Review: ‘Fargo’ – ‘Before the Law’: Meet Mike Milligan

A review of tonight's “Fargo” coming up just as soon as I'm the pincher claw…

“Isn't that a minor miracle, the state of the world today, the level of conflict and understanding, that two men could stand on a lonely road in winter and talk calmly and rationally, while all around him, people are losing their mind?” -Mike Milligan

As if Noah Hawley hadn't impressed us enough already with writing a version of “Fargo” that didn't play like watered-down Coen brothers, or with coming up with such a fun season 2 premiere after the creative success of season 1, now he's really showing off by making his directorial debut with “Before the Law,” which keeps all of the 1979 stories smoothly chugging forward, and is tense and gorgeous to look at throughout. He obviously has the full “Fargo” crew to work with, and some of the stylistic devices like the split screen were introduced last week, but damn if this didn't all come together in the prettiest fashion possible.

The premiere had to devote a lot of time to a character who wouldn't survive it, but whose death would drive a lot of the season's plot. With Rye gone – and disposed of by Ed, “Sopranos”-style, in the back room of the butcher shop(*) – there's more time to expand our understanding of the characters we've already met, and also to introduce some new players.

(*) If nothing else, Killer Landry's gotten better at covering his murderous tracks.

Chief among the latter group is Mike Milligan, Kansas City enforcer, who was glimpsed briefly at the end of last week's episode. He rolls into town with his silent twin henchmen, the Kitchen brothers, acting like he owns the place, and it's a credit to Bokeem Woodbine's performance that he instantly seems justified in that cockiness. It's not just that he has these hulking bodyguards, but that Mike can see all the angles before anyone else and see the path to dominating any encounter. Take that crackling showdown between Hank and these fellows from Kansas City. It's all just talk, but from moment one it's easy to fear for Hank's safety – unlike Lou, there's no guarantee he's going to survive this story, let alone this particular traffic stop – while Mike's just having a fine old time gabbing with this lawman he knows can't do a thing to him. It's not quite Gus's first meeting with Lorne Malvo – Hank gets the info he was after, and has no cause to do more – but still worth the exhale when it was over.

And even though we know Lou is going to make it out of here okay so he can age into Keith Carradine, that still didn't stop my sense of dread when he showed up at the butcher shop at the worst possible time for Ed. People have asked if they can watch this season without seeing season 1, and while you certainly can, a lot of what's been great about the Solverson family scenes so far is seeing how this backstory informs what we saw of adult Molly and old man Lou last year. Molly already had an inquisitive mind like both of her parents – though her discovery of the balloon is mainly important because it leads Betsy in turn to discover Rye's gun – and there's both a closeness and admirable stubbornness to the clan. Hawley's love of parables is back, this time with Hank telling young Molly the story of the oyster, and how young Betsy made him look at the oyster not as a source of food, but another creature's home.

Looking at things from a new perspective can be enlightening, but it can also lead you to eat hot dogs, hopefully not from a butcher shop where Ed works. In terms of his marriage to Peggy, we don't so much get a new perspective as an expanded one, as we see that she's not only the one in charge, but far more comfortable covering up crimes both big (stealing all the toilet paper from work) and small (murder).

And with Rye absent and Otto sidelined, we get a much stronger sense of the Gerhardt family dynamic, with Floyd trying very hard to hold the fractious empire together, while Dodd (when he isn't busy having Hanzee cut men's ears off) is agitating both to take the crown and go to war with Kansas City.

Talk of war leads us to yet another parable, as Hank and Lou share stories from two very different wars – Lou's involving a man who, like Rye, didn't at all see his death coming – and how they apply to life back home.

“Sometimes wonder if you boys didn't bring that war home with ya,” Hank suggests. And while Vietnam isn't directly tied to anything going on with the Gerhardts or the syndicate, there's definitely a sense of confusion among the players, as opposed to the relative moral clarity of World War II.

Whichever one it's modeled on, a war is certainly coming, and these early episodes have done a masterful job of setting it up and making us very concerned about the safety of many of the participants and onlookers. Without commercials, this episode ran just under an hour. FX drama episode times have long been elastic, but some shows wind up abusing that freedom to the point where an “hour” of TV can feel like a chore to get through. But when the work is as nimble and sharp and fun as this, I could have watched a whole lot more in one sitting.

Some other thoughts:

* Here's Jesse Plemons offering some thoughts on how he keeps playing deceptive killers on TV.

* Songs this week include “Reunion” by Bobbie Gentry, “One Hour Ahead of the Posse” by Burl Ives, “Going to Kansas City” by Fats Domino, “Song of the Soul” by Cris Williamson, and Jeff Wayne's half-spoken word song “The Eve of the War.”

* Other characters of note introduced (or, at least, pushed more to the forefront) this week: Charlie, son of Bear Gerhardt, who has cerebral palsy, and Constance, Peggy's co-worker at the beauty salon, who wants to enroll her in the Lifespring seminar, and keep her from being “a prisoner of 'we.'”

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at