One of the defining moments of my cinematic life was my mother showing me the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo when I was twelve years old. Her motivation was simple: I had just been assigned North Dakota for my fifth grade state project (as an aside, my parents gave up very early in my life on censoring films and music for content and instead [wisely] filtered what was and was not okay for me to watch through the lens of quality. For example, all it took to convince them to take me to see Sin City in theaters when I was the ripe age of fourteen was to show them the positive reviews from NPR and The New Yorker). Needless to say, I was blown away, not only by the content, much of which went over my head, but by the style. The contrast between the slow, unrelenting chain of tragedy set in motion by Jerry Lundegaard et al and Marge Gunderson’s staid, unhurried investigation is at the heart of the film, and functions as a powerful example of life in the snowbound midwestern United States. No one is ever in a hurry, much to the often hilarious frustration of the out of town hitman played by Steve Buscemi.
The film straddles darkness and comedy to produce some truly surreal scenes. Jerry Lundegaard’s upbeat, positive attitude carries him to incredibly bleak places: the scene in which he finds his father-in-law’s corpse and simply opens the trunk of his car is among the funniest single shots in cinema. Peter Stormare’s brooding hitman turns the act of watching a fuzzy television in a remote cabin into something that is at once pitiful and menacing. And all the while Marge Gunderson’s positivity and optimism regarding the human condition maintains a foundation that allows the audience to see that, even after all the bloodshed, “It’s a beautiful day.” Needless to say, being exposed to Fargo at a young age set a rather high bar for the kind of movie that I enjoyed afterwards, and it remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.
So I was understandably apprehensive when I heard about FX’s plans to build on the film’s self-contained story in a TV series. And to be honest I stayed away, not only from the show itself but from reviews and pretty much every mention of the thing until after the first season had finished airing. Only on the insistent, repeated recommendations of a close friend did I finally watch the pilot. I’m incredibly glad that I did. Season one of FX’s Fargo tells the story of a Jerry Lundegaard-type named Lester Nygaard (played with a frequently-convincing Minnesota accent by Bilbo Bag—by Martin Freeman), who strikes a deal with menacing hitman/demon Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, in what may be his finest performance in decades) that sets off a chain of events that results in the deaths of Nygaard’s childhood bully, his own wife, and the local sheriff. Soon officers Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly (newcomer Allison Tolman and Collin Hanks, who give Marge Gunderson and her husband’s relationship from the film a run for its money on the adorability scale) are on the trail of the two killers, with the occasional help of FBI Agents played by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the newly-appointed police chief played by Bob Odenkirk, and Solverson’s retired State Trooper/current diner owner father Lou.
The only connection to the film is the money that Buscemi’s character buries in the snow; otherwise, the television series and film have no narrative overlap apart from being set in roughly the same geographical area. But the show captures spirit of the film, establishing a tone that is at turns incredibly dark and quite comedic, and explores the surreal aspects of the world that the film merely hinted at. There are some general parallels that can be drawn, such as Gunderson and Solverson fulfilling much the same role in their respective stories, but the show is more a spiritual successor to the film than it is a true sequel, which is entirely to its benefit.
Fargo on FX is essentially an anthology series, with each season telling a distinct story, and, like that other popular anthology series, True Detective, it is written entirely by a single novelist/screenwriter, Noah Hawley. The series' second season, which aired its premiere last night, focuses on a crime spree hinted at in the first season by Lou Solverson, a spree that he himself investigated. So the second season already has a more direct tie to the first season than that one had to the film, and the connection is at once distant and omnipresent. We know that Lou Solverson’s wife is dead by the time of the events of season one, so the revelation that she is undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer is even more heartbreaking than it would be in a vacuum. Similarly, watching Lou read to little Molly in her room has increased poignancy because of our intimate knowledge of her adult life. Similarly, the final scene of the premiere, which hints at the takeover of the local Gerhardt crime syndicate by another, has connections to the first season, by which point a Fargo-based mafia has clearly established a foothold in the region. These connections are more tangential than explicit, and one does not need to have seen the first season to understand the second, although the background knowledge gives the viewer an idea of where events might lead. Though subtle, these ties are present and will likely continue to increase in relevance as the season progresses.
The season two premiere takes place largely within a single twenty-four hour period, introducing us to the new cast of characters and setting the tangled web of events into motion with characteristic grace. The youngest Gerhardt, Rye, played by the unrecognizable Kieran Culkin in a turn that is reminiscent of James Ransone's excellent turn as Ziggy from the second season of The Wire, sets events in motion by snorting cocaine and murdering a judge, a cook, and a waitress at a Waffle House in rural Minnesota before being struck and carried off by skittish housewife Peggy Blomquist as she drives through the dark tundra. State Trooper Lou and Sheriff Hank Larsson (played by a bearded Ted Danson) investigate before Lou grabs a beer with his paranoiac friend (Nick Offerman) and returns home to his wife and child. Meanwhile, Peggy’s husband (Jesse Plemons, or, as he is better known, Meth Damon from Breaking Bad) returns home to find that his wife has brought the not-quite dead Rye back to their house. After finishing the job, he is convinced by his wife to hide the body that local law enforcement will likely soon be searching for. And back at the Gerhardt compound, the patriarch has been felled by a stroke, leaving his wife in charge and his three (now two) sons vying for supremacy. Enter the Kansas City syndicate, who are contemplating a hostile takeover of the family’s territory via a slide show in a smoke-filled boardroom that smacks of Citizen Kane.
The premiere establishes a much more flashy and hallucinatory style than the first season, which stuck very closely to the film’s slow and steady cinematography. The episode opens with a black and white scene that takes place on the set of a Ronald Reagan film and quickly dissolves into a split-screen montages that establishes the brightly-lit late-70s setting. The split screen returns again and again throughout the episode, and just before being struck by Peggy’s car, Rye Gerhardt is distracted by what can only be described as a UFO, which shines its alien lights upon him before zipping skyward (the non-sequitor UFO is likely a reference to the Coens' film The Man Who Wasn't There, which, coincidentally, starred Billy Bob Thornton). While the first season often couched its surreal imagery as manifestations of Malvo’s disturbed imagination, the second is already bending the rules further, testing the boarders of reality both stylistically and narratively.
Despite being a strong opening episode, the season two premiere does not give us characters who are as immediately compelling as Molly Solverson and Lorne Malvo. The nominal hero here is Lou, but he has yet to display any truly distinguishing characteristics. Instead the premiere spreads the goodness around to a surprisingly large cast of characters, suggesting that it will be the plot and not the characters that take the spotlight. It is also worth mentioning that, while season one’s premiere was a double episode, season two’s is a single, forty-five minute affair, which might explain the relative paucity of character development that takes place. Either way, the inciting incident around which the episode centers is compellingly insane, and I, personally, am very excited to see how it plays out.