The year is 1979. Gas shortages are taxing the nation, Ronald Reagan is on the ascent, and in the wintry, ironic bizarro world of Fargo, a Heartland family is under siege. Meet the Gerhardts of North Dakota, ruggedly individualistic ranchers who run a massive criminal enterprise. They’ve been targeted by the Kansas Mob, a soulless corporate outfit fronted by a middle manager type (Brad Garrett, fine and funny even when humorless) armed with bullet-points of market research data. The threat presented by this new era of big business couldn’t come at a worse time for Gerhardt’s mom-and-pop operation. Patriarch Otto (Michael Hogan), has been felled by a stroke. His older sons – hotheaded, toothpick-chomping Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan, nicely scruffing his Burn Notice image); bearded, always munching Bear (Angus Sampson) – can’t be trusted to lead. It’s all that tough cookie materfamilias Floyd (a sensational Jean Smart) can do to keep this rustic evil empire from falling apart.
There are more Gerhardts – more of everything – in the terrifically acted, slow blooming second season of the Emmy-winning crime anthology inspired by the aesthetic and perspective contained within the cinematic oeuvre of Oscar-winning brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Miller’s Crossing. The Man Who Wasn’t There. No Country For Old Men. And, most importantly, the 1996 snow noir classic that gives the series its name. Showrunner Noah Hawley and his collaborators employ a gamut of imaginative and mischievous strategies to create an allegory for a fragmenting and fogged culture at an ideological crossroads, from split-screen storytelling, to a myriad of competing personal narratives, to UFOs as symbols of personal doom and worldview flux, to Reagan himself: He haunts the narrative via fabricated outtakes and scenes from historically dubious Westerns and Red Scare-era sci-fi flicks starring the Hollywood star turned politico. In one, a director and an actor impatiently wait on movie-star Reagan to show for work, like the fools in Waiting For Godot. Another plays in a movie theater, during a flashback dramatizing Otto’s treacherous, violent rise to power. That’s a loaded juxtaposition. (According to reports, Reagan does manifest later, in the story itself, played by modern B-horror king Bruce Campbell. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s portrayed, given the season’s themes.)
Like season 1, season 2’s knotty crime yarn is – wink-wink – based on “true” events. Perhaps the real-life wrong most on Fargo’s mind is the zeitgeist. The premiere uses President Carter’s summer of ’79 “Crisis of Confidence” speech to help frame the moment. His provocative thesis: Americans, demoralized by Those Damn ‘60 and all of its catastrophes and betrayals, are losing hope in traditional values of “hard work, strong families, close knit communities, and our faith and God” and that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” (One year later, with American morale flagging even more due to the Iran hostage crisis, voters replaced Carter with The Gipper, whose campaign slogan – “Let’s Make America Great Again” – played to the hard times.)
Almost every character in Fargo 2.0 embodies the selfish hustle or self-improvement bustle of what Tom Wolfe famously called the “Me Decade.” The youngest Gerhardt, Rye (Kieran Culkin), is a twitchy rogue desperate for significance. His recklessness in the premiere episode culminates with a bravura scene of violence that catalyzes the plot and generates ripples of compounding complications for many. The sexual politics of the ‘70s play out in sly ways. Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) is a beautician who’s pinned her hopes for self-actualization (“I want to be the best me I can be!”) on attending a pricy female-empowerment seminar. Hubby Ed (Jesse Plemmons) is a well-meaning lug who adores his wife, but the more you get to know him, the more he reveals an ingrained, ignorant sexism. He wants her to give him kids and table her costly dreams so he can chase – and so she can emotionally and financially support — his own. Their drifting rapport is further strained by a tragic collision with Rye that turns these decent everyday folks into everyday antiheroes. Their boneheaded, irresponsible responses to this incident speak to their dazed and confused condition, but those responses may drive you bonkers, too. C’mon! Stop being so stupid and scared and do the right thing already! (Which again, may be part of the point.) It may take you an episode or two to really roll with their initial choice and appreciate the complications it creates for the sprawling but never hard-to-follow plot.
The season gains more complexity and considerable power as it gains even more characters whose expressions of identity flick at other tenured and enduring American problems. Two in particular steal every scene they have: Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), an African American agent of the Kansas Mob partial to bolo ties and chilling, ironic oratory; and Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), a Native American agent of the Gerhardt clan with a taste for wry humor and raw rabbit organs. But it’s Fargo’s hero who really sneaks up on you. He’s Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson, a clean-cut, vanilla-white, war-vet family man. Patrick Wilson plays him as the coolest, keenest Dudley Do-Right to flatter a uniform. Refrain from drawing immediate conclusions about this friendly, if frosty, square — or his stoic wife (Cristin Milioti), or his cop father-in-law (Ted Danson) – though we know his destination: In season 1, he was Molly’s ex-cop, diner-owning dad, played by Keith Carradine. “Am I the only one here clear on the concept of law enforcement?” he asks during a disorienting trip into the upside-down Gerhardt underworld, where good bows to evil. (In a chilling-comic scene, crooked Mike flaunts his power – and messes with Lou’s mind – by quoting Nixon: “I am not a crook!”) A dispiriting encounter with Peggy and Ed in episode 4 leaves Lou ruminating on his black-and-white worldview and grieving the moral graying of his fellow man during a dark night of the soul: “We’re just out of balance.” Lou’s own “crisis of confidence” seems to loom. Is the sun setting on his kind of hero? Should he be wary of stumping saviors promising a new morning for a gloomy people stuck in quagmire? Fargo burns toward the answers to those questions with cool command and bold ingenuity. No gas shortage here. B+