After sticking it out through season one of FX's "Fargo," I was ready to call it quits. Exactly why is a tougher question to answer. Derived from the Coen Brothers' film of the same name, the anthology series starts with the story of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a constantly belittled life insurance salesman who, after an encounter with a mysterious killer, Lorne Malvo (an exceptionally good Billy Bob Thornton), decides to finally stand up for himself. Which, in "Fargo," equates to a ton of dead bodies.
Also in the first season, viewers are introduced to the Solverson family: Molly (Allison Tolman), the good-at-her-job cop who is closest to putting together the facts behind her hometown's recent string of murders, and Lou, her father, a retired good cop who now runs a local diner.
The Solversons, and various locations in the Midwest, are the main carryovers into season two's prequel, which flashes back 27 years from season one's 2006, to 1979. At this point in time, Molly is a little girl and Lou is a Minnesota State Trooper. Yet while there are numerous other parallels between the first season and the second, many of which would be spoilers to disclose, season two does them better. More importantly, season two does them with a greater sense of hope.
Which isn't to say season two hasn't already suffered a heavy body count of its own. The violence is still there, considerably so, but that wasn't the first season's problem (as a watcher anyway; for characters it was a bit of an issue). The problem was that the bad guys always seemed to far outnumber the good guys, a smothering dark tone that became exhausting week after week.
The good guys often became bad guys--Lester, who started off as a relatively normal and "harmless" character, quickly escalated into a completely detestable monster. Following his arc of only becoming worse and worse led to no satisfaction. Season two's (relatively) normal characters, Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst), are much more engaging to root for. More crazy than sinister, you want them to succeed as they fight to stay afloat amongst the mess they've inadvertently landed themselves in.
And, finally, any good characters the first season did have were the odd people out, isolated and battling every step of the way to be heard. The good guys of season two are still outnumbered but because Lou has higher rank on the job than Molly did, he has more freedom to act on his instincts, as well as more support from colleagues and friends. The threats he faces are just as huge as the ones Molly tackled (and knowing he survives doesn't take away from the tension of multiple gun stand-offs) but because he has more control over which way the investigation leads, there's a lot less red tape that needs to be gone through first, meaning more time to focus on the mob warfare that has taken over the area.
If that's not motivation enough to watch, here are five reasons to jump into "Fargo" season two, even if you've never seen season one:
5. The Star Wars Approach to Chronology Doesn't Work For Everything
While Star Wars was famously released out of order, with films IV-VI debuting in theaters years before I-III even existed, ready access to all six films has changed it so that many young fans are now being introduced to the movies in chronological order (I-VI). This is a flawed example because I personally support starting with number IV, before the three prequel films. My reason for this, however, is that films IV through VI are better than I through III. Thus, since "Fargo" season 2 is better than season one, why not start with the prequel instead?
Only because the first season had more than its fair share of fans, too, I'd be hesitant to recommend skipping it all together. What I would say, though, is after watching a few episodes, if you're thinking of calling it quits, try season two. It's unorthodox advice, that I don't think I've ever offered for a show before, but that's what the resurgence of the anthology series ("True Detective," "American Horror Story") allows. Since with anthology series the cast and plot often radically changes between seasons, there is much more wiggle room to skip around, picking and choosing between seasons with much more freedom than a traditional, sequential television program can allow (essentially, anthology series are the buffet of television formats). The only real direct reference season one makes to the Sioux Falls case season two is built around appears in the clip below. Otherwise, season two is a fresh story line that can stand on its own.
4. 70's Trumps 2006
From clothing, music, and (facial) hair...
... to decor and split screens...
... there is never any doubt what era "Fargo" season two is set in, and I love it. As a big fan of the 70's aesthetic, despite being born a few decades too late to experience it firsthand, I've adored the dedication the show's been putting into capturing the feel of the period. The split screens, and directing style, in particular break the mold, calling back to the film styles popular at the time (nostalgic homages that are tougher to achieve when the year you're going back to is 2006, as was the case with season one). My favorite use of the split screen so far occurred in last week's episode, Loplop, where married couple Peggy and Ed are in the same car yet the frame cuts in half. Usually split screens are used to show what's happening simultaneously in two different locations but Peggy and Ed are in the same vehicle. Thus, the split screen is more symbolic, reflecting the disconnect in their conversation, where neither person is actually listening to what the other one is saying.
3. Mike Milligan
If there was one character I knew I was going to miss from season one it was Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo. Always a guy who could be counted on to bring a gun to every event, the man was a horrible human being but a horrible human being with electric screen presence. Malvo was the primary reason I continued to tune in through all of season one, and, following that logic, his absence from season two led me to anticipate tuning out. After all, how do you replace Billy Bob Thornton? I needn't have worried. Season two is all about Mike Milligan and how incredible Bokeem Woodbine is in the role of the silver-tongued Kansas City Mafia enforcer. A gifted wordsmith, Milligan never leaves room for anyone to doubt his intentions. He is prepared to kill. Yet at the same time, listen to him recite Lewis Carroll's poem, "Jabberwocky," in this scene. Once you adjust to the idea of a Mafia enforcer reciting poetry, the delivery is amazing. I've heard many people recite this poem during Poetry Out Loud in high school. No one recited it quite like this. Similarly, Malvo was a wit in his own right but I don't think even he could've pulled off lines like, "The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!" with the same degree of panache as Milligan does.
2. There's Something Immensely Compelling About the Dynamics Between Multi-Generational Families
In the footsteps of recently ended FX series, "Justified," whose second season was a knockout for featuring the Margo Martindale-fronted crime family, the Bennets, "Fargo" season two features two three-generational families. On the criminal enterprises side, we have the Gerhardt's, whose family "business" becomes in jeopardy when the Kansas City Mafia wants to buy them out. Then when their patriarch suffers a stroke, contentions start to grow over who should take his place at the head of the family--Ma (Jean Smart) or oldest son, Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan). As I mentioned earlier, while these are the bad guys, they're conflicted bad guys who share the same blood. None of the Gerhardt's, not even the most volatile, Dodd, are complete monsters to the level of season one's Lester. Ultimately, beneath all the swagger, they love each other, which makes their occasional betrayals even more shocking to watch.
1. The Solverson Clan Expands
Season two's law-abiding multi-generational family, and the heart of the entire series, gets a few more members this season: Betsy (Christin Milioti), Molly's mother, who passed away by the events of season one and here is battling cancer; and Hank Larsson (Ted Danson)--Lou's father-in-law, Betsy's dad, and sheriff of Rock County, Minnesota.
The one bonus of starting with season one is that coming into season two you know who Molly grows up to be, and it's clear how much her personality reflects how she was raised. It's not just her cop father and grandfather who are cool, calm and collected--her mom is smart as a whip, and a lot of humor comes out of her putting together facts of the case, or finding evidence before her husband does.
If having two Solversons in season one was a blast, having four in season two is even better, and it's refreshing to see a family built around so much true affection. Both Hank and Lou served time in the military and have a way of communicating with each other using few words that makes them a great team. And when they come home from the job, they separate their home and work lives, an ability you truly come to respect after seeing the kind of days they've been through.
"You think you know someone, but what do you know, really?" -- Floyd Gerhardt
I thought I knew all I needed to know about "Fargo" after watching season one. I'm very happy I stuck around to be proven wrong with season two.
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