Fargo, FX’s expansion of the Coen Bros’ modern film classic, was last year’s greatest surprise. There was every reason to look at the series askance prior to its debut. The film, with its unique blend of “aw, jeez” Minnesota geniality and blood-in-the-snow violence, seemed impossible to duplicate without simply standing as a facile duplication. Even with a top-shelf cast, featuring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, it was hard to imagine the show amounting to anything more than a misguided curiosity, a fool’s errand to recapture something too idiosyncratic to replicate. The bar was set too high to clear. Forget it, series creator Noah Hawley, it’s the Coen Brothers.
Yet Fargo did the impossible. It carved out its own niche, telling a story that meshed with the Fargo house style while being uniquely its own thing. Hawley spoke fluent Coen without seemingly like a mere impressionist. The unlikely result was a season of television every bit as good as the film that spawned it, a worthy companion piece rather than an inferior footnote. But now Fargo is tasked with doing the impossible a second time. It not only has to continue living up to the film, but now it has to also live up to that gem of a first season, and it has to do it without any of the original cast. This is a show that does not make things easy on itself.
“Waiting for Dutch,” the second season premiere, indicates that Fargo still has the goods. Taking place in 1979, a whopping 27 years prior to the events of the first season, the episode wastes little time thrusting us back into the off-kilter Midwestern pocket universe of criminals, cops and morally malleable schleps. The instigating force of the narrative is Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin, Home Alone’s bedwetter all grown up), the shoulder-chipped runt of a crime family who struggles to be respected by his more formidable older brothers (Jeffrey Donovan and Insidious’ Angus Sampson). Rye sets out to achieve a big score that will get his family to take him seriously, and tries to lean on a local typewriter salesman, who claims he can deliver big money, but only if Rye can coerce a judge into unfreezing the inveterate gambler’s assets.
Rye tails the judge to a desolate waffle house after hours and employs some tough talk to get her to bend, but she’s a tough cookie and blithely waves off his threats. Rye loses his composure and shoots the woman, as well as the joint’s cook and waitress. Wounded by a knife to the back from the judge during the fracas, Rye stumbles outside and, in the episode’s oddest touch, appears to witness a UFO in the sky right before he is plowed into by a passing car, which continues on its way with a bloody Rye now mounted on the hood. The driver is Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), a big dreamer who isn’t at all on the same wavelength as her kindly, traditionalist husband Ed (a puffy Jesse Plemons), who wants nothing more than to start a family and lead a quiet, humdrum life. Upon sitting down to a dinner of Hamburger Helper and tater tots, Ed hears a commotion coming from the garage, and finds a still-living Rye thrashing about. In a scuffle, Ed stabs Rye to death and Peggy, who seems to view all of this as an opportunity for a ticket out of Dullsville, convinces Ed that they need to cover this all up, using the potential obliteration of his dream for a placid domestic life as motivation.
The one bit of connective tissue between the two seasons lies with the character of Lou Solverson, played by Keith Carradine previously and Patrick Wilson now. Lou was a retired cop who ran an diner in Season 1, but here he’s still a young officer, with a cancer-stricken wife (Cristin Milioti, who can’t stop playing doomed wives/mothers) and a young daughter, Molly (who will, of course, grow up to be the hero of the first season). Lou is called to the waffle house along with his father-in-law (Ted Danson), also a cop. The two can’t quite get a fix on what occurred at the crime scene, but one clue rests in a shoe stuck on a tree branch, possibly launched off of Rye’s foot upon impact.
There are a lot of players in the Fargo sandbox this time out, and “Waiting for Dutch” has the tricky task of introducing all of them. There is the hardened matriarch of the Gerhardt family, Floyd (Jean Smart), who has to struggle to be taken seriously in the criminal community because of her gender; a rival crime syndicate’s enforcer (Brad Garrett, cast well against type), who conducts a presentation for his higher-ups detailing the recent stroke of Gerhardt patriarch Otto as a chink in their adversaries’ armor; and erstwhile Ron Swanson Nick Offerman (sans mustache, but still with plenty of other facial hair) as a conspiracy-theorist buddy of Lou’s. This is an especially eclectic collection of actors, even moreso than the first season’s crop, and while it remains to be seen how all of these characters will fit together, the prospect of such a varied group butting heads with one another is enticing.
If “Waiting for Dutch” is not as strong as Fargo’s initial season premiere, it’s understandable considering how uncommonly strong that episode was for a pilot. That episode, with its focus locked tightly on Freeman’s Lester Nygaard as he quickly devolved from henpecked yutz to murderous schemer, felt more self-contained and fully realized than “Waiting for Dutch,” which has a lot more to unpack by comparison. “Dutch” also doesn’t introduce a character as magnetic as Thornton’s wicked agent of chaos Lorne Malvo. Yet Season 2 looks to be off to a fantastic start just the same. The period setting is handled evocatively, doing an effective job of setting the season apart from what came before, and the cast settles into their roles straight away, their Minnesota accents all on-point. Also, as with the inaugural season, Hawley clearly looks to the entirety of the Coen oeuvre for inspiration rather than simply Fargo by its lonesome, as when “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby,” featured prominently in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, plays over the closing moments. After the complete pooch-screw of fellow anthology series True Detective’s second season, it’s reassuring that Fargo remains in compliance as quality television.
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