Sometimes it’s a chance encounter. Other times it’s the heavy influence of the past. No matter who we are, circumstance and consequence have the power to reign over personal intuition, directly shaping the lives of many of us. And even if we realize when, where or how things went south, and we try to mend our troubles into a life that’s more gratifying; at the end of the day, we just wind up back at square one, pushing a rock up a hill that’s bound to send it tumbling right back down.
Season Two of Fargo, above all else, was a character study that tackled this very idea. From the very beginning, it invited the viewer into its trappings through the inherent tendencies and behaviors of its inhabitants, allowing the juicy, primetime-level stuff to naturally take its course while we learned more about the folks involved. This show has already established how important its chess pieces are to its overarching story before, but it has never been more apparent than it is here, now. And much to the unyielding success of its script, cast and direction, Fargo allows that reliance on characters to craft a story that’s as remarkable as it is unforgettable.
A whole lot of that has to do with where Fargo takes us. As we get more insight into the Gerhardt family, the first half of the season juxtaposes their plight with that of the Kansas City mob, which dispatches the talents of Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Mulligan, as well as an assortment of other gang members such as the soon-to-be-iconic Kitchen Brothers and Brad Garrett’s brief run as Joe Bulo. These men appear to be the last shred of mid-Westernized brutality and relentlessness: They blatantly strut about town declaring their dispositions and violently taking whatever they seek to claim. In this case, mostly, it’s what’s left of the Gerhardt territory, and given the state of the family head, Otto, who’s physically and mentally incapable of keeping his clan above water, this sort of opportunity hasn’t been more discernible.
Despite Fargo enabling this rivalry to realize itself through blood and sacrifice, the body count isn’t what makes this particular piece to the story so special. All season long, we are made aware of an inherent unbalance of authority within the Gerhardt ranks, and a lot of it is brewed from the very heads themselves. Floyd, the matriarch wife of Otto and mother of power-hungry brothers Dodd and Bear, does all that she can to restore balance, while proving herself worthy of stepping in for her decaying husband. But Floyd never stood at chance at dodging the eventual massacre(s) that ensued in the later half of the season, because both sides involved were inclined to take lives almost instinctively.
This season uses this mob/gang war as a way to shed light on an underlining theme sprinkled throughout the story: the role of the woman in this society. Time and again, we are provided with the effects of a misogynistic path of destruction, led by the very sons Floyd raised and hoped to keep in check. At these points of the season, we know that she was willing to protect her own and sacrifice part of what her family fought for simply to retain their safety. Had her presence left a stronger impact on the family, maybe things don’t get so dicey between the Gerhardts and Kansas City. Perhaps the biggest lost truly is the marked territory Kansas City was seeking in the first place. This leaves us to wonder “what if?”, considering how fragile a women’s voice and opinion is here, and throughout the rest of the season, we slowly watch both depress; Floyd’s efforts to get what she feels is best for everyone is ultimately neglected like a fart in the wind. The show never teeter’s into offensive, disrespectful fodder, though; The men involved here simply refrain from backing down from both what belongs to them, and what they strive to have. Since Season Two consumes itself in the mid-Western trappings of the hundreds of era-related books and films that came before it, the resounding advantage that the men have over their female counterparts here is totally believable.
If the women of Fargo weren’t aiming to keep their homes standing, they were prepared to let them fall apart. Dodd’s daughter, Simone (played by Rachel Keller in one of the most under-appreciated performances of the year) also becomes a victim of her own time period, but the difference between her and her grandmother is that she’s willing to react to it. Much of the Gerhardt’s fall from grace has to do with Simone’s handiwork, conspiring with Mike and exposing her family to its impending threat. Although she does indeed get what she wants, the show refuses to allow her escape from the mess she’s made; her death by Bear’s hand justifying the consequence of dipping into the bloodshed. Some will look at Simone and simply label her a traitor, but look back at her interactions with the rest of the Gerhardt clan deep enough, and you’ll see that she was truly crying out for help. Her inability to relate to or be involved in the family business forced her to become chaotic past the point of forgiveness or saving, and that’s especially sad because at the end of the day all she ever wanted was for them to be proud of her and to give her mutual respect.
