lack of options for his “kind.” “Loplop,” also places us dead center in Peggy’s struggles and displays the extent of her fractured psyche. In an interview with Vulture, Noah Hawley stated that he believed that god fearing people, those from “polite societies,” “don’t know how to bend, they just break.” This is true of Peggy, who in order to deal with the complications at hand, retreats into a world all her own, one where a non-existent motivational speaker urges Peggy to stop thinking, and to start doing. Episode 9, Fargo’s penultimate episode entitled “The Castle,” is unique in its inevitability. Tragedy is such an interesting thing because it comes paired with an implication that the event in question could have been avoided. There are countless instances in Fargo where even a simple action – such as leaving on the two-way radio for the evening – could have avoided a calamitous incident. The Massacre at Sioux Falls, and the entirety of “The Castle,” was so impactful due in large part to the considerable loss of life that unfolded and because of Hanzee’s sly masterminding of its eventuality. But also because the Gerhardt’s thirst for blood came home to roost in the worst way possible. In hindsight however, the episode was so affecting because none of it – the betrayal, the loss, the violence – had to happen at all.
The season finale, “Palindrome,” was a stirring, and wholly heart-breaking, cherry on top of a spectacular season. In it, Peggy’s understandable frustrations with the hand her life was dealt got the best of her, and her ruination came to its culmination as she succumbs to hallucinations and excuses about her role in the carnage that transpired. We also learned more about the “universal language” that Hank Larson has been crafting to channel his grief over the loss of his wife5 and we found Ed coming to grips with reality, albeit far too late. We bore witness to the terror of Mike Milligan’s “coronation day” speech juxtaposed cleverly with the ten by ten office “cell” that was his reward for enduring, and we came to understand the depth of Hanzee’s zeal for justice after having been handed the wrong end of the stick for far too long6. And fortuitously, we were exposed to another terrifying tale of the hell that was Vietnam by Lou, one that culminated with the reveal that, in some way, he understood why Ed felt the need to do what he did. The lengths a man will go to protect their own is something that Lou can comprehend. “The rock we all push – men – we call it our burden,” he says, “but, it’s really our privilege.”7 Lou is a decent man, who somehow managed to keep his wits about him in the face of extraordinary devilry. A palindrome, the episode’s namesake, is a word, phrase, or sequence that reads the same backward as forward, and in regards to Lou, it’s significant that with all he has been through he remained unchanged. Surely he was affected by all the evil he came face to face with, deeply so, but he remarkably remained true to himself, the same backward and forward, a man who can aptly be described as “salt of the earth,” who as the curtain closes, was finally provided the opportunity to rest, far from the carnage and hurt, in the arms of the woman he deeply loves.
“Palindrome” opens with a series of shots depicting the Gerhardt families’ demise; bodies riddled with bullets and knife-wounds. But surprisingly, the sequence culminates with a shot of Betsy Solverson (Cristin Milioti) in bed, sick with cancer. Betsy speaks of a dream, one where she sees her husband in a propitious future, one where you can obtain everything you could ever want from one store (an allusion to Wal-Mart’s impact on Main Streets across the U.S.) and where her husband sat contently with his daughter, son-in-law and grandkids. But the dream takes a drastic turn when the promise of a bright future for her family comes upon “the fracture of peace and enlightenment.” The evil that exists in the world, the sort we can understand and the brand we will never be able to fathom, consistently looms over us all, even the easy-going people of Midwest, threatening to impede upon the life that they have always expected. This, in a nutshell, is Fargo. This idea, that it is nearly impossible to stay true to who you are, and who you want to be, in a world gone mad was brought vividly to life throughout Fargo’s ten episode arc. The journey of a decent man, one Lou Solverson, and how that prudent soul reacted to the inevitable pitfalls and maliciousness that he came upon, was the conundrum explored at depth in Fargo. And much like the Coen brothers’ 2007 neo-Western thriller, No Country For Old Men, Fargo exists in a world where “normal” folk are forced to interact with, and come to grips with, those who act without mercy or empathy. But the truth of the matter is some things will never make sense in this world. Things like the impulses of the wicked, and, in the case of this season, the timely appearance of flying saucers.
What began last Fall as an homage to the Coen brothers’ 1996 film classic has evolved into so much more. Using the feature film as a launching pad, Fargo has broadened its scope and expanded its stylish approach. And while the two seasons of Fargo differ in character and magnitude (mostly), it was the modest bond between them that so shrewdly enlivened the Fargo universe, generating further excitement for what may come in Season Three. I can’t help but marvel about how a story with profoundly humble people at its core manifested itself into such an epic tale of Good vs Evil. Fargo’s second season was never simply about the Midwest though, rather it was about a rapidly changing nation. It was the story of how those who have been gravely oppressed and discounted (women, Native Americans, African Americans, war vets, etc.) would no longer allow themselves to be pushed around. But no matter how fiercely they fought back, their efforts just resulted in more pain and disappointment. But Fargo found a way, even within the midst of so much oppression and hurt, to emphasize that there is a reprieve from all the evil about, a place called home, where when surrounded by those you care about, most everything seems in its right place. There was always a heartbeat in Fargo’s exceptional Season Two, one that throbbed with affection until its touching, final beat.
- Fittingly entitled, “Massacre of Sioux Falls. [↩]
- As a huge fan of the Coen Brother’s 2001 neo-noir crime film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, I was wholly fascinated by the continuous UFO references and appearances. [↩]
- This episode featured an homage to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo in the form of a song by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who performed a cover of José Feliciano’s “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight.” Feliciano performed the song live for the 1996 film, in the scene where Steve Buscemi’s kidnapper takes an escort to a show in the Carlton hotel. Just one of the many brilliant musical odes throughout this season to the Coen brothers’ distinguished film catalogue. [↩]
- Exhibited once again later in the season when longtime Gerhardt associate, Hanzee, rids the world of the the scum of the earth that is Dodd Gerhardt. [↩]
- His comment, “you’ll know the angles when they come, because they’ll have the faces of your children,” undoubtedly hits home for anyone that has sat bedside for a family member’s final moments. [↩]
- In the concluding moments with Hanzee, he utters a line that potentially foreshadows his fate realized in Season One. [↩]
- The rock being pushed is a very clear reference to Sysyphus, first alluded to in Episode 3, with this “rock” being the rock that Sisyphus was forced to futilely push up a hill every day for eternity. [↩]