Season premiere review: ‘Fargo’ – ‘Waiting for Dutch’: Sounds of the Seventies

“Fargo” is back for a new season. I sang the praises of the early episodes last week, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I'm the comic in a piece of bubble gum…

“But just watch: this thing's only getting bigger.” -Karl

With sequels, whether in film or in television, there's an understandable belief that bigger is better. You can't just equal what the audience loved last time; you have to top it, which means more of everything they loved, whether characters (note all the superhero movie sequels that start piling on bad guys), plot twists, explosions, or what have you. And with a few exceptions (notably “The Godfather Part II,” which is the exception to many laws of entertainment), they grow so busy with individual things that worked last time that they lose the overall core of why the original was so good.

“Fargo” season 1 wasn't exactly lean and mean. It bounced around between multiple cities, timelines, and groups of characters, leaving room along the way for colorful characters like Stavros Milos or Agents Pepper and Budge to flit in and out of the narrative even as we were mainly focusing on the core of Molly, Gus, Lorne, and Lester. But there was still a unity to the proceedings that never made it feel too busy.

With so many notable actors in the season 2 cast, and with so many moving parts – the Gerhardt clan, the Solversons, Ed and Peggy, the Kansas City syndicate (barely even glimpsed at the end there), outtakes from a non-existent Ronald Reagan movie, and perhaps an appearance from a UFO – introduced just in this premiere, “Fargo” could be at risk of going all “Spider-Man 3” or “True Detective” season 2 on us. But like last year, all the pieces feel part of the same colorful, confident whole, making it a preciously rare showbiz example of more actually being more.

Like the unexpected prologue to last week's “Leftovers” premiere, the raw footage of a Native American actor and his director getting chilly on the set of (non-existent) Ronald Reagan movie “Massacre at Sioux Falls” seems to come out of nowhere(*). But we already know from Lou's brief 1979 references last season that something terrible is going to happen at Sioux Falls in this story, the Gerhardts employ a Native American enforcer in Zahn McClarnon's Hanzee, and the year in which the story takes place is the time of Jimmy Carter's infamous “malaise” speech, with Reagan himself soon to win election by hearkening back to a time when he insisted America had more pride in itself. Even if we never return to the subject of this particular film, the teaser didn't feel like a weird self-indulgence, but like an appropriately askew, Coen-esque re-entry into this world.

(*) These two shows didn't invent the idea (as I noted in my “Leftovers” recap, Damon Lindelof already did something similarly askew with the opening of “Lost” season 2), but I wonder if the temporally disorienting but thematically appropriate teaser is going to become a new trend for second-year dramas, or if it's just a coincidence we got two of them within 8 days of each other.

And even with all the characters we're introduced to – sometimes all too briefly, as in the case of Michael hogan's quickly incapacitated mob boss Otto, or Kieran Culkin as his doomed youngest son Rye – and stories that have to be set up, the whole thing's as tight as the sequence where Rye's murder of everyone at the Waffle Hut is timed to the swinging of the kitchen door. All the seeming excesses and intricate period detail (including the split screens and the soundtrack) are adding value, rather than distracting from the main story.

So first we get to know the Gerhardts, and to revel in the fun that Hogan, Culkin, Jean Smart, Jeffrey Donovan, and Angus Sampson are having wrapping themselves up in these clothes, those accents, and that murderous attitude. And then we meet the Solversons circa '79. Molly's just a little girl, Lou's a dashing young state trooper, Betsy is sick – but in a way that's obviously much harder on Lou than it is on her – and grampa Hank is the local sheriff. (Molly being the cop's daughter of a cop's daughter only makes more sense in light of what we knew of the adult version.) There's instant chemistry between Patrick Wilson(**) and Cristin Milioti, as there would need to be for their smaller and quieter family dynamic to match up emotionally to the more colorful folks thundering through other parts of the story.

(**) When Fienberg and I were discussing the potential “Godfather Part II” of it all, Dan made an analogy that will be even clearer to you all once you've seen more episodes: Vito is to Lou as De Niro is to Patrick Wilson here.

Our introduction to Jesse Plemons' Ed and Kirsten Dunst's Peggy is funny both because Plemons and Dunst are giving sharp, interlocking comic performances, but also because Plemons somehow keeps being cast as saps who let their pretty blonde love interests talk them into disposing of corpses when all would probably be well after they called local law-enforcement. Neither of them seems enormously bright, but watching Peggy wrap Ed around her finger reminded me of the old joke with the punchline, “I don't have to be faster than the bear; I just have to be faster than you.”

Ed's killing of Rye, who looks like a feral animal who got trapped in the garage once Ed's flashlight beam falls on him, is one of several sequences in the premiere that look gorgeous without calling undue attention to themselves. In the writing, the directing, the cinematography, and everything else, “Fargo” still feels evocative of the Coen brothers without simply aping them.

It's exactly what I would have wanted from the show's return – and more.

Some other thoughts:

* Our own Roth Cornet spoke with Noah Hawley about the UFO (or whatever it is). Look for that on the site in the morning, and I'll link to it here once it's up. In the meantime, here's one of the interviews Fienberg conducted on a set visit back in April, with Patrick Wilson.

* Like all of last season's episodes, this one was written by Hawley, but it has two different names on the director credits, in Michael Uppendahl and Randall Einhorn, which means there were significant reshoots at some point and the original director wasn't available to come back.

* The book Lou is reading Molly – which includes the bit where Mrs. Pepper ejaculates, but not in the way we use the phrase now – is from the “Five Little Peppers” book series by Margaret Sidney.

* Songs from the episode include a live version of Fleetwood Mac's “Oh Well” (playing over the Jimmy Carter montage), “Children of the Sun” by Billy Thorpe (Rye stalks the judge), “I Love You” by J.C. Akins (Ed drives home to Peggy), and a cover of “Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby” (from the Coens' “O Brother, Where Art Thouh?”) by Noah Hawley himself and “Fargo” composer Jeff Russo, over the closing credits.

* Love the mode Ted Danson is in here as Hank, who's even more understated than in most of Danson's recent dramatic roles, but in a way that links up nicely with what Wilson is doing. Both men say little and express even less with the looks on their faces, but they're clearly taking in much more – and have been through much more – than they're letting on. They move through that crime scene not like a couple of small town cops horrified that something so gruesome could happen here, but like men (Lou alludes to having served in Vietnam, while Hank would be old enough to have fought in WWII) who have seen similar, if not worse, tableaux before. 

* Lou's knot tying in moments of great stress is a clever and simple way to tie the Patrick Wilson version of Lou to the Keith Carradine one.

* The full name of Nick Offerman's conspiracy theorist character is Karl Weathers. If there isn't some sort of joke about that – perhaps with Karl reacting to the popularity of noted cheapskate Carl Weathers in the same way one Michael Bolton reacted to another in “Office Space” – then boy, I don't know.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at