Return to the Scene of the Crime
Tripwire sent its flares-wearing crime correspondent ANDREW COLMAN to rate the second season of the show loosely based on the Coen Bros. movie of the same name from 1996, Fargo…
“Had a case once… back in ’79. I could tell you the details, but it would sound like I made ‘em up. Madness, really. Bodies, one after another. Probably, if you stacked ‘em high, coulda climbed to the second floor.”
In what has now become the most celebrated piece of foreshadowing in television history, retired state trooper Lou Solverson, (Keith Carradine) in what is little more than a throwaway anecdote subtly aimed at the vulpine Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) seated opposite him, unwittingly provides the audience with the bloody, merciless climax of the following season’s tale. And indeed, the character of Solverson is the key link between the two series – the first, a picaresque romp detailing the sly nihilism and psychosis of its two leads, the second an immersive revenger’s tragedy, which hurtles inevitably to its scheduled brutal finale.
This being Coenworld, however, series 2 is not without its themes and subtexts – late ‘70s Minnesota and the Dakotas providing a rich seam of flakiness, social withdrawal, parochialism and “me decade” self-orbiting among the flared denim, brown furnishings and drab aspiration. It is to series creator / writer Noah Hawley that despite this backdrop the steady, incremental death of a homegrown mob by its more polished, modern, and corporate rivals seems contemporary.
The plot revolves around the Gerhardt crime family of Fargo, North Dakota – a ramshackle, backwoods mob who find themselves under threat from a far more sophisticated syndicate from Kansas City. As a crime family eternally at odds with itself, let alone from outsiders, their extinction seems inevitable from the first episode, when their boss and patriarch Otto (Michael Hogan) has a debilitating stroke, whilst his youngest son Rye (Kieran Culkin) goes missing. Caught up in this nightmare are Peggy and Ed Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), a blue collar Minnesotan couple who watch their lives unravel when Peggy accidentally kills Rye in a hit and run and consequently choose to hide the evidence. The focal character of the series, State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) immediately takes up the case, aided by his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson). Solverson’s wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti), meanwhile, is seriously ill with cancer, yet continues to look after her young daughter Molly, the heroine of series one.
As Zahn McClarnon, who plays the Gerhardt mob assassin Hanzee Dent, mentions in various interviews, one of the key threads of the series which ties his character with that of Hank and Lou is the post-traumatic disorders that all three experienced in military conflicts, and the very different way each of the trio handle the fallout – in the case of Lou Solverson, it is his making, moulding him into a stoic, pragmatic and noble character, the first genuine hero of the franchise (and a far more solemn version than Carradine’s). The Gerhardt clan, steeped in dishing out such trauma, are however far more compelling in their recklessness – the warring brothers Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and Bear (Angus Sampson) a fascinatingly gnarled couple, are both humorously insecure and primevally brutal. It is their desperate need to maintain their fantasy of nobility and integrity that sets them apart from Lorne Malvo, the villain of series one, whose contempt for humanity was so comprehensive that he barely had any interest in other people at all, save the need to be the agent of their despair and humiliation.
Such a family shouldn’t elicit sympathy, and yet their plight has overtones of Peckinpah’s doomed Wild Bunch, minus the romanticism. Floyd Gerhardt, the new leader in Otto’s absence (much to her sons’ chagrin) is wonderfully portrayed by Jean Smart as a businesswoman and matriarch who wearily accepts that her idiot brood are about to self-destruct. And then there is the enigmatic Hanzee, a Native American brought into the clan as a dogsbody until he is pushed over the edge into betraying his bosses – should we have any consideration or concern for a character, who like Malvo, is a murderous, vengeful force of nature, even as he is confronted by redneck racism for the umpteenth time? Such are the tropes of Coenworld, where the villainy is always spliced with a certain oblique charm and ambiguity, especially when it comes to the more refined enforcers of the Kansas City organization – the benign, avuncular Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett, killed off far too soon) and most of all Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine, magnificent) a knowingly wily, mischievous turn which almost steals the entire series.
