FX’s Terrific Fargo Avoids the Sophomore Slump

Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine, second from right) and the Kitchen Brothers face the music. | Photo by Chris Large/FX.

Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine, second from right) and the Kitchen Brothers face the music. | Photo by Chris Large/FX.

“Waiting For Dutch,” the second-season premiere of FX Networks’ miniseries Fargo, opened with a brilliant visual: jittery, black-and-white outtakes from Massacre at Sioux Falls, a fake MGM movie starring future President Ronald “Dutch” Reagan and a fictitious starlet named Betty LaPlage. Watching a young Hollywood director struggling to make entertainment out of a violent true story is actually a wonderful meta moment for Fargo fans.

The gag works because Fargo pretends to be rooted in truth, but what Fargo series creator (and chief writer) Noah Hawley understands is that Fargo, like the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen film that inspired the series, isn’t really about a particular city or crime, or even a specific point in time. It’s about those unplanned moments where good crashes into evil, horror collides with humor, and the simplest disagreements have fatal consequences. The threat of violence is everywhere—even in sleepy little towns where the people speak slowly and deliberately, dontcha know.

Hawley briefly hinted at this season’s storyline in Fargo’s first season, when retired Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine) recalled something from his past:

“Had a case once, back in ’79. I’d tell you the details but it’d sound like I made ’em up. Madness really … I saw something that year I ain’t ever seen, before or since. I’d call it animal, except animals only kill for food.”

Patrick Wilson plays the younger version of Solverson, recently returned from the Vietnam War. We know his young wife (Cristin Milioti) is slowly dying of cancer and their 4-year-old daughter, Molly, will grow up to be chief of the Bemidji Police Department and a central character in Fargo’s first season. And yes, we know that the grisly events to come will haunt Solverson forever and lead to his retirement from law enforcement.

In addition to Solverson and his family, we meet the Gerhardt brothers: Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), Bear (Angus Sampson) and Rye (Kieran Culkin). Their family motto is “Everybody earns” but Rye is having a difficult time. Hell, the whole Gerhardt family is having trouble with money. Their income from gambling, drugs and prostitution is down and when the Gerhardt patriarch suffers a debilitating stroke, it causes a power struggle between the Gerhardt boys and their mother (Jean Smart). With the Gerhardt empire in disarray, a Kansas City crime syndicate (led by Brad Garrett) decides to move in and claim their territory by force, if necessary.

Then there’s Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), who slams her car into a dimwitted criminal trying to flee the scene of a triple homicide he’s just committed at the Waffle Hut. Rather than report the accident, Peggy drives home with the body stuck in her windshield so she can get dinner on the table for her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons). The Blomquists are just regular folks (she’s a beautician, he works at a butcher shop) who eat Hamburger Helper, pray before meals, and endlessly echo “OK then.” Will there be serious repercussions from Peggy’s hit & run? You betcha. Fans of Fargo know the show’s best moments frequently hinge on rash decisions. Not everybody sins in Fargo, but everybody pays for their mistakes.

Fargo spills a lot of blood but elicits just as many laughs. You want gruesome? One character is buried alive in asphalt, while another is fed into a meat grinder. All that, plus a triple homicide—and we’re still only a few episodes in. If the accents and period clothing don’t put a smile on your face, Bokeem Woodbine’s portrayal of Kansas City baddie Mike Milligan will. Woodbine steals every scene he’s in, just like Billy Bob Thornton’s creepy Lorne Malvo.

Based on the strength of Hawley’s writing and the show’s superb production values (particularly the wonderful cinematography and split-screen editing), I have a strong feeling this season of Fargo will be a likely contender for a second Best Miniseries Emmy. Sure, some fans will wait another two months and binge-watch the whole season on demand, but Fargo is a show worth savoring. Pretend it really is 1979, limit yourself to an episode a week, and let the series get under your skin.

Fargo’s second season airs Monday nights at 10 p.m on FX. Individual episodes and season passes are available at Amazon and on iTunes. The show’s first season is available for streaming on Hulu.