Season one of Fargo came out of nowhere. The idea was laughable: to take the brilliant, seminal film by the Coens and turn it into a series? It was a joke, a pathetic idea on the face of it. And yet, against all expectations, the first season wasn’t just good; it was nothing short of brilliant, capturing both the tone and the complex morality of the Coens’ film and turning it into something more sprawling and broader.
The second season, though, didn’t have that benefit of surprise. More than that, it had to live up to the foreshadowing that had been peppered throughout the first season, which contained references to an ominous series of events that happened in Sioux Falls. Add to that the difficulties of an anthology series where you’ve got an all-new cast and (essentially) a brand new story, and the difficulty curve was high, to put it mildly.
Nonetheless, Fargo‘s second season was all it needed to be and more, taking the same general themes of the first season – the juxtaposition of violence and everyday life, the nature of evil – and moving it the 1970’s. More specifically, it’s the end of the 1970’s, when America was still recovering from the double blow of Vietnam and Watergate, the era of big megabusiness was about to come along, and Ronald Reagan was drumming up support for his presidential run. It’s an odd time in American history, one where the country was trying to regain its moral compass, which makes it a nice setting for Fargo‘s season of mayhem and violence.
And let’s be clear: the stakes are raised pretty high here. While season 1 kicked off with an impulsive murder as one man gave way to his darkest impulses, season 2 is about nothing less than a mob war, as the Mafia decides to muscle its way into a small “family operation” in Minnesota. Mind you, it all goes bad due in no small part to a simple accident involving a man who’s not looking where he’s going…but nonetheless, this is violence on a far larger scale than most of what we saw in season 1.
Even so, Fargo remains a show about morality, about staying true to your code even in the face of unimaginable death and destruction. Much like season 1, the season finds its moral anchor in a police officer named Solverson – this time, it’s Molly’s father Lou, played in his younger years by Patrick Wilson. Lou’s a Vietnam vet, a father with a wife who’s dying of cancer, and a good cop, and so many of this season’s pleasures come from the glimpses of the Solverson home life. Indeed, the season’s more wrenching arc comes from Betsy’s battle with cancer, which is handled in such a good way – never maudlin, but painful, and ultimately honest and heartfelt.
Meanwhile, the expanding scope – which involves not only the Kansas City gang and the local Gerhardt family, but also a butcher and his wife caught in the crossfire – allows showrunner Noah Hawley to create a wonderful cast of supporting characters, all of whom bring life, personality, and style to the show. It’s generally hard to pick standouts, given that they’re all pretty superb, but Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan is the easy favorite, and for just reason. It would easy, and expected, for the show to do another Chigurh-type figure of malevolent violence and chaos, as they did last season with Billy Bob Thornton’s chilling Malvo, but Milligan is something else – erudite, charming, calm, likable, and unquestionably dangerous. He’s a magnetic figure, and the very definition of the word antihero. It doesn’t matter that he works for the mob – we kind of love him anyway.
On the Gerhardt front, Jean Strong makes the richest, deepest impression as the matriarch of the family who’s struggling to keep everything under control. After her husband has a stroke, it’s left to her to settle the family squabbles and hold off this new threat. That’s of a piece with one of the season’s recurring themes, which is the role of women in this violent world – how they can seize control, why it’s difficult, and how they’re so often underestimated. Indeed, it’s to the show’s credit that Strong works not just as a symbol of a powerful woman (contrasted with Kirsten Dunst’s spectacular turn as a harried housewife desperate to turn her life around), but as a fully realized woman, one who’s equal parts Mafia don and loving mother.
You’ll notice, probably, that at no point have I attempted to encapsulate the plot here. And that’s more or less intentional. After all, much of the pleasure of Fargo comes from seeing how things develop, and how situations escalate slowly and then more and more quickly as things fall apart. Beyond that, though, I wouldn’t dare to ruin some of the gleefully weird surprises the season holds, other than to say that the payoff for one dangling piece of strangeness made me laugh out loud with its gutsiness.
For all of that, though, what elevates Fargo from a good, entertaining crime saga into something great is the richness on almost every imaginable level. The style is sumptuous, making an art out of split-screen shots that become a character unto themselves. The casting is spot-on, which only underlines the astonishing writing and character depth across the board, as every single person, no matter how long they’re in the show, is given depth, nuance, thought, and personality. The music is astonishing, with musical cues that evoke the period perfectly and yet avoid the “on-the-nose” feeling of so many period pieces. And the writing slowly unfolds to reveal such thematic richness – with meditations on the role of women, the pain of accepting death, the effects of Vietnam, the hopes for America, the dangers of violence – that it all but sneaks up on you, becoming something profound when you least expect it.
Put simply, Fargo is one of the best shows on television, and if you’re not watching it, you need to. Your loss if you miss it.