There is less certainty for those characters who are caught in the slipstream however – Ed and Peggy Blomquist being the prime example of the underlying theme of the narrative – the absurd nature of existence. Despite their remarkable survivalism and centrality to the story they are little more than harebrained no-marks, blundering through unremitting danger and bloodshed, mainly to exemplify all-American failure, as well as allegorizing Camus’ Myth Of Sisyphus, an essay mentioned more than once in this series. In Greek mythology Sisyphus found inner peace through his acceptance of the futility and meaninglessness of his fate (to push a rock up a mountain for all eternity). At no point do we really empathize with Peggy’s desperate and understandable need for reinvention and escape, as she constantly blurts out self-aggrandizing platitudes that are first tuned out by her husband, then Dodd Gerhardt, (who witnesses her fantasizing) and finally the audience. When Lou Solverson (in a scene reminiscent of Frances McDormand’s scolding of the captured assassin from the original film) also tunes her out by baldly stating how many people died due to her self-obsession, she is forced to accept the absurdity of her life.
Thematic musings aside, there is little to quibble over with this series, which manages to surpass its award-winning predecessor. Hanzee’s forensic barbarism, Dodd and Bear’s unwavering, childish loyalty to their defunct code, the connivance and endearing stupidity of Bear’s niece, Simone, the enigmatic Milligan and his silent, mechanical aides, all add to the authentically feral nature of this beast. And each of these mercenaries has his or her own personal rock to push. The denouement, the massacre at Sioux Falls, is unsparing, cutting dead gangsters and blowhard South Dakota police officers alike. And at the heart of the maelstrom are its author, Hanzee, and Lou Solverson, who despite being mauled by the enraged Bear whilst witnessing a UFO, casually steps over the fallen, seemingly untouched by the carnage and weirdness around him.
There is also much to admire in the final, aftermath episode, as we learn of the fate of the survivors. As has been mentioned in many a fan website, Milligan’s reward for wiping out the Gerhardts is not the ticker tape parade he expected but ironic punishment, or corporate death, as he is forced by his organization to leave the life that defines him for a company suit and Sisyphean drudgery. This superb scene, played out in the blandest of modern superstructures, shows what lies ahead for organized crime, as well as the arrival of venality and self-interest in mainstream America (hence the Reagan appearance in an earlier episode). You almost feel for the beleaguered, adrift Milligan, as he is told to get a haircut, get rid of his bootlace tie and take up golf – America, as his boss points out, is keen to consign the 1970s to history. The rest of this downbeat episode explores how Lou, Betsy and Hank face up to and deal with the tidal wave of inhumanity and misfortune that threatened to engulf them, with Betsy ironically rubbishing Camus’ ideas about death, and Hank accepting that life, despite the horror, is worth living. For the immeasurably steadfast Lou, there is the eerie quiet of his moonlit bedroom, as he quickly drifts off to sleep untrammelled. In the end, all three characters are back where they were, preferring not to self-examine. The low-key ending, though somewhat disappointing, is fitting, regardless of dashed expectation.
Fargo Series 2 promises a lot, and as with such an exemplary series in what should now be dubbed the true Golden Age of U.S. television, it delivers on every level. And as with most series of this era (which began with The Sopranos) the cult following throughout the web is predictably intense, the focus and speculation on detail and connections within the canon obsessive to an atomic level. Does Hanzee, under his new alias Moses Tripoli, really become the corpulent Fargo boss that gets so casually gunned down by Lorne Malvo in series one? Would such a resourcefully adept character become so decadent, and so off-guard? Or does he become Malvo? Are the two boys playing baseball at the end really Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, also from the previous series? What is the significance of the UFO at the Motor Motel, beyond satirizing the preoccupation with alien spacecraft that was so prevalent in that era? Clearly series showrunner Noah Hawley understands the need to leave certain things open-ended and open to interpretation to maintain interest, but for the most part (particularly the UFO!) such possibly bogus trivia distracts from the top-draw performances (Wilson, Danson and Dunst were never better), economical, pitch-perfect script, and attention to detail – which like the aforementioned Sopranos (and The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc.) paints a vaguely familiar, palpably real world where the inhabitants speak English but is nevertheless emphatically alien. Needless to say, Series 3 really can’t come soon enough.