The second season of Fargo acts as a prequel of sorts to the events of the first, and follows a largely new set of characters. The anthology format means we get another host of fairly big name movie and TV actors, just like True Detective was able to entice Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as they only had to sign up for one season. We don’t get anyone quite of that caliber here, but nevertheless, a cast with Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, and a number of other recognizable actors, is pretty impressive.
The season starts quite well, although the mass murder which gets the ball rolling feels a little contrived. The main plot sees Fargo’s Gerhardt crime dynasty start to crack under pressure from the Kansas City mafia. The Gerhardts have controlled organized crime in their part of Minnesota for two generations, but find themselves presented with an ultimatum by the larger operation. They’re told they have to sell up or be put out of business. One of the few thought-provoking parts of the series is this reflection on the impossibility for small-scale family enterprises to contend with impersonal, nationally integrated corporate structures. Most of the drama revolves around the internal Gerhardt family disputes as they face up to the mob. As one of the Kansas enforcers says to the Gerhardt matriarch, if one of his guys disobeys him, he’ll kill him; a choice not readily available when your employees are your own children.
This series has a pretty high body count. Much of this is down to Hanzee, a First Nations enforcer loyal to the Gerhardt family, and particularly to Dodd, the oldest surviving brother at the start of the series. This is a pretty trope-heavy depiction, and Hanzee is very much the strong and silent type, killing in a rather cold-blooded manner though generally with a clear reason and with no apparent enjoyment. There are also a couple of typically ‘kooky’ Minnesotans who somehow get caught up in the middle of the gang warfare: Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Dunst), a butcher and hairdresser who simultaneously show terrible judgement and a strong will to survive during the course of the season. Peggy, in particular, comes across as insane by the end of the season, but Ed has his moments too. Disappointingly, the other main characters are yet another family of cops, revealing a distinct lack of imagination or ambition from the writers. At least there’s no Colin Hanks this time.
One of the strengths of this season is that, at times, it moves away from the absurdist Coen brothers style of the original movie and the first season (think Frances McDormand saying ‘oh yah?’ into a telephone for minutes on end). By contrast, at times the second season feels comparatively serious, aided by some impressive performances. Ted Danson in particular is really good here. Unfortunately, the season is still prone to hokey surrealism, and in the end is badly let down by its script. Almost every conversation includes characters going into long-winded metaphors or reciting stories about ‘the old times’ in order to make a tortured point, or to try and intimidate someone. When used properly–and sparingly–this technique can be very powerful, and in recent years has been used very well by Cormac McCarthy. However, the key here is the word ‘sparingly’, and you have to know how to mix things up. Your characters should be able to convey menace or charisma by a means other than telling stories, and the upshot of it here is that almost everyone, appearances aside, ends up seeming quite similar. A few individuals don’t rely on this method of dialogue, but then they’re mainly marked out as imbeciles and figures of fun. Our comic relief is supposed to come in the form of a drunken lawyer, fond of conspiracy theories, but I found him largely intolerable.
The unfortunate thing about this season is that it comes off the rails just at the moment when it should be starting to come to a climax, about two thirds of the way through. Right about the time the Gerhardt-Kansas City war takes off, there are a number of baffling plot inconsistencies which are necessary to create later set-pieces, but which are highly incongruous in themselves and rather spoil the overall sense of immersion. The show is also guilty of appalling overuse of a narrator, which is jarring, unnecessary and lame. Any detail or subtlety which you might want to leave to the viewer to figure out is instead rendered explicit courtesy of the grating voice of Martin Freeman. Attention TV used to be cool; is that not a thing any more? I can’t think of a single instance when a narrator has added to my enjoyment of a movie or TV series, and it certainly doesn’t help here.
Every single episode of Fargo starts with a claim that the events are all true. This is a lie, of course, which harks back to the original 1996 film. It made the same claim, a claim that was believed by many who watched it. This was before the internet, remember. Now, you could argue this is just a ‘cool’ throwback to the original film; and if it was just done at the beginning of the season, I could get behind that. However, they do it at the start of every single episode, and it sits wrong with me. It’s gratuitous, and it cheapens drama which is truly based on real events. But that’s not all. As mentioned above, so much of the dialogue here consists, tediously, of stories within a story, layer upon layer of fiction that would have you believe it is fact. The ending is framed by evocative scenes of racist abuse and violence, against the backdrop of a real historic massacre of Native Americans at Sioux Falls. And then, we have flying saucers. Just, you know, because. I guess it will give film students something to write their dissertations on. Ultimately, Fargo’s second season is postmodernism at its finest or, to put it another way, at its worst.