DECEMBER 17, 2015
THE SECOND SEASON of Fargo, the crime anthology series that finished airing this week on FX, is a strange and surprising work of art. I can’t think of many other shows less promising in their origins or more splendid in their results. As its title indicates, Fargo is spun off from the 1996 Coen brothers movie of the same name. Set in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, it inherits the same topography, but it doesn’t so much continue or expand the narrative of the film as inhabit its mood, and by extension that of the brothers’ whole oeuvre. So the show is a retread twice over, of a film and of a filmography, made without the Coen brothers’ direct involvement, on the assumption that their world is both rich and unified enough to be recreated by someone else.
In season one, this approach didn’t quite work. For my taste, the first season stayed too close to the original, and despite some great performances, remained stuck in a mire of too-easy misanthropy. The second season, however, moves the story back in time to 1979, and changes the subject, from murder spree to gang war — allowing Fargo the movie to serve as a launching pad instead of a script to reenact. Still, I can only think of a couple directors who could be separated from the authorship of their work in the same way.
Wes Anderson would be an obvious choice. The world of his films is as smoothly interlocking and hermetically sealed as the mechanism in a Swiss watch. (And this season of Fargo gave at least one nod in his direction, naming a gas station ‘Rushmore’ and using the picture-book narration device from The Royal Tenenbaums as a frame for episode nine.) I could see an anthology series of Tarantino westerns of Elmore Leonard working, or a Guy Maddin-inspired series about Winnipeg. And really, the list could go on. Claire Denis’s Triste Tropiques. Ingmar Bergman’s Gtland Nights. That new show Kathryn Bigelow is working on for HBO in real life.
The single most successful attempt at adapting the mood of a directors’ work into a self-standing show, though, was made back in the 1950s, with Alfred Hitchcock’s self-titled television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I used to stay up late to watch it on Nick at Night, thrilled that something so perverse was available back-to-back with Mr. Ed. My favorite episode was about a housewife who killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then served it to the detectives investigating the case. To my nine-year-old self, the ingenuity on display here was dazzling. For years afterwards, I kept hoping I would one day be able to finger a murderer by looking in the perpetrators fridge, or, if the need arose, to raid a freezer of my own in the name of vengeance. Sadly, the chance never presented itself.
The frozen-meat as murder weapon trick wouldn’t be out of place on this season of Fargo. And indeed, early in its run, a half-dead man is stored in an icebox only to be later killed and turned into ground chuck by a butcher. But murder-mystery solving and detective work is not really what the show is about. The story at the center of Fargo this year is fairly simple, at least in its outline, if endlessly convoluted in its elaboration. At its core, this season concerns a gang war between the Gerhardts, a clan of German-American trucking racketeers, and their more business-like Kansas City mafia counterparts. Rye, the youngest, and least capable of the Gerhardt, tries to start his own business (electric typewriters) by muscling a Dakota judge. The attempt goes awry, resulting in a shootout that leaves the judge and a Waffle Hut employee dead. Then Rye walks out into the snow to finish off a third. As he does, he sees a UFO and gets hit by a car. The car is being driven by Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a beautician from Luverne Minnesota married to the town butcher (butcher’s assistant), Ed (Jesse Plemons). Unaccountably, she doesn’t stop, and drives all the way home with the Gerhardt brother sticking up through her windshield. She thinks he’s dead. He isn’t, quite, but Ed is soon forced to finish him off. The Gerhardts think the murder was the work of the Kansas City mob. The Kansas City mob want to find Rye to gain leverage over the Gerhardts. Events spiral out of control, and soon a whirling gyre of carnage comes to rest over the Northern Plains, and it’s left to two small town cops, State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) to pick up the pieces.
The suspense in Fargo comes not from guessing who did what but from anticipating what is going to happen to whom next. Almost everyone is caught in a world of ever-expanding chaos. Many die, but not everyone you expect. There’s a dark humor to a lot of the violence on the show, but not much pathos.
For much of its run, Fargo the series shares a certain coldness, or distance, with the Coen brothers’ films. It’s bloody without being gritty; funny without being a comedy; sad, but not tragic. Like its great overhead shots of the frozen plains, the series views events from a height, often with the emotions on mute. This chill is broken, though, at various points by the warmth of individual characterizations, particularly of the Solverson family, the axis of decency around which the rest of the action revolves.
