No one dies easy in “Fargo.” I technically mean that in a literal sense, as it always seems to take a couple of extra blows for a human life to expire on screen. But it also applies in a grander sense. You can do everything humanly possible to cover up misdeeds, but there’s always evidence. There’s always reality. And especially with murder, the truth always seems to come out.
Talking about “Fargo” beyond its existence as first a film and then a TV show involves trying to discern what that word/idea/title means for a narrative. And from the cheap seats, what seems to be at the core of “Fargo” is a clash of innocence and sin, good and evil. Sometimes, that occurs between two people — like Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson and the crime syndicate he stumbles up against. Sometimes, it happens within the soul of one person — this year, personified by Kirsten Dunst as Peggy, a hairdresser who does a bad thing and does even worse things to try to get out of it.
And that leads to one of this year’s most interesting deviations: Each incarnation of “Fargo” prior to this one has featured, in a center position, a character who seems almost otherworldly in his sociopathy. But Year 2 has no equivalent to Peter Stormare’s Gaear, or Billy Bob Thorton’s Malvo. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) and his twin thugs might be the closest analog, but their role isn’t as hugely prominent, and Milligan has plenty of humanity hovering under the surface. Otherwise, Season 2 has an interesting mix of characters whose morality is complex at best, making for a welcome evolution.
Because even if “Fargo” wasn’t based on an Oscar-nominated film, we’d still be looking for evolution from the first season. And it’s an evolution which really works to engage: The Gerhardt crime family is clearly set up as an explosive source of violence and mayhem for the season, but watching Jean Smart as matriarch Floyd cradle husband Otto (Michael Hogan) is heartbreaking, and the ballbusting amongst brothers gives real humanity to the proceedings.
Year 2 is very good about geography — I was actually quite clear, this time, about when we were in North Dakota versus Minnesota — but the events we see packed into what are theoretically just a couple of days have me feeling skeptical about the timeline. I’ll overlook all of that, though, because of how damn good some of the technical details are. The 1970s-inspired use of split-screen is an incredible addition to “Fargo’s” visual aesthetic, and as in the first year, Jeff Russo’s score invokes Carter Burwell’s iconic medleys when appropriate, but finds its own tone on numerous occasions. Plus, there are numerous music choices that illustrate beautifully the power of deep-digging into an era’s catalog of songs to find the unheard gems. Overall, these episodes serve as a great example of how well television is executing period drama these days.
And unlike so many other shows that fall under the banner of “premium drama,” “Fargo” is careful to balance its horrors with some joy. One of my favorite moments from this year’s TCA summer press tour was when “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” showrunner Steven Moffat pointed out something that, in retrospect, is shockingly obvious: “The nice thing about writing drama is that if you put three jokes in, everybody thinks you’re a genius.” But while Moffat was glib about that realization, it really is a major undercurrent of “Fargo’s” success as a TV show. We watch “Fargo” for the roller coaster; for the knowledge that something funny or bizarre might take an abrupt turn into awful-town — or vice versa.
The first four episodes feature no shortage of those moments; the hairpin turns that only the most skilled of drivers can pull off. Fortunately, Hawley and his team have such skills, and the actors are more than up to the challenge.
Everyone in general is up to the task, but I’ll shout out to Jeffrey Donovan for his commitment to a thug role with some heart. And Ted Danson, as Lou’s father-in-law and local sheriff, at times feels a bit out of place (because, God, it’s TED DANSON), but his performance is elevated above what he turns in for the “CSI” franchise; exuding a mellow steady presence that you can imagine Lou wanting to emulate (despite the two of them operating as lawmen for different agencies). Because Lou, as played by Wilson, is such a good dear person that it makes you wish the antihero trend in TV drama had never happened. The act of liking a show’s protagonist, with no qualifiers, feels like a blessing.
We’re in the 1970s, so it makes sense that “Fargo” represents the crappy gender imbalance of that period, but Cristin Milioti, as Betsy Solverson, is just a delight. A natural detective who shares her theories with her husband and father, she serves as a perfect bridge to how Molly Solverson (played by Allison Tolman) was the hero of “Fargo” Year 1. (Tiniest of spoilers: The way Milioti says “no complaints” will break your heart.) Meanwhile, Dunst feels surprisingly at home not just with the accent, but with the role. There are many moments built on just her face, just her realizations, and with the most minimal of dialogue she’s able to communicate so much.
One of the brilliant moves about the way that “Fargo” Year 2 has been constructed is that unlike, say, “Better Call Saul” — which features at least two characters we know will survive — only two people are safe. Those people are Lou and 6-year-old Molly, because we saw them both in the year 2006 during Season 1. Everyone else is fair game for tragedy — or justice.
The most important thing about what’s before us is that “Fargo” remains a risk-taker. Between Ronald Reagan and moments lifted straight out of “The X-Files,” it’s a show that is having fun, while also being real about the costs of having fun, while living outside the law.
“Fargo” premieres Monday, October 12 at 10pm on FX.