A break from our usual fare this week, to discuss something I seldom if ever talk about here on the nerd farm: television. A single television series, to be precise: Fargo. TV follow-ups to successful movies seldom work out very well, but this one’s an exception, carrying on the film’s air of understated outrageousness with quality and style. The first season of the show was a highlight (THE highlight, as far as I’m concerned) of last season, and this year’s season two may have surpassed it. With one episode left to go, it’s certainly heading in that direction. There’s only a few plots and themes left to resolve, and if they bring those home, I’ll be set to call this a high water mark for television drama.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fargo season two is the story of a war between two crime syndicates in Minnesota in 1979, and of a young married couple who, through an accident and some bad decisions, get caught up in the action. Built around an ensemble cast of well-realized characters, and performed by actors turning in career-best performances, it’s the sort of thing that would still rank among the best things on TV if it was doing only that. But Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley has higher ambitions for this season. Because it’s also about the American moment of 1979, the nation’s lingering malaise over Vietnam and Watergate, the birth of the corporate culture, Ronald Reagan, the UFO craze, feminism, and the rise of minorities in the face of unabashed racism.
That’s a lot of weight for a semi-comic crime story to carry. But Hawley’s pulled it off with aplomb, never letting the social commentary get in the way of the story he’s telling. And that story’s a corker, a cops and robbers drama of the first order. On one side, we’ve got the Gerhardts, the blue collar mob family that runs North Dakota. Some, eyeballing their rural farmhouse compound, might go so far as to call them a bunch of rednecks. But however you want to categorize them, when the family patriarch suffers a stroke in the first episode, they’re thrown into turmoil.
Dodd, the eldest son, immediately locks horns with his mother Floyd (Jean Smart) over who should run things. Though Floyd has run the business side of Gerhardt operations for years, Dodd argues that “the boss can’t be a girl.” This is a trend for the bad guys this season: they consistently underestimate women, and they consistently suffer because of it.
This is especially true of Dodd, who’s a nasty piece of work, a vicious misogynist thug so hateful that, at one point about halfway through the season, I found myself hoping he’d die a painful death. And yet, in spite of that, he’s also an entertaining buffoon, filled with cunning, but just enough of an idiot to be somewhat endearing. There’s a part of me that almost wants to like him, and I think that’s down to the performance of actor Jeffrey Donovan.
I previously only knew him from the good-natured but fluffy spy series Burn Notice, which I liked okay, but never enough to watch regularly. I kind of thought the same of Donovan as an actor: pleasant, good-looking, and of average ability. But he’s transformed himself as Dodd, to the point that I didn’t even recognize him for half the season. He’s pulled that off in part with a bad haircut, and a frown that wouldn’t look out of place on a Muppet. But mostly, it’s because of a broad, but convincingly nuanced, performance of the type that fits the Fargo aesthetic like a glove.
At any rate. The Gerhardts are facing competition from the Kansas City mafia, a group of mobbed-up city slickers who run their organization along corporate lines. They’ve decided to attempt a hostile takeover of Gerhardt operations, taking advantage of the strife within the family to make their move. The conflict between these two groups forms the backbone of the season, violence blooming from it in all directions and attracting the attention of the season’s hero: Lou Solverson, a state trooper and Vietnam vet who—
You know what? I’m still getting ahead of myself. The story doesn’t start with Dodd, the Kansas City mafia, or Lou. It actually starts with Ry Gerhardt, youngest son of the Gerhardt clan, who opens the season with a stunning restaurant bloodletting…
…before getting hit by a car. That car is driven by Peggy Blumquist, a beautician in the little town of Luvern, Minnesota, and probably this season’s central character.
As Sheriff Hank Larrson (Ted Danson) says later in the season, Peggy is a little touched. As played by Kirsten Dunst, she’s a bundle of middle class longing, fragile cunning, and OCD lunacy. So instead of stopping like a normal person after hitting a man on a lonely Minnesota highway, Peggy drives home with Ry hanging half out of her windshield, head and shoulders dripping blood onto the front seat. She and her husband Ed (a nice guy micro-focused on his dream of buying a butcher shop) hide the crime and dispose of the body, hoping that nobody will be the wiser.
And that’s where Lou comes in. He and Hank are the first officers on the scene of the restaurant killing, and the case haunts Lou for a very interesting reason: the surprised look on the face of one of the victims. It reminds him of a look he’d seen on the faces of men who’d been shot in Vietnam.
That conflict haunts many of the characters in this season. It’s made Lou over-protective, local lawyer Karl Weathers (played to great effect by Nick Offerman) has become a conspiracy-obsessed drunkard, and the damage it did to Gerhardt family enforcer Hanzee Dent only becomes apparent deeper into the story.
(An aside: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how great a character Hanzee is, and how great Zahn McClarnon is in the role. Quiet, enigmatic, and surprisingly complex, Hanzee goes places you don’t expect and does things you don’t see coming. Out of a cast full of fascinating characters, Hanzee may be my favorite. But to tell you why would spoil too much.)
