Noah Hawley and FX’s televised adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece of deadpan, frozen noir was the best surprise of 2014. I called it, among other things, the 2nd best show of the year (my obsession with Game Of Thrones being too entrenched to overcome entirely), “True Detective with a sense of humor” and “one of the year’s most purely pleasurable viewing experiences.” So unlike last year, the second season had expectations set sky high out of the gate. So then I started worrying that there was no way it could live up to them, plus the usual sequel issues of diminishing returns, plus the usual prequel issues of generally sucking pointlessly, plus some added skepticism from the mixed-to-poisonous reception recent attempts to anthologize True Detective and The Walking Dead, and I almost convinced myself that Fargo 2.0 was bound to disappoint. But if the season 2 premiere is any indication, I was a gosh darn idjit for worrying, as “Waiting For Dutch” finds the show as stylish, clever, violent and, for lack of a better term, as Fargo as ever.
I don’t trust prequels. And for every Godfather Part 2, there is every other prequel ever made, so I think this is a rational stance. I tend to think that the original story started where it did for a reason, and if it was good enough that people want more from it, maybe that sort of storytelling decision was the right one? But this is largely irrelevant, since Fargo S2 is much more anthology than secret origin story. Yes, we met an elder Lou Solverson last year, but he was not a central figure then, and the rest of these characters are new to us. What’s impressive, though, is how they all fit the Fargo mold without feeling like retreads of prior characters.
Lou obviously fills the primary detective role that his daughter, and Marge Gunderson before her, have fulfilled in years past. But he is less chatty and (thus far) less pregnant, which along with his gender and military background, makes him less likely to be underestimated as a cop and investigator. It will be a different sort of case with him at the helm, even if a lot of the details taste familiar. His relationship with his wife creates a less idyllic but more interesting home life than the pointedly humdrum domestic circumstances of his predecessors. And Cristin Milioti’s portrayal brings an instant and appealing strength to a role that could so easily be a mute exercise in angelic suffering. She’s a wife and mother, but the episode and Milioti quickly establish that she is more than homemaker stereotypes without falling over itself trying to make her shatter them. To the extent that Fargo is now a “brand”, part of that identity includes women who are strong and simple but smart. But I’m glad that they found a way to give Betsy an immediate personality that is strong but distinct from Marge and Molly, who were not exactly bra-burning types themselves. Nothing against burning bras, it’s just that stridency is not a tone that fits the rural, chilly milieu; this is as subdued as a show where “waffle house massacre” qualifies as a predictable plot development can be.
Speaking of strong female characters, the most interesting spin season 2 puts on a “Fargo type” is casting Kristen Dunst as the hapless square digging their own grave with their criminal dalliances. There’s a certain novelty to the comparatively rare chance to see the Breaking Bad arc play out from a gender-swapped angle, sure, and it’s encouraging to see Dunst, who has talent to spare but is not above sleep-walking through material that doesn’t interest her, actually acting. But the main reason this thread feels like the most promising tweak to the formula is that it has given her a sidekick in Jesse Plemons’ goon of a husband. The prior incarnations, while superbly played by notable nebbishes Martin Freeman and William H. Macy, pretty much sweated through their unraveling schemes on their lonesomes. Having a foil for the conniving character to work off (particularly one so adept at comedic understatement) doesn’t alter the familiar situation enough to make you worried whether they can pull it off, but puts enough of a new spin on it to keep it from feeling stale. Which is pretty much the sweet spot for sequels of all stripes, now that I think about it. I’m looking forward to seeing these two dopes, who both seem utterly ill-suited for criminal conspiracy for completely different reasons, bumble their way through the bloodbath that is sure to come over the next several weeks.
But the single greatest improvement over the first season, and the one that I can state definitively since their part in the story is finished, is the depth and humor Kieran Culkin brings to the schmuck who gets himself killed in a random enough way that it will confuse and drive his criminal compatriots to jump to the wrong conclusions. Last year, the bullying trucker wasn’t any more than a caricature of an asshole. But Culkin (who apparently don’t give two hot shits that James Ransome gotta eat too) packs both laughs and pathos into the 3 scenes he’s given. The diner confrontation with the Judge is both tense and hilarious, which is straight up the Coen fairway. I was fairly certain how things had to end, but I was still laughing out loud at his incredulous reaction to the judge’s Job parable*, and being cut off from his easy way/hard way schpiel. Rye was a fun character; it’s just too bad he didn’t live long enough for someone to tell him Pluto isn’t even a planet.
There remains one major Coen staple that has yet to be filled, but we’ll talk more about that and Bokeem Woodbine more next week, as well as some more on the family Gerhardt. And perhaps I’ll start formulating some ideas of what this season of Fargo is all about, and how the time period reflects that. I’m certain it does, as the show does not seem to be just making a joke of the fashions, but leaning purposefully on the political references in the trailers and premiere. The opening speech by Jimmy Carter, pontificating about America’s losing its sense of purpose, and the Waiting For Godot mash up with the prologue on the Reagan(less) set, give me some vague sense that it’s pondering identity and meaningless and malaise, which is classic Coen material, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. Carter got ridden out of office on the wave of discontent he eloquently describes in that address, and of course Reagan is waiting in the wings. Say what you will about Dutch's policies, but he knew how to tell America what it wanted to hear about itself. America in the 80’s certainly had an identity, or to use Peggy’s parlance, was fully “actualized”, but what we’ve seen of her so far should make us pretty gosh darn ambivalent about that whole prospect.
Ok, then. Thematics can wait until we have some more substance to hang them on. For now, I’ll just say this premiere was as close to perfect as I could have hoped, and leave you with a list of references to mark off your Coen Bros’ bingo cards (feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments).
– The way the judge goes out calls to mind the exit of Wade Gustaffson from the original film, and in fact he and the judge would probably get along famously. Rye also shoots the waitress in an “execution type deal” very reminiscent of Peter Stormare taking out the fleeing witness in the film.
– The Gerhardts appear to have a silent American Indian enforcer working with them, which could easily be the background of the largely silent, nebulously “connected” Shep Proudfoot character from the film.
– The UFO encounter – which I hope is never addressed again and left a weird non sequitur, but given the presence of a disconcertingly-moustacheless Ron Swanson as the resident conspiracy buff, probably will be in some fashion – is straight out of The Man Who Wasn’t There.
– Lou’s monosyllable response to the diner scene is identical to Llewellyn Moss’s when he finds the massacre site in No Country For Old Men.
– Starting the show proper with a speech from Carter is reminiscent of the Bush I address that the Dude takes in (and later appropriates) in The Big Lebowski.
– The sirens’ song from O Brother Where Art Thou? plays over the closing credits, albeit in a form that pales in comparison to the lush, floating original recording.
– The Reagan set opening (which I hope becomes a recurring thing throughout the season) doesn’t seem like a specific reference to anything, but it’s oddball, apparent non-sequitur nature recalls the dybbuk prologue to A Serious Man, as well as the Mike Yanagita scene from Fargo, or even the thematically crucial but largely plot-free bookends to No Country.
*which in Rye’s defense, really doesn’t track – even if we grant identity of subject matter on the broad basis that changing someone’s mind is equally difficult regardless of issue or circumstance, you did nothing to establish identity of parties between you and Job, and look, you’re a judge for Christ’s sake, I really shouldn’t have to explain the fallacies with this sort reasoning for you