It didn’t take very long for this second series of Fargo to settle down. When it did, it was evident that this was going to be something special. We’ve had it all – humour, tension, farce, suspense, extreme violence and a cast of characters that you felt truly emotionally connected to. Episode eight might have been the best hour of television this year. That’s not to say there haven’t been times along the road where you were shouting at your TV screen (PEGGY WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST CALL THE COPS WHEN YOU RAN RYE GERHARDT DOWN? WE COULD HAVE AVOIDED ALL THIS BLOODSHED), but I like dramas like that because I trust someone like Noah Hawley to deliver the answers in time. And those answers were delivered in this finale.
Unlike a lot of crime dramas, Fargo is not a whodunit. There are no guessing games as to who perpetrated a murder like a Broadchurch or a Bridge. There are no suspects to process and whittle down. No red herrings. Instead this fairly linear story (give or take the odd flashback or appearance by Ronald Reagan) there are questions as to why: Why do these people make the decisions they make? Much like the first, this second series of Fargo has asked questions why people make the decisions they make and dealt them severe consequences for making them.
We left the story at the end of the ninth episode in the immediate aftermath of the Sioux Falls massacre, where most of the local force had been killed, the entire Gerhardt family had been killed and sage old copper Hank Larsson was laying in a pool of blood thanks to a gunshot wound to the stomach. Peggy and Ed had managed to scurry away, with first Hanzee and then Lou Solverson in hot pursuit.
It didn’t take long to resolve their fates.
While the first series was a quiet masterpiece, this second series had more ambition. A greater cast of characters, denser sub-plots, richer textures and jazzier visual devices. When you reach a finale and there’s a huge cast of characters in a story such as this there are only so many that can live. It’s just a matter of who you kill off and why.
Ed Blumquist was shot by a pursuing Hanzee, and as he and his wife staggered into a local supermarket and locked themselves in a meat freezer, Ed’s life slipped away. They had time for one last chat, where Peggy apologised for her behaviour. Ed, on the other hand, said that even if they survive this, they would not survive. They were just too different, he said. Peggy, in a fit of delirium saw smoke starting to billow from an air vent. Hanzee was smoking them out, she insisted. She became more and more agitated, convinced that the scene was a carbon copy of the dream she had had in a previous episode. She sank to her knees and entered that same dreamworld, that same sense of a need to escape that fuelled her ambition in the first place. When Lou Solverson opened the door – not Hanzee – she could not and would not believe the smoke and the spectre of the Native American assassin was a figment of her imagination. She lost it, her dream world and real world collapsing and crumbling before her. It was an astonishing scene and astonishingly well-acted by Kirsten Dunst, who had been getting better and better as the series went on.
It wasn’t just Peggy Blumquist, though; this final episode gave each of its major characters a chance to breathe, and to ponder what had happened to them as they came out of the eye of the storm. In his dying moments, Ed had told Peggy he wished that he could just have stayed the way things were and that when something isn’t broke it doesn’t need to be fixed. Peggy, on the other hand told Lou on the journey back to Luverne that all she ever wanted was to make something of herself, to escape the stifling, pre-defined roles a housewife is expected to fulfil. When Rye Gerhardt fell literally fell into her lap she saw it as a chance to escape. She wanted to be placed in a prison in California, where she could see the pelicans in the bay.
In a sense Ed (and Betsy Solverson, who was in bad shape following a bad reaction to her cancer pills) represented the old ways, while Peggy represented the idealism and liberation of the changing times. It all reminded me of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – that fantastic old western where James Stewart and John Wayne embodied the old and the new, both duelling and clashing while ultimately having respect for one another. Within this series these characters were shifting, usurping, trying to kill each other off as the old ways were being swept aside for ruthless futures. The Kansas City mob wanted to do away with the old-fashioned family business of the Gerhardts, but the Gerhardts held on for as long as they could. Ultimately they were destroyed. Ed, who wanted a traditional domestic set-up, also died. Betsy, who values goodness and domesticity, will die.
Speaking of the Kansas City mob, one character I haven’t mentioned is Mike Milligan who, through sheer luck, found his enemies vanquished and a route to the top of the firm opening up before him. For all his charisma, his quotes from the classics and his keen intelligence, all Mike wanted was power. He was just like everyone else. When he got it he wished he hadn’t. Instead of a decadent lifestyle, being showered with all sorts of riches, he was shown to an office and instructed to work on profit margins and business proposals. He was also told to lose the western outfit, get a haircut and wear something grey. Perhaps take up golf, too. Suddenly this wise-cracking, dope-smoking enigma was being forced to go legit. Once again, the juggernaut of newness was sweeping aside the old with efficient power and grace and Mike Milligan couldn’t do a thing to resist it.
And yet for all its shifting ground Fargo finished with a traditional family scene, with Peggy, Lou and Hank sitting and talking at home like they had always done (Hank told them the meaning of the symbols in his office – he was trying to develop a new language), which suggested that the message was that, for some, the old ways could co-exist with the fast-moving modern ways and that there was room for both. Just about.
So that was Fargo, then. While the first series was a pure, pared-down fable – almost a supernaturally-tinged fairytale – this, with its huge array of characters (all fantastic, by the way), its rich textures, its ambition and its scale, felt like a novel. There were still the Coen-esque ingredients of high farce mixed with explosive violence, as well as metaphor and counter-metaphor galore, but there was more emotional depth to this series thanks to storylines like Peggy’s and, certainly, Betsy and Lou’s. And from Jean Smart to Kirsten Dunst, from Patrick Wilson to Ted Danson and from Bokeem Woodbine to Karl Offerman, the cast and the standard of acting was consistently high.
As Lou said: “Well, you start at the start and work your way to the end.” We got there, and it was quite a journey. In fact, this second series was very hard to beat.
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