The second season of FX’s anthology series Fargo is such a self-evidently excellent show—it’s the best thing on TV right now, for my money—that it’s hard to describe just how good it is. Watching a new episode unfold is a bit like watching the San Antonio Spurs run yet another flawless offensive set. Everything is so smartly executed and aesthetically pleasing that it feels like “Oh man, that’s great!” is all there is to say about it.
That isn’t true of the Spurs, of course, and it isn’t really true of Fargo, which in its second season under the care of showrunner Noah Hawley has become the rare platonic ideal of a famous movie’s TV adaptation. This has a lot to do with the writing, directing, and acting, of course, but the key to its greatness is how immediately familiar the characters and setting are. The original 1996 Coen Brothers screenplay brought to life a world so odd and alluring that it remains fertile ground for new characters and new stories.
Other dramas, such as The Sopranos and Friday Night Lights, have succeeded in creating a deep sense of place, but meticulous world-building is usually something the writers of fantasy television are best equipped to deal with—the political histories of the various kingdoms add depth to Game of Thrones, wizard-muggle relations raise the stakes and give the characters of Harry Potter a wider world to exist in, etc. This is exactly the kind of depth and richness that brings the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, a fantastical place that still feels very relatable, to life, then and now.
Fargo and its surrounding neighborhoods aren’t places that any of us could ever claim to know well—they’re entirely populated by cartoonishly broad characters ranging from aw-shucks yokels to diabolical mutes—but both the movie and now the show are so tonally perfect that it feels like a real place, with a history and culture all its own. Fargo feels eternal, a place where the snow never melts and the desperate men never stop digging their own graves.
There’s an old episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in which Patton Oswalt talks about auditioning for a role in A Serious Man, a 2009 Coen Brothers movie set in the 1960s Midwest. Here’s what Oswalt remembered from his audition:
Here’s how into it they are. For this movie, they had decorated their offices and made it look like that ’60s suburban ... like the couch in the waiting room had the plastic covering on it, all the fixtures. Like, they create a whole environment.
This is the sort of immersive, obsessive process that FX’s Fargo clearly mines from. Think about how hard it is for a prestige television show to strike the proper tone and setting. The bayou-as-Paganist-hellscape trick worked for the first season of True Detective, but season two’s endless parade of morose people in morose bars made the show feel like it was parodying itself. Daredevil’s rain-soaked, noir-grumble aesthetic just got hokier with each episode.
Fargo doesn’t have to worry about any of this, though, because all it takes is one shot of a desolate, snowy road or one Minnesota-twanged “Oh yah!” to send the audience right back to that weird, wonderful place the Coen Brothers created in 1996. A villain who speaks with an unidentifiable sing-song accent or a cigar-chomping German roughneck are perfectly viable characters because these are just the kind of people that exist in this sort of town. Their presence here is no stranger, or less beneficial, than the presence of light sabers or TIE fighters would be in a story set in the Star Wars universe.
The reason for bringing all this up now is that Monday night’s episode marked what may be the show’s most ambitious step forward from the source material. Whereas the first season started out as a riff on the movie’s original plot before eventually cutting its own path, this season’s story has been stretching its legs from the start, and it hit a sprint on Monday.
The episode started with a blood-soaked woodland shootout that ignited the long-awaited gang war between the Gerhardts (your typical hometown Germanic family mob) and the Kansas City goons aiming to claim their turf. After four slow-burning episodes full of mounting tension, the screen suddenly exploded with a display of violence that would have been right at home in any spaghetti Western. This dose of ferocity was as unexpected as it was delightful, and it was there again during Ed the mild-mannered butcher’s kitchen shootout/cleaver fight with a Gerhardt hitman.
And then there was the arrival of Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell!), who came parachuting into the story to provide some meta-commentary and lay a fresh layer of absurdity onto everything. His bathroom pep-talk with embattled local cop Lou Solverson was one of the weirdest, funniest things I’ve seen on TV this year, and it only worked because it happened in Fargo.
Finally, there’s that whole subplot with the time-warping UFO. The show’s nods toward the extraterrestrial have gotten more substantial with each episode, and although the sudden inclusion of aliens should always make you feel wary, I’m excited to see the show try to bring in more fantasy than we’ve previously seen in Fargo.
That’s what’s so fun about this show: its continued willingness to not just play in the sandbox that the Coen Brothers built for us way back in 1996, but to expand it and starting building some castles of its own. A crank would have an easy time sneering at the TV Fargo’s very existence—“Aren’t there any original ideas out there anymore!” he’d shout, crankily—but that means ignoring both the richness of the source material and the talent of the new writers now running with it. FX is proving that Fargo is a place that deserves to have stories told about it over and over again.
Top image via FX
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