'Fargo' Season 2: TV Review

Fargo Still - H 2015
Chris Large/FX

Fargo Still - H 2015

Weirdness, brilliance, tons of laughs and lots of blood.

Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson and Kirsten Dunst headline the second season of the FX limited series based on the Coen brothers film.

The second season of FX's Fargo starts off with one of the most jarring and confusing, then ultimately hilarious scenes you can probably imagine. Not long after that, it gets very bloody, very funny and very weird. None of that is even counting the UFO.

Strap yourselves in: Fargo is back in a big, bold way.

The Emmy-winning first season of Fargo, the limited series that was inspired by the Coen brothers film of the same name (and quickly earned their hard-to-get endorsement), was a triumph on multiple levels as one of the most creative and evocative works on TV in 2014. The second season proves that was no fluke.

It's thrilling to witness what creator Noah Hawley has dreamed up this time, and how the series fearlessly tackles the task of mixing drama, comedy, goodness, malevolence, hopefulness, tragedy and mundane everyday life — often in the same episodes, sometimes in the same scene. It's the kind of ambition that can lead to stumbles, but even when it does you appreciate the attempt. 

When everything is working in concert, it's a real thing of beauty — smart writing, accomplished acting, visual eloquence, all in the service of something bigger than what's apparent.

Just like in the first season, one of the overriding themes in season 2 of Fargo is how evil enters a realm of innocence and distorts the world evermore for those who witness it.

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You need not have watched the first season to understand the second, which is part of the "limited series" allure. But if you did, then the idea comes from when Lou Solverson (played in season one by Keith Carradine) mentions that the only time he'd seen the kind of evil that drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) dragged into Minnesota was a bloody episode back in the 1970s which, in typical fashion, he'd rather not dwell on.

In season two, we definitely dwell on it, as we meet young Vietnam vet Lou (played by Patrick Wilson), a Minnesota state trooper, married to Betsy (Cristin Milioti), daughter of Luverne Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), mimicking the setup of season one while also hammering home the small-town family vibe. Betsy, who is fighting cancer, and Lou have a daughter, Molly, who will of course grow up to be the focal point of the first season.

But in many ways Fargo is a prequel only in the sense that it's here to reiterate that bad things have always been in the world, no matter how much of the good we prefer to remember.

All the stories in season two are intertwined (in complex ways even the first four episodes only hinted at) but center on two main plots: The Kansas City Mafia wants to expand into Fargo and overtake the mom-and-pop family operation run by the Gerhardts; and the youngest male in the Gerhardt clan, Rye (Kieran Culkin), does some dirty business down in podunk Laverne, where he has an unfortunate run-in with ostensibly sweet local hairdresser Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons), who works at the local butcher.

That is, indeed, very Fargo-esque. You have the big evil of the Kansas City Mafia, which runs itself like a corporation, moving in on the smaller evil of the family-unfriendly Gerhardts, who have one offspring that orbits into the nice and ordinary lives of the Blumquists, who make a very bad decision about an accidental incident and thus invite that evil into their lives (and into Luverne).

The Coen brothers knew that the aw-shucks "Minnesota nice" of its rural inhabitants was the perfect foil for malevolent outside forces, and this dichotomy continues to pay huge creative dividends for Hawley.

But Hawley has managed, in this second season, to put a finer point on this by having it set in the post-Vietnam, Jimmy Carter-era, gas-rationing, Jonestown massacre world where Luverne (and, by extension, small-town America) can't escape. It's even there in Betsy's cancer. Don't sleep on the fact that Fargo is, and always has been, very dark.

All of this, of course, is easy to forget when Fargo is so funny and so joyously awful with its violent situations and glib characters. That's the tonal shift balancing act that makes this so much more than normal.

There's a plethora of remarkable actors peopling the groups that interact on Fargo. Wilson and Danson are wonderful to watch and, if you've seen the first season, have an added nuance to their roles. Plemons and Dunst are not what they first seem, and at first glance embody the lighter counterbalance to the warring factions. Jean Smart is terrific as Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch who has to step up when her iron-fisted husband, Otto (Michael Hogan), suffers a stroke. Jeffrey Donovan is magnetic as the eldest Gerhardt son, Dodd, a psychopathic hothead. Angus Sampson is the hulking, quiet middle son Bear.

Despite Dodd's thirst for a war, the Gerhardts are ill-prepared for what's coming from Kansas City. Brad Garrett plays Joe Bulo, who is the face of how the Mafia there is trying to go as corporate as IBM ("Research thinks ... " and "If the market says kill them, we kill them," are two repeated gems, as if there's a company with HR and payroll making decisions about murdering people). In a standout performance, Bokeem Woodbine is Mike Milligan, the African-American right-hand man of the Kansas City mob, who gets — like Thornton last season — most of the great lines here.

When you've got a show where Nick Offerman as a conspiracy-theorist lawyer is mentioned this late in the billing, you've got a lot of excellent moving parts.

And truly, there are some phenomenal performances, from Woodbine's controlled intensity to Donovan's sublime ability to electro-shock a man and then politely order a glazed donut, to Milioti's note-perfect smart, essential wife/mother trying to hold it together when she knows she's dying, to Wilson's ballast in the center of the whole tornado of a changing world.

Not to mention Ronald Reagan and UFOs — yes and yes — both represented here.

All of this is presented in a visual package that is always a wonder to witness. Hawley made sure in the first season that the snowy white swaths of acreage was a canvas that each director could fill in. The series established the slow-motion drive-by as a representation of lurking evil and continues to use the conceit well here. Slow pans in, absorbing the intricacies of scene (and, notably, back out again in a kind of wink when Hawley makes a splashy directorial debut in the second episode, which just might be the best of the first four) are also now, like lonely cars shot from above as they drive deserted stretches of road, a Fargo staple. Season two also regularly employs multiple split-screen shots, keeping viewers updated about all the various storylines. This a series that is a visual delight in both exterior and interior shots, and knows how to stage a gunfight, especially if it's one-sided.

It's also, like Breaking Bad, a master class on using evocative popular music to set a mood but also incorporates either small aural clues or rollicking background music to propel other scenes.

It's all here — writing, acting, directing, music — combining to make a very riveting and entertaining dark comedy spectacle. But Fargo also never wavers from its soulful, introspective meditation that one of life's relentless tasks is barring evil from the door of happiness.