The ensemble cast makes this a difficult season to review, because so many characters had plenty of time to shine and I’m almost certain there’ll be at least a couple of people I won’t get the chance to analyze in-depth. Patrick Wilson brings 1970’s Lou Soulverson to life, mixing a winning formula of likability, fortitude, and earnestness. He makes Lou this era’s model man: determined police officer willing to do whatever it takes to solve a case, and a dedicated father with a heart of gold. However, the insanity that ensues over the course of Season Two only stands to resonate with his time spent in the war, although the show does an impeccable job showing how both have helped him change as a human being once the season reaches its conclusion.
Ditto for the Blomquists, who find that their dreams and ambitions are ultimately unobtainable. Personally, nothing was as heartbreaking as the emotional plight with which they were dealt, and a lot of what made it all so convincing has to with the performances of Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst. Plemons’s Ed is easy to root for, and his commitment to building a future for his family is made clear through the honesty of Plemons’s delivery. You feel for how his world slowly begins to come crashing down, and the perseverance he has to try and reverse his fortunes. Despite him meeting his fate in the finale episode, the spirit of Ed Blomquist is an entity too powerful to leave behind; his motivations mirrored beautifully in a line of dialogue between Lou and Peggy in the masterful “Palindrome”.
Through Peggy, we experience a prodigious transformation from loyal, obedient housewife to deranged, goal-oriented psychopath. The real tragedy of Fargo Season Two manifests here, as her development turns her into Ed’s foil; his intentions of providing a better life for the both of them become overshadowed by Peggy’s insistence to make more of her own. In a journey to self-actualize herself, almost the exact opposite happens as a result, and Kirsten Dunst proves she has what it takes to fully immerse us into this character’s descent. The sheer mental instability that comes to light is brought out perfectly by Dunst’s increasing unpredictability, and the declining state of Peggy’s subjective mind is extremely well-documented as the season wears on. Few characters on television have been as fascinating to watch.
Like I mentioned before, this season was all about the characters, and the ensemble cast put forth was perfectly realized. From the inherent power struggle of the Gerhardt family, to the tragic downfall of the Blomquist couple, each separate arc received both ample opportunity to shine, and equal wealth of depth. A sort of “no stone left un-turned” approach reigned supreme here, dissecting practically every character’s decisions and motivations while slowly revealing their endgames. The road that brings us to season’s end is never a pretty one or a sure one, but because Fargo carefully pieces its puzzle together with a high regard for consequence and context, it becomes a plausible, engaging one.
Another thing I’ll always take away from my time spent watching this season of Fargo is how each other’s worlds collide, and the absurdity that follows. The overwhelming affect that the Blomquists’ actions have on the mob war is astounding, with every little decision on their part causing fantastic problems for the Gerhardts and Kansas City. Even the police’s engagement in the dilemma grants them unexpected consequences, particularly in the culmination that manifests itself as the Sioux Falls Massacre that’s brilliantly captured in “The Castle”. Such implications are constant reminders that there’s no such thing as a happy ending for most, but most important is how vividly it parallels with the “unexplained” occurrences that help define the 70s. Lou and Hank’s encounters with both mobs were among the most bone-chillingly tense scenes this year, but even those carry an extra layer of perspective, as both men are forever changed from their experiences here (Hank’s revelation in relation to everything that happened this season is especially touching). The season winds up all the better for it, particularly because it tacks on extra purpose to the proceedings of each story arc; the very idea that we’d eventually find out how every side coincides at the end gives them all a surreal amount of weight and significance after they initially cross paths.
