The Strange, Violent And Wonderful Second Season Of ‘Fargo’

There was something about the second season of “Fargo” that felt like it was a bigger world than the first season. When I spoke to the series showrunner Noah Hawley just before the first season aired in 2014, he likened the cities in the world of “Fargo” as islands in an ocean, isolated from one another with the barren cold, trees, roads and flatland of the Midwest in between them. That isolation and  claustrophobic feeling made the first season feel more compact. It fit that story.

But with the second season, while remaining true that these towns — Luverne, Sioux Falls and Fargo — are indeed isolated, it did not feel as compact as season one. The larger cast of characters certainly added to this feeling that the world of “Fargo” was much bigger. The lack of snow also took away from that claustrophobic vibe from the previous season. If anything, season two felt like the sprawling giant that the Midwest can often feel like, especially in southwest Minnesota with South Dakota and Iowa right in that neck of the woods. And it worked for that story.

So, in general, the word bigger is how I described this this season. Bigger terrain, bigger cast and bigger stories.

My worry after the first episode was maybe — with so many characters to follow — going to water down the tale. The magic of the first season was that it dealt mainly with Lester Nygaard, Lorne Malvo, Molly Solverson and Gus Grimley. In the second season, the Gerhardt family alone (Dodd, Bear, Simone, Charlie and Floyd) made for five main characters to follow (well, four as Charlie wasn’t a huge character), as well as Ed and Peggy Blumquist, Lou and Betsey Solverson, Ohanzee Dent and Mike Milligan. But my worries quickly vanished by seeing how well the writers and directors paced everything out, and nobody’s story felt shortchanged in the end.

Themes

The overall theme from this season was pretty much how I described things in episode five that there was a dissonance and lack of communication among these characters. Hank pretty much says the same thing at the end of the season when asked about those weird symbols in his office. All of these wars, violence, madness seem to have sprung from people not actually listening to one another. Sure, they heard the words, but the meaning often was interpreted differently. Hank’s way of coping with this was trying to invent a universal language that would prevent the madness, everyone would know exactly what the other meant. It was also how Hank was dealing with the war he experienced overseas and the war that he experienced at home.

This season was also about the destruction of the little guy in favor of a huge conglomerate. The Gerhardts had controlled Fargo for decades (Otto was the one who was able to keep that unit together, until he fell ill), but ultimately were no match for the bigger guns itching for their little empire. That is not entirely fair — the Gerhardts ultimately destroyed themselves and Kansas City (via Mike Milligan) claimed the spoils of their internal war. But Kansas City was eyeing the family, and whether or not Otto suffering from that stroke would have made little difference. They wanted it, and they took it (only for Ohanzee, now Mr. Tripoli, to take it back at some point in the future, which was an interesting move on the writers part).

FARGO -- “The Gift of the Magi” -- Episode 205 (Airs November 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Zahn McClarnon as Ohanzee Dent. CR: Chris Large/FX
FARGO — “The Gift of the Magi” — Episode 205 (Airs November 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Zahn McClarnon as Ohanzee Dent. CR: Chris Large/FX

And in this corporate Brave New World for organized crime, Milligan is not to be the king of Fargo like he envisioned. His destiny is to be more or less a bean counter, trying to find ways this organization can save money (like the guy in the mailroom who saved them millions on postage). His ending was pretty depressing (with an electric typewriter, no less). Here was a guy who was — more often than not — the smartest guy in the room. This was the kind of work he was made for — “Savagery, pure and simple. Slaughter, hatred. Devils with dead eyes and shark smiles,” as Lou tells Molly in season one. That is Milligan. Not a 9-5 desk guy.

Another theme was false hope. As the country is suffering in the late 70s — post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Iran hostage crisis — the nation was looking for the hero in the white hat. The cowboy who will save the day and ride off into the sunset. And for “Fargo,” that is in the form of Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell). Both the man (Lou with him in the bathroom) and the image of the man (Peggy’s hallucination in the meat locker that life is just like the Reagan movie) was used to great effect. But that glimmer of hope is what the characters want (even Karl Weathers tears up at Reagan’s charisma). But it is up to them to solve their problems, not a white knight.

