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.)