Review: ‘Fargo’ sticks the season 2 landing with ‘Palindrome’

A review of the “Fargo” season 2 finale coming up just as soon as I decree no more schnitzel or strudel…

“People are dead, Peggy.” -Lou

A palindrome, as you know, is a word or phrase that's the same backwards and forwards: “Madam, I'm Adam,” or “Mom,” or “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” Many of the players we met over the course of this season of “Fargo” don't seem particularly palindromic. They start as one thing, and end as something else entirely, and their journey looks radically different when viewed start to finish rather than finish to start.

But then there is Lou Solverson, who is palindromic in character if not in name. He is the same at this tale's end as he was at the beginning, and as he will be 27 years in the future (when his facial features will be significantly different), and likely as he was even before he went to Vietnam. Lou is a man affected by his experiences, but not changed by them. The story he tells Peggy, about the pilot literally throwing his loved ones out of a helicopter to ensure they made it out of Vietnam, is something that touched him in a profound way, even as you can tell he already understood the Sisyphus-ian burden (or privilege) of being a husband and father long before. (It's why he's right to interrupt Peggy's self-pitying monologue to remind her of the deaths she caused, but also too old-fashioned and paternalistic to understand where her frustration comes from.) He was, is, and will continue to be a good, brave, compassionate man, and in the moral universe of “Fargo” – where innocents aren't always spared (see Lester's wives, or the Waffle Hut staff), but where punishment tends to be harshest on those who most deserve it, and kindest to those who least need it – that is enough to pull him and all his loved ones out of the nightmare that is the Gerhardt/Kansas City War of '79, shaken and not perfectly healed (Betsy isn't getting the sugar pills, but we know the real drug trial will only last for so long), but at least together again for now.  Though the season offered us colorful crooks and killers in abundance, the story ends not on any of them, but on this upright, decent, but somehow never dull family of Minnesotans, enjoying coffee and company and, later, the chance for Mr. and Mrs. Solverson to say their good nights once again.

That coffee scene reveals the symbols in Hank's study to not be anything tied to the UFO – which will go unexplained, at least for now, and unmentioned in Lou's police report – but as part of Hank's attempt to channel his grief over the loss of his wife into inventing a new and better way for humans to communicate and connection with one another. As the subject of this story's final speech, this is not an accident, but something that cuts right to the heart of what's been going on here all season.

Throughout the tale, there have been groups of people who communicate well with each other, and groups who do not. The members of the Solverson clan, and their larger network of friends (which expands to include Noreen, Karl, and Sonny), all speak plainly to one another. They don't say every single thing that's on their minds, because that's not their way, but they say what's most important, or at least most useful in any given moment, and they are in rhythm from first to last. The biggest stress on the family comes during this period during the last couple of episodes when they literally weren't able to communicate, but that was only because Lou and Hank had trouble getting to a phone, rather than a failure to speak or listen once they could. (Patrick Wilson has been spectacular throughout, but the bow of Lou's head against the payphone after he hears what's been happening to Betsy while he was out of the loop is perhaps his most powerful moment in this role.)

The Blumquists, meanwhile, were trapped in two entirely separate marriages, having two overlapping but unrelated conversations. And the Gerhardts were all moving in different directions, with different agendas, and almost none of them speaking the truth to one another. The season's worst violence happened not because Peggy hit Rye with her car, but because Dodd lied to Floyd about why it happened, because he wanted something different than she did.

(The Kansas City syndicate is a corporation rather than a family, as we were reminded early and often, and thus they're immune to some of the season's judgments on communication or the lack thereof. But Mike Milligan, who is both a spectacular talker and a spectacular bullshitter, ends up with mixed results from this whole endeavor: surviving and being promoted, but into a job he doesn't want.)

And “Fargo” season 2 had no difficulty whatsoever in making its intentions, its themes, or its abundant strengths, clear throughout. This was a wonderful yarn, in many ways even more fun than season 1, but in certain moments – Lou in the phone booth, Simone pleading for her life, Karl facing down Bear's lynch mob, Peggy wailing in disbelief that Ed is dead (and that Hanzee never set a fire) – just as powerful as anything we saw a year ago. It could dazzle us with Lou's assured stoicism (telling Ben that, if anyone had a complaint about him taking Peggy back to Minnesota, after the week he's had, “They can keep it to themselves”) just as easily as it could Mike Milligan's final bit of showmanship with doomed, stupid Ricky from Buffalo.

That both Betsy and Hank are still around at the end of the story seems wholly fair. We were reminded in the context of Betsy's dream – a lovely evocation of Hi McDunnough's fantasy from the end of “Raising Arizona,” which allowed the show to bring Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine and (a blonde) Joey King back on stage for one last bit of mysticism, as well as a more concrete link between the two Solverson stories – that Molly will grow up with a single parent, but Lou has earned a reward from the fates for all he's endured, even if it's just a temporary reprieve so he's not away when Betsy actually passes. And if Betsy should live, then why not Hank, so that our final glimpse of the family is one of utter contentment with their lot, rather than grief for one member and preparatory grief for another?