Perhaps the most perplexing theme/element this season was the use of the UFO. It is the flying saucer that causes all the trouble to begin with by distracting Rye and having Peggy slam right into him. It is also the element that saves Lou during the massacre in Sioux Falls, distracting Bear just enough for Lou to get the upper hand.

ufo

And the constant references to it throughout the season added a nice mystery, one that is tied to Minnesota folklore of the Marshall County sheriff’s deputy who claims he and his car was struck by a UFO in 1979. UFO’s were in the air then, and it sure helped that there was a Minnesota tie to this (A UFO also appears in the Coen film “The Man Who Wasn’t There).

The UFO will always be a constant debate among viewers, and a very divisive one at that. I, for one, enjoyed it for the weirdness it brought to the show, but I understand why it rubbed others the wrong way.

Also, there are tons of various philosophical themes in the show (as with season one) that really add to the themes of the show.

Style

The style was also bold in terms of visuals and audio. While keeping with the Midwest look (the flat land really was reminiscent of southwest Minnesota, which was one of the things that bothered me in season one, because northern Minnesota has a lot of trees and hills), the style was straight out of the 1970s. The use of split screens not only reminded of of the films of the era, they also utilized how much each character is not on the same page with others (most notable being Ed and Peggy).

I also think the fact that for when they filmed this season and it had not snowed yet, the brown colors seemed to add to the 1970s vibe the show was going for.

The soundtrack also added to bringing us the viewer back to these times. The use of FM rock staples, as well as interesting choices that have appeared elsewhere in the Coen universe of films,  gave the show a little more energy.

The music and the way it was shot at times reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino film, which was not a bad thing. They had to do something different from the first season, and I think this was a great way to make the story feel like it wasn’t repeating things that came before.

I also like tying in stories and characters from one season to the next (and the movie). It makes for a cool little universe of these oddball characters.

Characters

I really liked the characters this season (even though it was difficult at times to keep track of all of them, thank you readers for correcting me at times on this). Much like in the first season, these were well-rounded and fleshed out characters that were believable.

The standout performance goes to either Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Peggy or Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan. I thought these two really knocked it out of the park. I also enjoyed Zahn McClarnon ‘s Ohanzee Dent, who was perhaps more cold blooded than Billy Bob Thornton’s Malvo is in season one.

Again, this season was more of an ensemble cast as compared to season one (which made for my write-ups to go considerably much longer than before).

FARGO -- ÒThe Gift of the MagiÓ -- Episode 205 (Airs November 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Rachel Keller as Simone, Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan. CR: Chris Large/FX
FARGO — ÒThe Gift of the MagiÓ — Episode 205 (Airs November 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Rachel Keller as Simone, Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan.
CR: Chris Large/FX

What I think they nailed this was the diversity of the cast. I have come across people much like Karl Weathers, Peggy and Ed, Hank, Lou, Constance Heck and even members of the Gerhardt family. Obviously the people I knew/know were not as over the top, and I’m pretty sure they never killed people, but the personality traits seem universal to just about anywhere-Minnesota. Polite, passive aggressive, helpful, odd, ect. But they also had their individual quirks, which made these characters feel more rounded than most others in TV dramas, even the smaller, side characters.

And again, Dunst’s character Peggy was really well written and acted. Even after all the madness, losing her husband and bound for prison — or a mental institute — she asks Lou in the squad car if he thinks her trial will go federal, because she wants a cell in California. She is still adamant that California will answer all her problems, right to the end of the season. It would have been easy to make her just “crazy,” but I liked how they made her a sympathetic and — at times — frustrating character.

