Returning to FX’s Fargo is like stepping outside on a crisp winter day and drawing in a cold breath filled with the smell of newly fallen snow…and blood and gun powder. It’s refreshing — especially having made it through the networks’ spotty fall lineups — to be back in the comforting hands of TV’s most playful show.
To keep the cold-weather metaphors going for just another second (I promise I’ll let up), the very first moments of tonight’s premiere show signs of the series thawing out and shaking off some of its previous stiffness as it launches back in time to 1979. Season 1 worked in its own right as a sideways tribute to the Coen brothers’ film and its chilly observance of mostly warm people, but season 2, even in its opening moments, already feels like a completely separate story, regardless of the Lou Solverson connection.
And the time period is only a part of it. After we’re treated to a cheeky nod to the series’ loose grasp on chronology with a cameo by Jackie, who was MGM’s Leo the Lion for all black-and-white films from 1928 to 1956, we jump into the title card for the Massacre at Sioux Falls, a made-up movie starring Ronald Reagan and made-up actress Betty LaPlage. If you’ve paid attention to the lead-up to the second season, you’ll know that the opening isn’t completely out of left field since we’ll see “Dutch” in the flesh — played by Bruce Campbell later in the season.
Already, the new season of Fargo is playing with Midwest mythology by introducing two events that will become known as the “Massacre at Sioux Falls.” We’re told the first befalls 300 Native Americans “before the…what came after…woof.” (Already we’re hearing Fargo’s great rhythm of awkward dialogue. Already we’re missing Martin Freeman.) The other is the work of a white criminal who kills a black man and two women. Fargo has never been afraid to look into the soul of America, especially the middle of it, and its history of violence, but we’re going to have some fun while it does so.
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Moving on from the fake-fake past to the real-fake past, Fargo shakes off some of the cobwebs with a title sequence straight out of the ’70s. Starting with the first scene after the credits, the story this time around is much more embedded within the criminal elements of the Midwest and the tropes that come with the territory. We’re not being kept outside as Lorne Malvo single handedly liquidates the Fargo outfit. Here, we meet Dodd, Bear, and Rye Gerhardt, the heirs to a criminal organization that’s about to face upheaval on two fronts: one as the patriarch suffers a stroke and another as rivals move in to absorb their stake. Rye (Kieran Culkin, turning in great work) is the lowest on the totem bowl and has developed the expected complexes about his position. He’s the comic that comes with the bubble gum, as Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) puts it, but he’s got a plan to rise up and pay back the collection money he owes. Before he and his associate can start moving their world-changing electric typewriters, however, they need a judge to reverse a ruling, and tailing her to the Waffle Hut, Rye gets a Bible story instead of the answer he wants to hear.
Even though Fargo has left behind the more superficial trappings that tied it to the original film, the diner scene is where we see the Coen color rise to the surface again. There is no more Coen-esque Biblical figure than Job, the good book’s most put-upon dude and an archetype that has recurred in their films, appearing most prominently in A Serious Man. (That film’s apocalyptic ending could have a connection to Rye’s vision of a UFO before getting hit by Peggy Blumquist’s car, but we’ll have to revisit that theory later in the season.) One element of the Coens’ signature character work has been finding the bitter humor in Job-like stories, tales of men and women who are tested by either the world around them or their own incompetence. Seeing the story appear in the season 2 premiere signals a dedication to a type of storytelling.
NEXT: Back to the Waffle Hut.
The direction from Michael Uppendahl and Randall Einhorn is just as dynamic throughout the episode as it is in the title sequence. Beyond the split-screen motif popping back up as Lou investigates the crime scene at the Waffle Hut, the real stroke of filmmaking genius here is the shootout. The set piece is a clear demonstration of the thought that’s going into the show and its key moments. Cutting back to the Waffle Hut’s swinging kitchen door and emphasizing the small time frame when it’s moving is such a smart and novel way to explain how quickly Rye’s mistakes stack up.
And do they stack up! The light task of intimidating a judge quickly becomes a triple homicide and lands firmly on the desk of Lou Solverson, state police. The version of Lou that we meet in 1979 is a harder man than the one we know from the diner, and there’s more hardship waiting just ahead of him. Beyond what we know of his involvement with the investigation, he’s married to Betsy, and she’s played by Cristin Milioti, which means she’s destined to be taken away before her time. (Yes, I’m still angry with the How I Met Your Mother finale.) Lou’s wife is undergoing chemo therapy when the massacre takes place, and he meets up at the crime scene with local policeman Hank Larsson, a man we will later learn is Betsy’s father. That delayed reveal is the kind of satisfying exposition we don’t get enough. Other shows would have used that fact to define their first scene together at the Waffle Hut, instead of retroactively reframing and enriching it.
By the time that Lou leaves the scene, the case is looking straightforward. They’ve got a shoe in the tree and an extra car in the parking lot. Where the signature Fargo rub comes in is Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), the magazine-organizing, California-dreaming salon worker who takes Rye for a ride. But even before the hit and run, things weren’t looking great for Peggy. Though she might not have the freedom to voice her anxiety, the cozy plan of small business ownership and kids with her husband Ed (Jesse “Lance” Plemons) isn’t as comfortable as it seems. Much like her ennui, Rye is kept hidden — albeit poorly — from Ed, but once there’s even the slightest suggestion of the truth coming out, she’s floating the idea of running away from it all.
Rye’s death at the hands of Ed and his gardening tool feels like the exact right amount of complication for the show. As Hank begins to follow the clues leading from the Waffle Hut to Rye, Peggy, and Ed will be there to make life needlessly difficult by hiding their own murder. Although it all worked out in the end, season 1’s layers of obfuscation — from Lester to Lorne’s chance meet-up and the plagues raining down upon Oliver Platt — almost seemed too loosely connected, even for a show about that sort of thing. All the stage setting thus far is all of a piece, bringing together the disparate elements of a heightened world in an ultra-satisfying way.
It’s safe to say that the first season of Fargo was a welcome and unexpected delight, but even after one hour, the story of the massacre at Sioux Falls is bolder, smarter, and every bit as entertaining. So before I jump to some crazy conclusions, let’s all decide to patiently wait for next week, read up on the military-industrial complex, and reflect on the state of Fargo–True Detective war.