Fargo recap: Before the Law
No one is doing well — especially not Kieran Culkin, whose body was sent through a meat grinder.
Two weeks into the “Massacre at Sioux Falls,” I think I’ve figured out what feel so different about this season of Fargo.
This show is strutting.
As well it should. All of the praise that the first season earned and the confidence that comes with dominating both the Golden Globes and Emmys are showing in just the right ways. Season 2 doesn’t feel like a different TV show, so much as an emboldened version of an already good one. It’s as if the creative team saw the audience and critical response to season 1 and said, “Well, if you like that, wait until you see this!” The soul of the show now matches the energetic looseness of the drum beat that runs throughout the series, and I’m crossing all of my fingers (the ones that haven’t been cleaved off, at least) that Fargo can keep it up.
The second episode begins in a lively step as the split frame briefly reminds us where everyone stands after Rye Gerhardt killed three people, saw a UFO, got hit by Peggy Blumquist’s car, and died at the hands and gardening implement of her husband, Ed. In short: No one is doing too well.
And things are almost guaranteed to get worse as Joe Bulo and Mike Milligan from Kansas City roll into town, looking to make a deal. The outfit sees an opportunity in the Gerhardts’ current state of upheaval and are offering to buy the operation outright, while still keeping on the family as employees. It’s a surprisingly civil offer — “the world is becoming more corporate,” we’re told — but it doesn’t sit well with Dodd, who was left out of the talk between Joe and his mother, Floyd. There’s no way that he will give up his criminal autonomy, especially when it’s Floyd making the call.
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The mother-son disagreement leads to a serious chat over challah bread that recounts the struggles of Dodd’s grandfather, who fled Germany during the Weimar Republic and “built an empire out of a shoeshine box.” There’s a thread running through this episode — from Floyd’s fond remembrances of an immigrant past to Mike’s appreciation for “calm and rational” discussions amid the country “going down the crapper” — of a nation that has lost its way. We used to be a country of hard-working, hard-thinking men (definitely not women, but more on that in a second) that earned what they got.
Dodd’s problems stem from what he believes is owed to him for no reasons other than his sex and birth order. That sense of entitlement is underlined in an irony-colored Sharpie by the presence of Dodd’s right-hand man, Hanzee Dent, who as a Native American is the one truly owed everything under Dodd’s “I was here first” logic, but as it’s been throughout our history, he’s left in the background to silently watch the white people fight over territory.
Even though the conversation between Floyd and Dodd ends on a mostly agreeable and doughy note, he’s not done with this fight just yet, but he’ll need Rye on his side to even out the numbers after Bear shows signs of siding with their mom. I hope you’re keeping that ironic Sharpie around because Rye isn’t taking anyone’s side any time soon. He (or his body) has become somewhat of an unlikely MacGuffin, with both Mike Milligan and Dodd searching for him. Both parties see him as a potential swing figure in deciding the future of the Gerhardt operation, but that’s too bad because Ed is mopping up his blood in the garage.
And Ed is becoming an interesting character unto his own, despite being someone whose personality isn’t quirky enough to distinguish him as a full-on Fargo type, unlike Peggy. Ed does fit within the tradition of the series, however, because he is so unassuming and has been dragged into an extraordinary circumstance. While Peggy is off stealing T.P. and dodging accusations about stealing T.P., Ed is the one who has to clean up the body she’s mostly responsible for and then has to put said body through the meat grinder, making for the single most deliciously disgusting homage to the original movie. It might be a few weeks before I walk past the supermarket meat cabinet again.
NEXT: The rich musical stylings of Burl Ives!
It wasn’t until the cleaning montage set to Burl Ives’ rendition of “One Hour Ahead of the Posse” that I realized that so far this season of Fargo has felt like the first legitimate heir to Breaking Bad. (“But what about Better Call Saul?” you scream to me from behind your computer screen. Here’s the thing: Better Call Saul doesn’t want to be Breaking Bad.) All of this isn’t to say that I think Fargo is aping one of the greatest series to ever air on television. While any crime-centric, parabolic examination of suburban American life is going to owe something to Walter Hartwell White, what Fargo is doing is weirder and with its own sense of humor. The real meaningful overlap is in the playfulness of tone, patience for letting a moment play out (Mike’s road-side encounter with Hank is perfect), and the glee with which both shows turn the screw.
Fargo is also carrying on the tradition of giving its main female characters complex interior lives that don’t always reflect the expectations and assumptions of the world around them. Joe’s previous comment about Floyd being “tough, but — you know — a girl” one episode later is sounding less like a funny, one-off joke and more like a defining anti-mission statement for the season. Floyd is by far the most capable member of the Gerhardt family, especially when you consider that minutes before their conversation, Dodd mistakenly kills someone from whom he is trying to get information.
And just as Floyd has been emotionally weakened by her husband’s stroke, Betsy Solverson is having her life sapped away by cancer and chemotherapy, and yet, she’s both the person to whom Hank turns to talk through his cases and the one who manages to find the Waffle Hut murder weapon. (And she’s smart enough to grab the revolver by the barrel. Duh!) This season of Fargo is a prequel in a sense beyond “This is how Young Lou became Old Lou.” We’re seeing how the world was before and how the women of that generation paved the way to make season 1 and Sheriff Molly Solverson possible.
Betsy is also quietly defining the character who is arguably our main “hero,” her husband Lou, who has been quietly (but not uninterestingly) wandering through these first couple of episodes. His simple “yeah” responses to new information is such graceful and simple character building for a man who doesn’t do much talking. The conversation he has with his father-in-law is his most telling scene of the season so far because Hank serves as an poignant point of comparison. Here are two men in similar stations. They are two cops and former soldiers who are having someone they love slowly ripped away from them, and we see the difference a generation can make. Hank focuses on the wars — World War II and Vietnam — and how the men came back from each, which only scratches the surface. Lou’s is a more ambiguous world of grays. He questions himself, while Hank remarks that the men from Kansas City were “positively fascinating.”
All of this is great, but to be very real, nothing matters compared to the final scene, where Noah Hawley answers the question, “How do you follow a scene in which Landry from Friday Night Lights feeds Kieran Culkin through a meat grinder?” Obviously, you stage a set piece that hinges on whether Lou finds the finger that Ed accidentally severed while trying to cleave off Rye’s hand. And if you weren’t catching the Breaking Bad vibes during the cleaning montage, you might be struck by how familiar that sensation of grabbing your face because the suspense IS JUST TOO MUCH feels.
And you didn’t think you were getting a week off from UFOs, did you? Well, too bad, because as the episode closes, we’re left with some haunting words, paraphrased from the opening of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that human affairs were being watched from the timeless whirls of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutanized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even consider the possibility of life on other planets, and yet across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.
The pure strangeness of this motif is utterly fascinating, even if I have no idea what to make of it beyond the feeling of oncoming dread it leaves behind heading into next week.