This weekend, I watched the second season of Fargo. I agree with the guys at Pajiba: it was basically perfect.
My thoughts on the season overall:
- The casting! Honestly, everyone was just perfect. It's always nice to see actors do things you never could have imagined. Who would have thought the dude from Burn Notice had it in him? Or Kirsten Dunst? Ted Danson and Nick Offerman's perfect wasn't surprising but it's nice to see Jesse Plemmons pick up another iconic role (Todd from BB, Landry from FNL, and now Ed). And Mike Milligan! Like Allison Tolman last season, Bokeem Woodbine is a revelation as Mike, stealing every scene he's in. And the women also have their turn. Jean Smart is mesmerizing as the new boss, Rachel Keller heartbreaking as Simone, and Cristin Milioti powerful as the emotional center of the show, Lou's wife Betsy.
- For a show set in the late seventies in Minnesota, the story is surprisingly feminist in tone. Floyd repeatedly pushes back at the assumption that a woman can't lead the family, gaining the respect of the hilarious Joe Bulo. Similarly, Simone breaks away from her cruel father, making her own choices. And then there's Peggy, taking the time for actualization and 'being the best her she can be' in the middle of a family crisis.
- Time and place. This show, like Mad Men, does an incredible job of setting up the time. From the color palette to the UFO obsession, the show is firmly rooted in one place, at one time. And it is a very Midwest setting, from the constant use of ‘hon’ to the polite unfriendliness in every character interaction. Specifically, we know we're in the northern Midwest as the coldness of the setting almost becomes another character itself, constantly drawing attention to the chill, from landscapes covered in snow to taking the time for characters to put on gloves. The bulky coats and plumes of breath in every scene. And there's the time period itself. This is the end of Vietnam, everyone is a veteran of one war or another, whether it’s the chaos of Vietnam or the clear victory of World War II.
- And with war comes the occasional, brutal, total violence, from the pilot with the diner shootout to the infamous Sioux Falls massacre, another great inside tidbit from the first season. So much of it is unnecessary. Why did Otto's nurse have to die? Also, with violence and death like this, I have to wonder, was it inevitable? At what point does it become inevitable? When Rye kills the judge? When Ed kills Rye? Where's the tipping point.
- Politics everywhere - Reagan and Carter are a constant presence, from excerpts of speeches to ever-present posters in the background. I honestly didn't expect to see Reagan, just thought he would be a voice over, but then there he was, in shining glory played by that guy from the zombie movies. His brief scene was perfect, comparing the Vietnam War horrors Lou experienced with his time on a friggin' movie set. There are mentions of John McCain; along with Vietnam tidbits that could just as easily be about Afghanistan, this immediately brings the themes to the present. And then there's everything Offerman does – his rants against the government are absolutely perfect. A drunken Offerman lawyer is better than most sober ones.
- Music. The music was incredible. Several times, it was used as an easy reference to the Coen brothers library. Sidenote - I'm sure there were a ton of Coen brother references that went over my head, but the musical cues were maybe the most obvious. This is not a bad thing - they deserve to be emulated and a show based on one of their movies has two seasons for a reason.
- Mob life. First, we are in a world where Kansas City is considered big potatoes. Second, I love the corporationization of mob life. Has this ever been so well done before? Henry Hill would never! It’s a nice seg-way into the Reagan eighties, which are hinted at throughout the show. And to see Mike Milligan, this scrappy force of nature, reduced to just another corporate drone, what a way to go! Death would have been a cleaner ending for this character. Now what? Golf! 401ks! Health insurance!
- Juxtaposition. They're everywhere. You have the father/daughter extremes - the love and support of Betsy and her dad; the hate and anger of Dodd and Simone. The differences in marriage - the unhappiness and struggle with Ed and Peggy, the simplicity and enjoyment of Betsy and Lou. Peggy’s fantasies versus Ed’s. He just wants to create this nice, quiet life, staying in his parents’ home and working at the same butcher shop. She will do anything to get out of town. Her dreams of California, of another life, never end, even when she’s on her way to jail. Hoping the case is federal so she has a shot of a Bay area prison. There’s also a great use of split screens throughout the series, creating not just a plot/character juxtaposition but often a visual one.
- Legacy. What are we building? What are we leaving behind. To quote Hamilton for a bit - what is a legacy but planting seeds in a garden we never get to see? Luckily the audience has some insight from season 1 - we know the outcome of the lovely family Lou and Betsy have created, the insignificance of the Gerhardt clan. And then there's the clan as it is in the show - reduced to a crippled boy and a bunch of girls relegated to the background; two brothers who hate each other. Dodd's anger at his lack of sons and his lack of power in the family drive much of his part of the plot. And then there's the sweet Ted Danson, with his beautiful symbols idea. Let's just all get along. Learn to communicate.
And just to end on a reminder that an electric typewriter started all of this.