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Fargo, Season 2: A funky verse better than the first

Fargo, Season 2
Created by Noah Hawley
Premieres Monday, October 12th at 10pm (ET) on FX
Four episodes watched for review

The economy is in tatters; a man’s prospects for rising up the ranks of employment are slim. He doesn’t know where he should place the blame but he has a strong feeling that his burden has been placed on him because of his parent’s mistakes. They resent him on some level too, his parents. He’s ruined a perfectly good thing because he refuses to adhere to the way the world has always worked. Him and his parents both reminisce on an older world, one with a moral center and where everything and everyone was given a fair shake. That world never really existed, though; it is only a story they tell themselves to make sense of the chaos and violence they see being played out right in front of them.

It’s 1979 and no one knows what story to tell themselves anymore. The greatest generation looks on wearily upon a world that doesn’t make sense. Their sons have brought the latest war home with them, it seems, and no one can fill their tanks with gas. Carter doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it, and no one can trust what the president is saying anyways because Nixon lied. And if that weren’t enough, there’s that guy at the garage who keeps going on and on about these visitors who come in threes. The first season of Fargo showed us what the world can look like if the pessimistic hangover of the ’70s turned into nihilism; season two charts how that world came into being.

Noah Hawley’s Coens-inspired anthology series is back and it’s shaken off what little didn’t work the first time around for a fresh, funky new tale of small-town violence and intrigue. Hawley has taken the show back in time to look into what happened in 1979 that Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine last season, Patrick Wilson this time around) spoke so gravely about last season. One of the heirs to the Gerhardt trucking syndicate in Fargo has killed someone of import and vanished, leaving Lou and his father-in-law (Ted Danson) on the case. The Gerhardts, initially oblivious to their kin’s actions, are being led by its matriarch (Jean Smart) and are dealing with a corporate takeover from the Kansas City mafia. Meanwhile, a middleclass couple (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons) harbors a dark connection to the Gerhardts and are doing their best to conceal it from the world around them.

The not-so-happy couple

Part of what made Fargo such a revelation last season was how Hawley and his writers steeped the show in allegory without coming off as pretentious. They created a world where all action had a preordained consequence, where biblical justice is guaranteed. In season two, the allegorical has been abandoned for philosophical pondering; tellingly, the one character that does directly engage with allegory is killed off. Fargo is now a world that has rejected the teachings of its youth to hopelessly stare into the void and wonder what the hell it’s doing here. Now the big cosmic force of the show is simply observing how the people populating the world of Fargo react to the chaos, as opposed to imposing its will among the chaos.

Apart from the absence of moral order, Fargo season two has augmented its look to further tweak audience expectations. The show’s color palate has added a period-appropriate fuzzy orange that pops out among all the brown, blue, and white the show carries over from the last go around. The episodes also borrow cinematic conventions straight from the renegades of New Hollywood, notably the use of split-screens and intercutting frames from previous scenes as flashes of memory. And the music cues continue to be top notch, like Devo’s “Too Much Paranoias”, which is featured memorably in the fourth episode.

But these new duds are more than just flashy accouterments: They demonstrate the incredible technical level Hawley at which understands the story he is telling. Kirsten Dunst’s character is consistently framed in close-ups and mirrors because she is having a crisis of identity as she gets turned onto the teachings of feminism; one split-screen frames Jeffery Donovan’s eldest Gerhardt son washed in dark, sinister blues in one frame while the other montages through the machinations of the past catching up with his family; Jesse Plemons is seen through cracks and slits or is obscured by the architecture of his house because he his hiding a dark secret. Characters of one generation are always framed with or in opposition to characters of another, both trying to comprehend how the past they so idealize has given way to this miserable present.

And it is that want for a past that ultimately comes to define Fargo season two through its first four episodes. These are people who have witnessed great atrocities and yet somehow pine for a period where those atrocities weren’t allowed to occur. The horrors of Vietnam, the lies of Watergate, the shortage of gas have forced the world to dismantle the story it told itself in order to calm its psyche, but they didn’t even have the courtesy to put a new one in place. The empire is dying and no one is prepared to deal with the aftermath. We know that whatever is coming isn’t going to be good; nearly four decades later, Lou is still scarred by what waits on the horizon. All there is to do is to try to survive while whoever it is that is watching us makes its decision on how humanity’s forthcoming actions should be judged.


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