FARGO -- Pictured: Kirsten Dunst as Peggy. CR: Mathias Clamer/FX
FARGO — Pictured: Kirsten Dunst as Peggy.
CR: Mathias Clamer/FX

Lou is the hero of this tale, but the carnage and violence of a mob war is too big for one man to cope with. He can’t save everybody. Even though we knew, from what he tells Malvo in season one, that the massacre at Sioux Falls was inevitable, part of me had hope that Lou would come out of this madness fairly well. And he does physically, but from his breakdown in the squad car with Peggy, you see that the toll of the madness has finally gotten to him — both what he went through in Vietnam and now at home. It is no wonder he decides at some point in the future to leave the job and open a cafe in Bemidji for a more tranquil life.

Jeffrey Donovan’s Dodd was the only character that felt one dimensional to me for the most part. His guard comes down a little while he is Ed and Peggy’s prisoner, but that could have just been an act. Dodd was pretty much the most unlikable character in this show, but I see how he being a giant prick to everyone was important to the story.

Bear at least comes off as both monstrous and sympathetic  in the season’s run. His breakdown after killing Simone showed that killing family is not a willy nilly decision for him. But he is as evil as Dodd when it comes to business.

FARGO -- ÒThe Gift of the MagiÓ -- Episode 205 (Airs November 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Nick Offerman as Karl Weathers. CR: Chris Large/FX
FARGO — ÒThe Gift of the MagiÓ — Episode 205 (Airs November 9, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Nick Offerman as Karl Weathers. CR: Chris Large/FX

My favorite side character has to be Nick Offerman’s Karl Weathers. Paranoid, drunk, anti-government, Karl was really a character. He was also hilarious. His rambling speeches at the jail prior to the Gerhardt siege on it was great, as well as his moment of heroism when he tells Bear that what is best for Charlie is facing the consequences of his actions, so he is not on the run for the rest of his life. Even as a small character, Karl felt really fleshed out. Also, I really wanted to know what he would have thought about Lou’s seeing that UFO.

Midwest Crime Story

“Fargo” has given the Midwest its own fabled crime story — much like how “The Sopranos” did for New Jersey and “Breaking Bad” did for New Mexico. The film kind of did this, but I think the show took that to a new level. It took the personalities of the Midwest and gave us our own take on the American Crime Story.

Which makes for interesting TV. Personally, I’ve had a belly full of New York Mafia stories. Or West Coast/East Coats crime syndicates or gangs. “Fargo” took our neck of the woods and gave us our own weird, twisted, violent crime story. Season one gave us the tale of a simple man (Lester) thrown into an insane, violent scenario that brought to light his true colors. Season two gave us  the tale of a man (Lou) dealing with a war he left behind, only to find out that madness is everywhere, even in a sleepy Minnesota town like Luverne.

The Future

FX has renewed the show for a third season. Hawley has said it will take place after the events of season one, and will not be based around any of the characters we have gotten to know so far. “That’s not to say that one of our stories might not intersect with characters we’ve seen before for a certain period of time,” Hawley has said.

He has also said the third season will deal with modern times.

“Our first year was set in 2006, but we didn’t really deal with what it’s like to be in that region in a more contemporary world … I like the idea that we’re now living in a very selfie-oriented culture — people photograph what they’re eating and put it up for other people to see — it feels like a social dynamic that is very antithetical to the Lutheran pragmatism of the region. So much of our crime stories are based around the difficulty people have expressing themselves and communicating.”

The next season will not air until spring of 2017. I hope it is as well written and produced as the two other seasons. Again, I thank everyone who watched and read this blog about the show. It was a blast.

The Episodes

Episode One: Waiting For Dutch

Episode Two: Before The Law

Three: The Myth Of Sysiphus

Episode Four: Fear And Trembling

Episode Five: The Gift Of The Magi

Episode Six: Rhinoceros

Episode Seven: Did You Do This? No, You Did It!

Episode Eight: Loplop

Episode Nine: The Castle

Episode 10: Palindrome