by ALEX CARNEVALE
creator Noah Hawley
It was difficult to think how Noah Hawley was going to top his first season of Fargo. After watching the second season, which is the best thing since Breaking Bad and maybe even better than that much celebrated serial, it is hard not to look at the first season with the eye to it being merely a prologue for the real thing.
The hero/villain of the first season was Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), and the efforts of a police officer, Molly Solverson (Alison Tollman) to find out his connection with a drifter named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). All these performances seemed quite fresh, and Molly was a suitable, if overally polite, heroine.
Twenty years earlier, Molly’s father Lou (Patrick Wilson) makes a much better one. This is a man of stunning intelligence and grit, made all the more sympathetic because we know what life had reduced him to by the first season: Keith Carradine. Molly is just an eight year old girl in 1979, and her mother has brain cancer. Her parents rarely touch, out of a possible sense of not wanting to make their coming parting any more difficult than than it has to be.
While the first season of Fargo was extremely depressing and jaded in all of its macabre aspects, this phenomenal second attempt at a midwestern crime story is a lot less dark, albeit a lot more bloody. The sheer number of corpses is absolutely staggering, and under normal circumstances it would numb us to the impact of guns on our lives.
Almost everyone holds or shoots a gun in Fargo. It is not terribly surprising that people who live in the country would want such weapons for protection. In cities, firearms are far more dangerous, and Fargo makes a point of expressing a familiar refrain: there is no hiding place.
The story is a relatively simple one that becomes more complex in the details. A Jewish crime syndicate headed by Alan Arkin sends out Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) to buy the territory of a German family operation, the Gerhardts, after Otto Gerhardt suffers a massive stroke at the dinner table, rendering him mute and expressionless. The German-Jew angle is never directly brought up — like all slightly impolite things in this part of the country, it is glossed over.
As the only African-American member of his group, the insanely charismatic Woodbine has an opposite number in a Sioux gangster who was adopted by the patriarch of the Gerhardt family to serve as a bodyguard for his son. Zahn McClarnon plays Hamzee Dent as a pent-up loner, quick to anger and vulnerable as all hell. It is something of a one-note character, but the fact that Zahn is able to make us sympathize with a mass murderer is a feat in itself.
Hamzee says only a few paragraphs over the course of Fargo, whatever will get him what he wants. At first that appears to be in line with what the Gerhardts desire, especially when he cuts off Brad Garrett’s head. What makes him change his mind is a more subtle thing.
In contrast, Woodbine has a million monologues to explain his own personal ethos. Unlike Hamzee, he does not enjoy killing or use his propensity for violence as a method of revenge or self-expression. He is constantly apologizing for the violence he commits, rationalizing it with the words of men who meted out punishment for the right reasons. Woodbine’s body looks like a national monument, and the cheap suits he drapes over it are insufficient to his real purpose. He knows and has always known regret.
We are even more emotionally supportive of the men who opposite these monsters. Molly Solverson was a good cop who investigated smartly: she was a proper detective. Finding out who did it in 1979 is not terribly difficult; it is more a matter of opposing the people that do not care about the answer. Lou’s father-in-law Hank (Ted Danson) thinks of himself as a modern day John Wayne. He is that, but he knows that he has lost a step.
Back from Vietnam, Lou is protective of the men and women who did not have to go to war. Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) accidentally hits the youngest Gerhardt son Rye (Kieran Culkin) with her car after he murders a judge and a short order cook at a Waffle Hut. She drove with Rye in her windshield all the way home, and her butcher husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) finished the crazed Rye off in his garage.
Ed disposes of the body at work, in a meat grinder he never bothers to clean out. He thinks he is free of the crime until the Gerhardts and the police get wind of what he has done. Peggy and Ed become unwilling pawns in the organized crime war after that, and they are a lot less afraid than they should be.
Dunst is a natural performer anyway. In her career in film, she imbued even the most stereotypically blonde roles with a permanent darkness you sense she carries around with her in her off-time as well. She is the perfect Minnesota beautician because she can pack so much pathos into so little time. Hawley’s scripting smartly gives her little to no guidance, so her entire emotional journey is played out in a series of facial expressions. As sad as Peggy is, at some points Dunst’s joy radiates through her, changing the entire mise-en-scène.
There is a lengthy vignette where Lou Solverson accompanies Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell) as he gives his “shining city on a hill” speech. The sermon — as it was in Winthrop’s time as well as Reagan’s — is a moving rejoinder, an encouraging message of optimism in a ruined world. Standing next to him at a urinal, Lou Solverson praises the Governor’s speech, but wonders how this will be accomplished. Hawley’s joke is that Reagan did not know the answer, but the truth is that Reagan had the only suitable answer: hope and prayer, faith in God.
That is great for some of us, but others have forsaken Him. Abandoning the highest power, they put their trust in the permanence of impermanence, and the comfort of smaller things. Fargo argues that the devil is not in the details. No amount of mythologizing and retelling can make a criminal a hero, or vice versa. Some morons made Al Capone a sympathetic figure, or a glamorous one. He was anything but.
Satire is not appropriate for such moral rigidity. The first season of Fargo had a laugh at the demented nature of mankind, but there is only so far one can take things in that direction. Eventually we come to a relatively standard conclusion — evil is much as Reagan said it was. The reason he said America was a great nation was aspirational, and we needed someone to make us feel better.
Fargo accomplishes that, too. There are brutally sad things in it: the deaths of mother and daughters, some deserved and some completely innocent. A suspicion of procreation, the chance of a placebo or a cure. There is a cold, chaotic world out there. People yearn to control the way the impossible intrudes on what we expect from our lives. We can never completely remove violence from our country and our world, Fargo explains, and we are foolish to think we can. It made us what we are.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Fields, No Body” – Matt Bauer (mp3)