Fargo really hit it out of the park this year, and a huge part of its excellence is in its exceptional precision and distinguished attention to detail. I honestly felt as if I was brought back in time to 1979, with the dual-screen camera cuts and zoomed-out shots of cars cruising in the distance. From the wardrobes to the hairstyles, the people of Fargo Season Two also help accentuate the era, and I have to give a thumbs up to Noah Hawley and co. for going with a western-infused style of direction; the cinematography absolutely wins out in that regard.
Lastly, I must give a big shout out to all the wonderful guest performances that graced this season. Bokeem Woodbine never reached the heights of Billy Bob Thorton’s Malvo from Season One, but his portrayal of Mike Milligan is just as mystical. Unleashing a pandora’s box of temperaments, Woodbine envelops himself in a script designed specifically for his talents, and he instantly runs away with it. There are dozens of classic scenes heightened by his very presence, and my favorite part about his character is that he constantly proposes his Westernized style of savagery as if he’s reciting lines from a Shakespearean play. Woodbine’s ability to be humorous and campy, then cruel and insane, should at least land him some heavy Emmy consideration.
Nick Offerman popped in and out as oft-drunken lawyer Karl Weathers (even getting his own chance to flex some muscles in “Rhinoceros”), and owned his screentime with a delicate balance of endearment and comedic dexterity. Zahn McClarnon wears all of his emotions on his sleeve as the Native American Gerhardt bodyguard, Hanzee, and he, too, brings it home with a relatively mute performance that tells us a whole lot without revealing too much. Ted Danson was certainly a hoot as a Hank, and I got a real kick out of his more laid back demeanor and abundant chemistry with Wilson’s Lou. Cristin Milioti has suddenly become one of my favorite actresses here, holding down the fabric of the Soulverson clan as the cancer-struck Betsy. To put it lightly, I love everything about her in this role. She’s so captivating and moving, yet those features are hardly the result of her playing off the sadness of her character’s situation. Fargo allows her to be funny, sweet, and profound, with the usual melancholy of her cancer subtly underlined. For all the shifts in tone experienced in Season Two, she’s the glue that holds everything together.
Fargo took a much different direction this season than it did two years ago, as it (mostly) neglected superstition and biblical entities/occurrences here and, like I mentioned, put a larger focus on the individual. Those who were keen observers of past series like The Wire or Breaking Bad will instantly feel right at home with the approach of its story. The decision to uncover more and more about the folks of North Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas City and present their actions in a plausible, fitting manner suggests that the season always cared more about staying true to its characters than simply tying them with a mysterious, outside force, or brewing up a central conflict with a heavy death total.
When done wrong, this sort of approach can make a show seem very bland and uneventful on the surface, and push viewers away from coming back. The thing about Fargo this year is that it doesn’t even know how to be either of those at its absolute worst; its so damn engaging from the start that you immediately feel obligated to find out what’s going to happen next. By taking the less linear route of storytelling, it gets to feed off of its rich character study, and once the bodies begin to drop and the intrigue molds into answers, we inhabit an even thicker understanding of – better yet, a closer connection to – these batch of individuals than we could have initially imagined.
From top to bottom, beginning to end, this season bleeds perfection. Pick any one area of production – performances, plot, direction – and you’ve likely stumbled upon a pot of gold. Noah Hawley’s vision here is fulfilled so exhaustively, in so many ways, simply appreciating what Season Two was superficially would be a disgrace to the work that was done to give it personality. There were a plethora of moments this year where I almost had to stop, rewind, and play back what I had witnessed just to fully understand it. Only a handful of other experiences have encouraged such a thorough attention to detail, and it just so happens that Fargo, for the second season in a row, accomplishes that feat. No matter who you are, what you watch or where your preferences lie, Fargo Season Two is as imperative a viewing as they come. Season Three could not come any sooner.
+ Fully-realized story
+ Excellent performances
+ Expertly-written themes and conflicts
+ Grade-A presentation
+ Memorable characters