FX

The first season of FX’s Fargo, which debuted in April 2014, was very good but decidedly uneven. Though the show came out of the gate strong, it sagged in the middle, getting bogged down in a subplot (featuring Oliver Platt) that bore only a peripheral relation to the principal narrative. The season ended on a relative high note, bringing that main storyline to a bitter close. But it was hard not to feel that this was an excellent four- or perhaps six-episode tale unwisely stretched out to 10.

From the early evidence (I’ve seen the first four episodes), the show’s second season, which debuts Monday, is even better—much better. The cast is excellent, the plotlines are richer and more neatly interwoven, and the alternating portions of whimsy and menace are served up with extraordinary panache. Moreover, unlike the first season, which seemed somewhat captive to the great Coen brothers movie that inspired it—another hen-pecked husband making mortal choices, another female trooper, etc.—this time out the series’ creator, Noah Hawley, has given himself wider narrative latitude and seems still more assured in his black-comic vision.

This season—featuring an entirely new plot and cast—is connected to the last through the character of Lou Solverson, who was the father of season one’s central police protagonist, Molly Solverson. The new season rewinds the clock back from 2006 to 1979, when Lou (now played by Patrick Wilson) was himself a young state trooper. The action launches itself quickly, with a grisly triple homicide at a Waffle Hut in Luverne, Minnesota. (The image of blood intermingling with milkshake is eminently Coens-worthy.)

The killings quickly ensnare a local hair stylist (Kirsten Dunst), her butcher’s-assistant husband (Jesse Plemons), Solverson, and the local sheriff (Ted Danson), who is also Solverson’s father-in-law. Further sucked into the orbit of the murders is the Gerhardt crime family from Fargo, consisting of a patriarch (Michael Hogan), matriarch (Jean Smart), and their three sons (Jeffrey Donovan, Angus Sampson, and Kieran Culkin). The killings come at a particularly bad time for the Gerhardts, who are on the brink of war with a larger crime outfit from Kansas City (principally represented by Brad Garrett and Bokeem Woodbine) that is encroaching on their territory.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the late 1970s: gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, the long, heavy shadows of Watergate and (especially) Vietnam. Though he hasn’t made an appearance yet, Bruce Campbell is slated to play Ronald Reagan on a campaign swing through Fargo later in the season. (The show is dotted with Reagan gags, including more than one fictional movie-within-the-movie, the first of which is the basis for the hilariously disorienting, bravura scene that opens the season.)

As he did last season, Hawley winks at the Coens’ Fargo—Danson echoes the “a little money” line and there’s a clever stand-in for the woodchipper—but he borrows liberally from their wider oeuvre as well, tossing delightful Easter Eggs hither and yon. There are nods to No Country for Old Men (a shot-out door lock), Blood Simple (a live burial), The Ladykillers (the Waffle Hut), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (UFOs—yes, UFOs). Nick Offerman plays a close relative of John Goodman’s iconic Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski. One episode ends with a lullaby plucked from Raising Arizona and another with one featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The eagle-eyed may even notice the name of the drug store on the main drag of Luverne, Mike Zoss Pharmacy. This one is a double-backflip of a reference: It’s the name of the drug store robbed by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, which was itself a nod to the real-life Minneapolis pharmacy, Mike Zoss Drugs, where the Coens shopped in their boyhood. Hawley has even returned the franchise to its original home state.

There are other echoes as well: The precipitating slaughter at a diner evokes the Nite Owl murders of L.A. Confidential, and the Gerhardt boys—three brothers preparing to succeed an aging patriarch—offer clear echoes of Sonny, Fredo, and (possibly) Michael Corleone. There is a clear (and gruesome) shout-out to Reservoir Dogs, and I’d be surprised if Hawley didn’t have Tintin in the back of his mind when he came up with the Kitchen brothers: twin, mute heavies who act as bodyguards for Woodbine’s character.

The show is unrelentingly stylish—possibly better-looking than anything I’ve seen on the small screen since season one of True Detective—and giddily experimental, toying with split screens, montage, black-and-white footage, and stark landscape compositions. The overall tone is, if anything, a touch more overtly wacky than last season, though Hawley seems more clearly in control of the material. (This time out, the inevitable Minnesota-nice “Yah”s and “You betcha”s seem like grace notes rather than—to quote the great Nathan Arizona—the “whole goddamn raison d’etre.”) The score is powerful, and the soundtrack selections a witty, absurdist delight, featuring everything from Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun” to Bobbie Gentry’s “Reunion” to Burl Ives’s “One Hour Ahead of the Posse” to the pseudo-Japanese pop anthem “Yama Yama” to the flat-out nuts opening number of “Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.” (Yes, more UFOs.)

The cast is universally top notch. Craggily paternal, Danson once again forces us to wonder what his career might have been had he not spent so much of it toiling in the trenches of sitcom. Garrett is terrific as the face of a corporatism that is extending even into the realms of organized crime. (At one point he explains his negotiations with the Gerhardts: “If the market says kill them, we kill them. If the market says offer more money, we offer more money.”) Woodbine’s quasi-hipster mobster takes a little longer to find his footing, but he gets better and better as the season goes on. Donovan is flat-out fantastic as the eldest (and roughest) of the Gerhardt boys, and Smart instantly dismisses all memory of Designing Women as his icily resolute mom.

The Broadway star Cristin Milioti (last seen on the small screen as the long-awaited mother in How I Met Your Mother) is quietly wonderful as Solverson’s wife, Betsy, who is undergoing chemo and proves to be the show’s sharpest detective to date. The tender domestic scenes between her and Wilson are among the best on the show. The other principal married couple, butcher (Plemons) and hairdresser (Dunst), offer a slightly more mixed bag. Plemons is doughily appealing (he gained considerable weight for the role) but Dunst’s character—whose mistakes and evasions drive much of the plot—has yet to fully cohere. It feels as though an underlying explanation is missing, one that I hope may be supplied in a future episode.

Which brings me to Patrick Wilson. The actor has done fine work in the past (Angels in America, Little Children, and Watchmen come to mind), but his performance in Fargo is a mild revelation. He imbues Solverson with the aura of understated decency that has characterized many of his prior roles, but there’s something firmer beneath it now. A Vietnam Swift Boat veteran, Solverson has an underlying toughness that is only gradually revealed as the season progresses, a toughness that is made all the more intriguing by his resolute insistence on not playing the tough guy.

In sum, Fargo is smart, thrilling, imaginative television, in addition to being (as I would probably have described it in 1979) wicked funny. If there’s a better show this season—or possibly this year—I’ll be happily surprised. My only reservation, (apart from the quibble regarding Dunst) it’s that I’ve only seen four episodes and, as season one demonstrated, a powerful start does not guarantee sustained momentum. (I’m a little nervous about Campbell as Reagan, and I dearly hope the UFOs stay where they belong, at the distant periphery of the story.) But last season there were already clear signs of narrative fraying by this point, and this time out Hawley has everything tied together as neatly as one could desire. Can he sustain this level of screwy genius for another half-dozen episodes? I don’t know. But I can’t wait to find out.

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