When you love a show – like I do with Fargo – it’s impossible not to be excited about its return. Although the second series of True Detective didn’t match up to the high standards it set during its first series, everything seems set up for Fargo not to follow suit. The trailers and cast – Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson et al – look spot-on in a new story that is set in 1979, which winds its way through a case that scarred the elder Lou Solversen in series one. So this series is a prequel of sorts and I, for one, couldn’t wait to get going on it.
This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 1979. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
You know when those words are typed across the screen in a stunning opening montage that takes in hoodlums, a speech by the then-president Jimmy Carter, serial killer John Wayne Gacey, a mysterious, swarthy fellow and some black men riding in the back of a car, all in 70s-style split screen, Fargo is back. These were the words that greeted us at the start of each episode in the first series, and even though the music and style has changed (and the trousers and the hairstyles), much of it hasn’t. Because, as we know, in this strange snow-bound wasteland bad things happen and normal, law-abiding people become intoxicated with a wave of evil. Series two turned out be no different.
If the first series was littered with religious allegory within an over-arching morality tale, series two, although in a different time and with different characters, follows the same route. We have the comic henchman, the gruesome murders, the moral quandaries, clearly defined characters that embody good and evil, and people making catastrophically wrong decisions. Oh, and references to religious and mythical stories.
But this first episode starts in pure Coen brothers’ territory, when a black-and-white outtake from a fictional film starring a young Ronald Reagan – Massacre At Sioux Falls – crackles into view. There follows a curious, comic, surreal and cringy conversation between a crew member and a Native American extra, who are both waiting for ‘Dutch’ Reagan to appear onscreen (this episode is called Waiting For Dutch). An interlude that takes us by surprise, it mentions the same Sioux Falls that Lou Solversen references in series one.
Was this reference to a massacre in Sioux Falls, a fictional depiction of something that really happened in the 19th century, telling us that this sacred, bloody ground is almost cursed? That throughout the ages strange and bad things always happens in this area? That no matter in what era there will always be a massacre in Sioux Falls? It would make sense that whoever settles there after the original massacre that their lives would be influenced by the death and destruction that permeates the soil, the air and the atoms that swirl about this place. A massacre was about to happen again, in 1979.
In the town of Luverne, Minnesota the young Lou Solversen (Patrick Wilson) is called to a waffle diner, where the feckless and youngest member of the Gerhardt crime family (Rye Gerhardt) has committed a gruesome triple murder. He drove to this restaurant – buoyed by a few sniffs of cocaine – to try to persuade a judge to drop the case of a comically hapless typewriter salesman he wanted to go into business with. His eventual method of persuasion was to shoot her dead (after she had quoted him a passage from Job, another religious reference), along with the cook and the waitress. The judge managed to stab him with a fork (I think it was a fork) during the fight, and as he staggered away from the diner he saw what he thought was a UFO in the sky. While he pondered these lights, a car knocked him down and drove off, his semi-lifeless body wedged into the windscreen.
The driver of this car? This is where the ‘normal, law-abiding citizens’ come into play. The driver was beautician Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst, all Farrah Fawcett hair and late 70s sparkling), who lives with her terrifyingly normal butcher husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). As they sit down to dinner, he hears bangs in the garage. Ed goes to investigate, despite protests from Peggy, and finds a feral and wounded Rye Gerhardt cowering in a corner. The wounded man attacks Ed, which provokes him to reach for a sharp gardening tool and finish him off in self-defence. Ed wants to call the police, but Peggy, employing a little emotional blackmail (if you call the police you won’t be able to buy out your boss at the butchers; if you call the police we won’t be able to have the family you so dearly want; if you call the police they won’t believe you). It’s unclear why Peggy so badly wants to cover this up, but perhaps she’s craving danger, something to brighten her life and to make her humdrum life in Luverne more exciting.
That’s The Moment. It happened to Lester Nygaard in series one (if only he had said no to Lorne Malvo), and it happened to Ed and Peggy in this very first episode of the second series.
So thematically it’s still very much Fargo, but while the first series was almost perfect in characterisation I found the opener of series two a little bit too much. There were a lot of characters here – the Solversens (including Lou’s wife Betsy, cancer stricken, and her world-weary father Hank, played by Ted Danson), the Gerhardt family (who are losing grip on their crime empire), a nameless Italian Mafia family from Kansas City who are about to roll into Luverne to obliterate the Gerhardts, some conspiracy theory-loving locals at the bar and, of course, the Blomquists – and throw in the music, cultural references from the times and the split screens and everything else, and I felt slightly overwhelmed. Series one felt leaner, its set-up cleaner and more precise.
That’s not to say that this first episode didn’t have its moments. When Lou Solversen and his father-in-law Hank Larsson investigated the murder scene, there was a sense of quiet respect mixed in with the mundane as they went about their business. They talked about Betsy, her cooking and whether Hank was going to come over to dinner. One of the victims, Hank said, was a high-school football star.
Other scenes that worked well were between Lou and Betsy. We know from series one that Betsy isn’t around, so to see the Solversen family unit (including Molly as a toddler) is touching, and slightly and sadly foreboding. Lou is often but gently reprimanded by Betsy for asking her how she is too often, and although they’re trying to live life as normal there’s an atmosphere of resignation between the two; an unspoken truth of their situation that neither of them are willing to discuss.
In many ways, this second series starts in such a confident fashion it’s hard not to be dazzled, but as the episode wore on I felt a little… not disappointed, but in two minds. Obviously I’ll keep watching because there was a lot of good stuff here and of course I want to see how this latest fable unfolds, but it didn’t grab me quite as much as the first episode of the first series (Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton were so fantastic, and fantastically cast), which has to go down as a classic of our times.
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