Fargo: Life’s Not so Pointless After all
The second season of FX’s anthology series brought the most humanity and warmth to its bizarre world.
Absurdity is everywhere in Fargo—in the original Coen brothers film as well as the the FX television adaptation. The second season, though, really doubled down on that theme. The episode titles all came from works that explore the idea: “Rhinoceros,” “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “Did You Do this? No, You Did It!” A UFO sighting led to a historic massacre. A hapless butcher unknowingly gained a reputation as a feared assassin. So it was fitting when a teenage girl told the cancer-stricken wife of a state trooper about Albert Camus’s belief that knowing we’re all going to die makes life absurd.
But it was Betsy Solverson’s response in Monday’s finale that crystallized what made Fargo’s second season so spectacular. “Well I don’t know who that is,” she said of the French philosopher. “But I’m guessing he doesn’t have a 6-year-old girl.” Nearly 20 years after the Coens’ film, the writer and creator Noah Hawley has both elevated his source material and made it his own. Yes, humor in the face of pointless tragedy defines the spirit of Fargo. It’s funny watching ordinary people deal with extraordinary and brutal circumstances, especially when those people have Minnesota accents. And the show’s second season had plenty of that, but chose to end by letting much of the irony, goofiness, and bloodshed melt away. What was left? People trying in earnest—out of fear, anger, love—to impose order on chaos, to apply meaning to senselessness. In other words, it was a surprising, understated, and beautiful ending to a near-perfect season.
All this was despite the fact that Fargo’s second season boasted an even higher body count than its predecessors. It began with a slaughter in a diner, ended with a climactic event known as “The Sioux Falls Massacre,” and still managed to squeeze in dozens of murders in between. The violence, though, never fully veered into cartoonish or nihilistic territory, even if it often managed to be humorous. Viewers were always reminded of the human fallout, the ripple effect of a single gunshot, tires skidding on ice, or a knife to the gut. Even the most hardened perpetrators—Mike Milligan ( Bokeem Woodbine), Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon), Dodd and Bear Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan and Angus Sampson)—were allowed their moments of humanity.
Credit for broadening Fargo’s moral center this season goes largely to Patrick Wilson, whose fantastic portrayal of State Trooper Lou Solverson was something my colleague Chris Orr called “a mild revelation.” Lou and his father-in-law Sheriff Hank Larssen (Ted Danson) played the season’s much-needed “good guys,” old-school gentlemen whose fearlessness is tempered by sheer decency. Lou is the kind of guy who calls “family” the “rock” all men must push uphill—but who adds, “We call it our burden, but it’s really our privilege.”
The supporting cast also featured some of the year’s most memorable characters, especially the smooth-talking, bolo-tie-wearing, afro-ed Milligan and the steely-eyed Native American former enforcer for the Gerhardts, Hanzee. Ed and Peggy Blumquist (played by the wonderful Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst) also shone as the season’s well-meaning but infuriating fools in way over their heads.
On the more technical side of things, Fargo’s second season delivered some of the year’s most adventurous, stylish cinematography. The show owned its more confident flourishes: the typewriter text that slowly punched out “This Is a True Story” every episode; the literal storybook that frames “The Castle”; the horror-movie shot of a wounded Rye Gerhardt hiding in the Blumquist’s garage; Hanzee charging out of the flames to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” At times the show’s cinematic prowess threatened to distract from the story, but it almost always knew when to pull back and focus on the characters.
For all its heavy action and farcical situations, Fargo has always been a show unafraid to lean on dialogue. Characters love to trade long jokes, recite aphorisms, and tell each other eloquent stories whose purpose isn’t clear until the very end. It’s the kind of series where even if you have no idea what’s going on, you can still enjoy the music of Hawley’s writing—sometimes a little too polished to feel truly realistic, at other times heartbreakingly relatable.
Its this relatability—this unexpected identification with characters in such hopeless circumstances—that felt most fully realized in the second season. At one point in the finale, a cop started crying, overwhelmed at the thought of writing a police report about a gunfight that left dozens of his colleagues dead. Lou gave the simple answer: “Just start at the start, and work your way to the end.” Monday’s episode drove home the idea that carnage is traumatic, but it’s secondary to how people move on once the bodies are buried and the reports are written up.
And yet the season nourished this warm, humane side from the very start, which made the (mostly) happy ending feel that much more deserved. In the final shot of Lou and Betsy wishing each other goodnight before going to sleep, I kept waiting for a flicker of a UFO outside their window, a winking reminder of all the mysteries left unsolved, that perhaps not all is well. I waited for the punchline before realizing that sometimes the joke is that there’s no joke at all.