At any rate. Vietnam haunts the season in general. Hank tells Lou that he thinks the men who fought there brought something back with them, and the show’s overall tone bears him out on that. There’s a certain oppressiveness and paranoia in the air, a sense that things aren’t going the way people want. Whether it’s Peggy, who wants to be more than just a butcher’s wife, or middle Gerhardt brother Bear, who chafes under Dodd’s overbearing attempts to lead the family, or Kansas City gunman Mike Milligan, who’s having to prove his worth to his bosses simply because he’s black, this season is in many ways about a longing for something better, but also something everyone seems helpless to achieve. Even the viewer is made to feel that helplessness through the plight of Betsy Solverson.
Though she bears up bravely under the strain, Betsy is dying of cancer, her increasing weakness apparent every time we see her. She’s such a strong, smart, and genuinely good person that, even in a season with so many characters caught in unfortunate circumstances, the unfairness of her slow death hits home.
That ability to create characters the audience can genuinely care about is a hallmark of this season. I just like these people, in a way that I don’t often like fictional characters. Of course, Hawley also uses that likability to further the show’s overall oppressiveness. Anytime one of Our Heroes comes face to face with one of Our Villains, there’s a palpable sense of dread to the confrontation, a threat of violence that leaves my stomach in knots. I’m genuinely afraid for my TV Friends. That’s not an easy reaction to get from me, so I appreciate it all the more when someone pulls it off.
Further playing into the sense of oppressiveness is the controversial UFO subplot. It’s been referenced in every episode, starting from the very beginning: the reason Ry Gerhardt is standing in the middle of the road when Peggy hits him is because he’s distracted by strange lights in the sky.
In every episode since, we’ve either seen the lights or had reference to them in some way, and always in a scene that conjures up a sense of the uncanny: Hanzee experiences lost time after encountering them; a guy talking in classic “Man in Black” weirdspeak (though he’s just wearing a flannel shirt) tells Lou about alien visitors while they wait in a gas line; Hank is making a study of some kind of runic alphabet and reading a book that seems in the vein of Chariots of the Gods; and Betsy falls into a strange trance while staring at a UFO in a drawing made by her daughter Molly:
Some feel that all this is out of place, a fantasy element in an otherwise-believable crime story. Noah Hawley has said only that it’s a thematic element for the season, inspired in part by an actual case of a Minnesota police officer having a close encounter out on a lonely stretch of road in 1979 (seriously; you can read about it here: http://science.howstuffworks.com/space/aliens-ufos/1979-minnesota-ufo.htm).
As for me, I’m all for it. UFO sightings were at an all-time high in the late 70s, so it fits for a show that’s trying to capture the flavor of the era. It all goes back to that sense of malaise, I think. America was reeling, from Vietnam, from Watergate, from the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, and the failure of that decade’s optimism in the face of ugly reality. People’s faith was shaken. They weren’t sure what the country stood for anymore, and were afraid of what the future held. UFOs were a reaction to all that, a fantasy that Americans indulged in to help make sense of it all. You know. Like Ronald Reagan.
No, really. I’m… not joking about that. Reagan and the UFOs are essentially two sides of the same coin. They work similarly from a narrative perspective, interrupting the straight-up crime story with strange asides and uncanny events. But more importantly, they both represent fantasies that gripped America in a difficult time. The UFOs are a fantasy of paranoia and fear, and Reagan is a fantasy of hope. Of course, appearances are deceiving. While Reagan’s strange magnetism (captured really well by Bruce Campbell) allows him to deliver a “Morning in America” speech that drives even the cynical Karl Weathers to tears, it’s all revealed as empty rhetoric when Lou asks Reagan how he’s going to bring about this change, and all he gets in response is a pat on the back… and silence.
The UFOs, meanwhile, scare the crap out of people, but they bring about actual change in the lives of those who see them. Ry doesn’t live long enough for that, of course, but Hanzee decides that he’s tired of his life as a killer after his experience with them. Granted, it takes a few days, and the trigger for it is something else entirely, but the fact remains that he’s one of two (possibly three) characters who have a close encounter and attempt to change their lives afterward. The second is Peggy. She may or may not have seen the UFO that distracted Ry; I don’t see how she could have missed it, honestly, and something she says later (no spoilers) kind of tells me she did. But she does have a close encounter later, when she has a vision of a self-help guru who tells her how to “actualize,” and figure out how to get what she wants in life.
Of course, both those characters are, arguably, insane. Peggy may have just been seeing things. Certainly, her “post-actualization” behavior is anything but rational (though it is effective). And Hanzee might just be a man who’s been pushed too far. All I’m arguing is that maybe he and Peggy were both pushed by UFOs (Hank’s description of Peggy as “touched” seems like really significant word choice to me all of a sudden…).
The third person who I think might change his life after a close encounter is Lou. His UFO experience was very recent, but we know from season one (the aged Lou is a major supporting character there) that he gives up police work not long after the events of this season. But that’s something we’ll have to wait for the final episode to see.
And speaking of things ending… I suppose I should wrap this up now, though I kind of don’t want to. As is too often the case with fiction I really enjoy, there’s so much more to talk about. Every character has an entertaining arc, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface on the show’s themes. I haven’t mentioned all the great performances, either (Ted Danson is especially good). But it would take more space than I have here to cover it all (I could write a book, I tells ya). So I’ll leave it at this for now. Fargo is great television, well-worth watching. If I were given to hyperbole (which, you know, I am), I’d say it’s the best thing on TV. Don’t miss out.