Chris Large/FX


S2 E1
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October 27, 2015 at 01:37 AM EDT

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.

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Inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers film, ‘Fargo’ is a “true crime” story set in small-town Minnesota. A chance meeting between mild-mannered insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) and drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) sets into motion a series of dark events that involves murder, blackmail, and the mob.
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