It was hard to fathom both of the Blumquists making it out of this situation alive, and it makes more thematic sense for Ed the realist to go than fully actualized Peggy with her dreams of something so much bigger than life had planned for her. The creative team and Kirsten Dunst did an incredible job throughout the season showing Peggy to be both ridiculous and tragic, sometimes at the same time, and having her fantasy of the Ronald Reagan movie turn out to be another hallucination was the devastating capper to that. Suddenly, it's not funny that she's seeing things, but deeply sad that she can't accept that Ed is dead, or that Hanzee never tried to smoke them out of the meat locker.

And the season's two most memorable killers both survive, even if both will be required to radically alter their identities. Hanzee, the man truly responsible for ending the war and taking down a formidable local crime empire, has to get a new face and a new name (more on that below), but given what he confessed to Peggy in his biggest moment of vulnerability this season, that may not be such a bad thing for him. (And in the interim, I will accept a web series of Hanzee threatening teenage bullies with his hand resting on his hunting knife.) Mike Milligan, meanwhile, struts into the Gerhardt compound acting like the place's new king, when in fact Hamish Broker from Kansas City has other plans for him, involving an office with a desk, a typewriter, and a potentially very full golfing schedule. It's a very Vic Mackey ending for the season's most distinctly '70s character, but as Broker tells him while ordering Mike Milligan to ditch his Western wear and his distinctive hairstyle, “The '70s are over, for chrissake.”

The care and artistry that was put into every frame of this season seemed doubly apparent in “Palindrome,” starting off with the decision to have Lou recite the usual disclaimer about how this is based on a true story. Hearing Lou's voice ringing deep with sorrow as we see images of all the dead Gerhardts, in order, drives home that while this has been fun for us to watch, it's a horrible thing for a man like Lou to witness. And hearing his voice break as he gets to the “out of respect for the dead” line, which is recited over an image of Betsy that for a moment could be her lying in state, before she breathes and opens her eyes? So gorgeous that the theater where FX screened the finale for critics got suspiciously dusty even before we saw the “Fargo” title card.

The '70s may be over, and ditto our time exploring this crazy fictional corner of it, but there was no malaise here – just something electric and joyous and devastating all at once.

Decades later, when an older Lou Solverson mentions Sioux Falls to Lorne Malvo, he says, “I'd tell you the details, but it'd sound like I made 'em up.” In that moment, he could be talking about the UFO; or Bear running at him with three bullets in him (“I'd call it animal, except animals only kill for food,” he told Malvo); or so much carnage resulting from a deal to buy electric typewriters and a beautician who refused to accept her station in life, no matter how many people died in the process; or any of a dozen other mysteries and wonders that Noah Hawley and company presented to us this year. With all the hype the first season gave Sioux Falls, and with the very high creative bar that season set, it would have been easy for season 2 to fall short.

Instead, it soared.

Some other thoughts:

* If Hanzee's “Kill and be killed, head in a bag” speech sounded familiar, that's because a character last season said something very much like it. Click here for all the evidence suggesting that Lou, Molly, and Ben Schmidt aren't the only 1979 characters whom we originally met in 2006.

* Before he becomes an object lesson of Mike Milligan's brief reign as the king of Fargo, Ricky from Buffalo says he's lost track of all the Gerhardts and asks if Mike is “the kid Otto had with the maid.” For a moment, I wondered if this was actually a roundabout way of explaining Hanzee's true connection to the family – that, perhaps, he was the offspring of Otto and Wilma the cook, and that this has long been a source of gossip among crime circles, even if the Gerhardts refused to ever acknowledge Hanzee as one of their own (which only fueled Hanzee's resentment and desire to kill them all) – but it seems far more likely that Ricky was just being rude than that the show would reveal such a big piece of information about this season in such an off-hand fashion. Either way, he was much more motivated to kill the Gerhardts than he ultimately was the Blumquists, and once Lou caught up to him outside the market, Hanzee decided he was better off running than staying to potentially die or go to jail.

* Songs this week included “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “The Wedding Cake” by Jeannie C. Riley, Bobby Womack's cover of “California Dreamin',” and “The Woman In Your Life Is You” by Alix Dobkin.

* Whether or not he was the one who told Mike Milligan that the Undertaker was on his way up from the hotel lobby, we finally see and hear Gale Kitchen speak at the same time in the finale, even if all he says is “uh-uh” as he threatens Ricky with the shotgun.

* The opening montage of dead Gerhardts removes any doubt that Bear simply let Simone walk across the border to Canada. He's not the forgiving type, at all.

* As the one surviving Gerhardt (at least of the ones we met this season), Charlie avoids appearing in the death montage, but there's also no obvious place to put a glimpse of him in prison.

* The finale has no room for a Karl Weathers curtain call, but I'd like to believe that's because Noah Hawley and Nick Offerman are already collaborating on their small-town legal drama/conspiracy thriller spin-off “Better Call Karl” (alt title: “The Breakfast King of Loyola”) and didn't want to use up any ideas for the new show just yet.

* Also, it turns out Bruce Campbell only appeared on camera in one episode as Ronald Reagan, though we saw his photo in campaign posters, and that was his voice as the young Reagan in the World War II movie Peggy was watching in “Loplop,” which became the basis for her hallucination in this one. 

What did everybody else think? In the end, how do you feel season 1 compared to season 2?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at