Stylized as much of it is, the acting on Fargo is almost unfailingly excellent. The show is a jewel box of precise, eccentric characterizations, as odd and distinct as any across the Coen brothers’ career. As Peggy Blumquist, Kirsten Dunst is a pressurized mix of daffiness, loopy self-regard, and sublimated rage. She’s self-deluded but stalwart, muddle-headed but steely, a steak knife hidden in a sheet cake, and so good it makes me agog at how few good roles she’s had since Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. It makes me worry that if we aren’t careful, one of these days she’s going to hop into Hedy Lamarr’s Hollywood Time Machine™ and abscond to the Forties to make a dozen great movies with Otto Preminger before we realize what we’ve missed.
Jesse Plemons, as Peggy’s husband, Ed, is as soft and puffy as a dinner roll, stripped of all the boy-next-door menace he had playing Walter White’s baby Hitler accomplice on Breaking Bad. He ought to be her calming counterbalance, but instead floats on waters of self-delusion that run just as deep. Jean Smart brings something Shakespearean to the part of Floyd, the Gerhardt family matriarch suddenly thrust into power after her husband’s stroke. Cooler and smarter than everyone around her, but unable to restrain her idiot sons, she becomes, over the course of the series, the reluctant star of a shotguns-and-mudflaps production of King Lear. Nick Offerman brings his talent for inebriated magniloquence to the role of Karl Weathers, Luverne’s sole barrister, garage proprietor, and conspiracy theory crank. Ted Danson radiates goodness and calm. The country Sherriff, he’s Jimmy Stewart in near-retirement mode. With his son-in-law Lou, he gets to preside over Fargo’s best set piece, a double standoff straight out of Rio Bravo.
For his part, Patrick Wilson has some Jimmy Stewart in his performance as well, mixed with an ample dose of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, finding the same streak of humor in Midwestern restraint, as well as deep reserves of courage. Lou is back in Luverne after a long stint piloting a swift boat in Vietnam. Like his father-in-law, who served in France, he’s seen death, and if he isn’t exactly haunted by it, his innocence is at least hard won. Cristin Milioti, (who deserved more play over the run of the show) as Betsy, his cancer-stricken wife, is the single most grounded character, the sensible leader of a sensible family, whose pragmatism and love of family are juxtaposed, a bit oddly, against the corrosive influence of the existentialist French.
The Solverson family may provide Fargo with its emotional core, but its most compelling performances belong to its most accomplished killers. Bokeem Woodbine, as the Kansas City enforcer Mike Milligan brings something so strange and unaccountable to the role that his presence becomes hypnotic. Milligan speaks with a soothing cadence I find irresistible. I’m tempted to make his recitation of “Jabberwocky,” which he uses as a pre-gunfight pump up, the ringtone for my phone. There’s a scene in episode two in which he is confronted by Ted Danson’s Sherriff Ed and delivers a short, beautifully punctuated speech: “Isn’t that a minor miracle, with the state of the world today and the level of conflict and misunderstanding, that two men can stand on a lonely road in winter and talk, calmly, and rationally, while all around them people are losing their mind.” At times like this, his intonation and manner remind me of an alternate reality Barack Obama, not necessarily the Obama of today but the Obama of the 2004 nominating convention, the Obama who was in love with language and the power of his own voice, who would try to make the basic tenets of democracy sound miraculous and unexpected. But Milligan never stays fixed in place. At different times he suits his voice to different needs. He can make anything sound good, and summons ideologies with the ease of a magician pulling a string of handkerchiefs from somebody’s ear, becoming a mouthpiece for everything from the inevitability of capitalism to a doctrine of sovereign right by conquest straight out of Hobbes.
Hanzee Dent, Mike Milligan’s opposite number in the Gerhardt family operation, is as silent as Mike is talkative. Played with fierce reserve by Zahn McClarnon, Hanzee is something of a cipher, made all the more interesting by how little he lets on about his motives or intentions. He’s given hardly any backstory, except that he was adopted by the Gerhardt patriarch as a boy and has worked for them ever since. We also know that he spent time in Vietnam, where he won a purple heart fighting in the Cu Chi tunnels as a tunnel rat. (The Cu Chi tunnels have become the symbolic dark heart of that war. Denis Johnson went down them in his novel Tree of Smoke and got lost completely.) Though it goes unmentioned on the show, his name comes from the Lakota word for ‘shadow,’ or ‘shade.’ A superb tracker and a remorseless, stone-faced killer, McClarnon’s performance recalls Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. But Hanzee, although ruthless, isn’t the same kind of unearthly ghoul as Bardem’s killer. He has a more reasonable haircut, for one thing, and he doesn’t toy with his victims or play at being the god of chance. He does a job for the Gerhardts’s (though he mostly works for the oldest brother, the by equal parts cruel and stupid Dodd), loyally and capably, until all of a sudden he doesn’t.
