Fargo: Season Two

“Okay, then.”

In my review of the first season of Fargo, I explained that I had expected Fargo “to be a black—or even bleak—comedy. It’s not…[It] is a serious show, in which serious things happen, and people take them seriously.” That statement is less true of the second season, which examines the absurd causality of violence in the upper Midwest of 1979.

Season One of Fargo was about moral action and the complex connections between people, good and bad: The Solversons and the Grimlys. Lorne Malvo and Lester Nygaard. Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers. Season Two of Fargo is about moral absence and the discontinuity between perception and truth, abstractions and actions.

It is even, I think, about the difference between reality and fiction, if we take “reality” to mean the real life and death struggles that play out in our everyday lives, and “fiction” to mean the constructed narratives that are supposed to, but do not always, make sense of reality through heightened, streamlined presentations thereof.

The result is a show with less heart but more flash. A show that is, in fact, a “black—or even bleak—comedy” of death and mayhem. A show that revels in the inexplicable (UFOs!) and the formal (splitscreen!) with a tongue-in-cheek awareness that the inexplicable and the formal are both attractive bait for today’s well-informed “peak TV” audience of pop culture savants. Not immune to the allure of the meta, I enjoyed the second season of Fargo immensely, but loved it less that the first.

Molly Solverson was the heart of the first season; this season’s focus on her father, Lou, was less fulfilling for me despite my fond affection for Lou’s relationship with Molly in Season One. Patrick Wilson does an excellent job with the character, but he has very little arc: he wants to make sense of the world, but cannot, and for his wife not to have cancer, which she does. He starts the season as he begins it, hoping and trying to simply do the right thing. That makes him a solid person, but a rather immovable character. (The same could be said for his father-in-law, played by Ted Danson, who—irrelevant but true—does not seem to be aging at a normal rate.)

Peggy Blumquist, on the other hand, was the standout for me, and not just because of my affection for Kirsten Dunst. Her character is a complete wild card: neither she nor we really know what’s going on; by the end of the season at least we are aware of our own confusion, whereas she becomes more entrenched in her narrative of self-actualization and moving to California. Watching her play off of Ed, her husband, was hilarious. Never have I liked Jesse Plemmons more.

But the chaos caused by the confluence of events—Peggy hitting Rye Gerhardt with her car and the Kansas City mob’s offer to buy out the mom-and-pop mob run by the Gerhardts—created a larger-scale plot in which things happened because of coincidence rather than causation. As Martin Freeman’s narration (in Episode Nine) indicates, we simply don’t know why some of these people do what they do.

That is not to say that there weren’t some great character beats. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) was a delight to watch. His recitation of the Jabberwocky poem was perfectly creepy; that scene alone might work to define this entire season. Jean Smart’s Floyd Gerhardt was a formidable Midwestern woman who didn’t take anything lying down, and the Gerhardts, individually, all had fascinating arcs as they dealt with the death of patriarch Otto. My almost-favorite moment was watching Charlie Gerhardt flirt with Noreen, the butcher’s assistant, and start to rethink his entire life because of a brief crush.

And, of course, the entire thing was almost perfectly done. The pacing was taut, especially in the little reveals, like the first shot of Peggy Blumquist’s hoard of magazines. The shootout and fire in the butcher shop. Nick Offerman talking down Bear Gerhardt outside the police station. Bruce Campbell’s version of Ronald Regan being unable to offer any advice of substance to Lou Solverson. Those moments were both great TV and great commentary on a variety of cultural issues relevant to both 1979 and today.

All in all, the most I can say is that there’s something both appealing and off-putting about the fact that my favorite moment was the arrival of a UFO. Fargo had adequately foreshadowed the event. In fact, the lack of a UFO would have been troubling (and probably induced some Waiting for UFO/Godot jokes on my part).

But the inexplicability of the UFO, the fact that Fargo expects us to realize it’s both a trenchant commentary on the process of epistemology and a totally absurd joke (complete with a Cigarette-Smoking Man cameo)—well, that makes this show’s message about absurdity and meaning a bit more complicated, perhaps, than someone like Betsy Solverson, or even Camus himself, might wish. I enjoy that intellectual puzzle, but it leaves me a bit (weather pun!) cold.

Waiting for UFO:

• Does Hanzee Dent (played by Zahn McClarnon) become one of the key players in the mob we see in Season One?

• Did you enjoy the glimpse of Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers, the hitmen from Season One, enjoying a boyhood game of catch?

• Do you think casting Cristin Milioti as a dying mother was the ultimate meta-joke?

Four out of four Albert Camus. Camuses. Cami?

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


mazephoenix said...

Camuses? I don't know. I enjoyed this season, but the first was deeper and richer. Kirsten Dunst was the standout for me. Ted Danson was on one of the years worst shows: CSI:Cyber and one of the best-this. He is a silver fox and a great actor.
Anyway great review.

Heather said...

Thank you for the fantastic review.
Kirsten all the way, for me.

Gus Brunetti said...

I loved the first season, but this second one... my God, how enthralled I was. Week after week I couldn't wait to watch it. Maybe there was less heart; there was a whole lot more tension, though. And there were so many great scenes. Nick Offerman trying to talk a posse out of killing everybody was a standout, and I'll be disappointed if he isn't at least nominated as best guest actor.

I partially agree with the thing you said about coincidence. I thought the starting point (Peggy running over Rye) was a big coincidence, but the rest was plotted very logically. Moreover, coincidence is a BIG element in the Coen borthers' movies. I think it's in keep with their filmography.

This and Justified and Hannibal's final seasons were the best thing I saw on TV last year. It's 5 out of 5 ambushed Undertakers for me.