D.H. Lawrence said that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” He was talking about America’s original sin, the extermination of its native people, but Fargo flips this equation on its head. What are Hanzee’s motivations? Without giving too much away about the final confrontation, Hanzee’s break comes from a moment of racial provocation. Going into the final episode, I thought vengeance of historical wrongs and the transformation of history into myth was going to be a key to the larger meaning of the series. After the final episode, I’m not as sure.
There are a few momentary references to the history of Native American expropriation and oppression sprinkled along the margins of the show. A bartender sneeringly refers to the American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz; a plaque in front of the bar seems to allude to the Dakota War of 1862, the end of which saw 38 men hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This would tie back to the opening of the first episode, which begins back in the 1940s or 50s, with the shooting of a film-within-show, a dramatization (invention?) of the Massacre of Sioux Falls. Two actors, one white and one Native, are waiting around in the cold for Ronald Reagan to emerge from his trailer so they can film the climactic battle. Reagan himself makes an appearance later on (played by Bruce Campbell, of Evil Dead fame), giving a speech on a campaign stop in Luverne about the original American dream that moves Karl Weathers to tears. He appears again, in an imagined World War II movie that so transfixes Peggy she mistakes it for reality later on.
Reagan was a master spinner of myths. He also had a talent for conflating fiction with reality. Fargo is similarly perched between real life and fantasy. Its relationship to the past is intriguing, but unclear. 1979 is a propitious date in which to set a series for the purposes of psycho-political divination. It’s equidistant between now and the Second World War, the time of Carter’s malaise speech, the oil crisis, and with Reagan’s campaign, the beginning of the age of neoliberalism. Someone else will make the connection between the beginning of the era of Thatcher-Reagan economics and the decline of family operations like that of the Gerhardts in favor of their more corporatized big-city rivals. But nothing on the show would lead me to think that the Gerhardt’s demise is altogether a bad thing (and if anyone watched this season worried over the state of the trucking racket in the northern plains, more power to them). Whatever commentary Fargo makes about the past is ultimately oblique, coming more through style and music than in the literal text of the show.
At the end of the series (and I’m trying to make this spoiler-lite), each of the surviving characters gets to voice a position on the social-political-philosophical spectrum — first wave feminism, corporate rule, natural law, Camus-ian existentialism, even a Gibbon-esque take on waxing and waning of Empire. Someone even takes the first steps on the road to the invention of the emoji. A second flying saucer appears as well, gesturing toward the ultimate unknowability of the universe. All of these end up trumped by the importance of family, and the “gentle, yet confident Midwestern social ethos” the Interpretive Encyclopedia of the American Midwest takes as the regions hallmark.
More interesting than this, for me, though, was the look and sound of the show. In television, as in any art, the only rule is to show something new, and make it look good. Often, the look of a thing says more than its text. Sicario, my choice for movie of the year, thrilled me not because of its somewhat pedestrian script, but thanks to a bravura sequence at the end, night-vision, infrared, natural light, and a drone-eye’s point of view into an uncanny collage that spoke to me for the first time of the future, or the present, of war.
With every passing year, television is becoming a more fully visual medium. In the past few years, different shows have found ways to powerfully inhabit different aesthetics, and inside those aesthetics, they’ve unearthed wildly different meanings. In the first season of True Detective, director Cary Fukunaga’s drew on Richard Misrach’s photography of Louisiana’s polluted swamps in Petroleum America to create a landscape of moral and physical corruption, in the process opening a space for a kind of negative thought we’ve never heard on TV. For three seasons, Hannibal, another movie spin-off, unearthed layers of repressed eroticism and violence in the language of perfume advertisements and glossy food magazine spreads.
Fargo might not be as radical or fresh as either of these, but it is more purely pleasurable. It’s a true ensemble piece, escaping the gravity well of male angst that keeps so many other shows hostage. As befits a composite work, its style is disparate, encompassing different genres — 50’s Western, 70’s crime film, Sirkian weepers, mid-century military cheese, yet somehow all of a piece. In the end, Fargo reminds me of one of those great 1970s books from the dawn of American color photography, like William Eggleston’s Guide or Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, or (going back to black and white) Robert Adams’s New West. Those books were visual road atlases, full of the mundane and extraordinary: brick walls, parked cars, diner signs and alleyways sparkling in the sunlight, usually deserted. Fargo fills in some of those blanks, finding, in every empty space, an occasion for sordid delight.
Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.