The second season of Fargo is delightful. This feels like a strange thing to say about a violent show that takes a backseat to nothing on television when it comes to graphic imagery and dark subject matter. Through the first four episodes provided to critics, there’s already been a) a not-inconsequential amount of shootings and stabbings; b) someone getting buried alive; and c) one scene in which a body is disposed of in a way that, kind of, if you let your mind make the perverse connections, calls back to a memorable scene in the original 1996 Coen brothers film. And yet, somehow, the show remains fun and quirky, taking everything that made the first season so enjoyable and building on it and blowing it out into something much bigger and, potentially, even better.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s set the stage. In the first season, diner owner Lou Solverson told his police officer daughter Molly about a grisly event that took place in Sioux Falls in 1979. According to Lou, the scene was so disturbing that it caused him to leave law enforcement for good, describing it as “savagery, pure and simple” and saying there were bodies “stacked so high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.” In season two, presumably because showrunner Noah Hawley is a benevolent leader who would not be so cruel as to tease something like that without paying it off, we are going back in time for the full story.
And to get the full story, we are introduced to a sprawling cast of characters. On one side of the law, we have a young Minnesota trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), his ill wife — ill as in “unhealthy,” not ill as in “super dope and fly” (although she does seem pretty cool) — Betsy (Cristin Milioti), and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (a bearded Ted Danson). Also, keep an eye out for a young Molly Solverson poking around the house.
On the other side, we have a mob war that pits the mom-and-pop Gerhardt clan out of Fargo, led by matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart) and her maniac son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan, who appears to be having a lot of fun with the role), against the more corporate Kansas City syndicate, represented here by a mid-level manager named Joey Bulo (Brad Garrett) and a polite, but menacing enforcer/investigator named Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine, who is excellent so far). Complicating matters, to the extent interstate mob wars aren’t already complicated, is the fact that the youngest Gerhardt son, Rye (Kieran Culkin), quickly finds himself in a bloody waffle-related brouhaha that results in both the aforementioned law enforcement figures and a small-town Minnesota couple (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, whose character appears to have a little Lester Nygaard in her) being thrust straight into the middle of it all. That, in a nutshell, is your plot.
(Actually, I’d be remiss here if I didn’t add two other casting notes: One, Nick Offerman plays a minor character named “Karl Weathers,” who the official FX description refers to as “a flowery drunk blessed with the gift of gab and the eloquence of a true con artist.” Two, even though he hasn’t appeared yet, Bruce Campbell will pop up at some point as Ronald Reagan. Fargo is just showing off this season.)
But anybody can put together a sexy premise and star-studded cast these days. That’s the easy part. Hell, the second season of True Detective — if we boil it all down to a concentrated goo — was about Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams investigating murder orgies, and it still managed to disappoint. The hard part is making it work, both on the macro level (the actual execution, the pacing, the directing) and the micro (the little details that pull viewers in). This is what made Fargo such a pleasant surprise last year, and what has it off to such a great start in season two. It’s taken a leap, visually, with a style that has traces of Kubrick and Tarantino and a 1970s-inspired love of split screens. And the dialogue is still unlike anything else on television, in the best way possible, with all of its “You betchas” and “Oo-kay thens” and extended exchanges in which violent murderers discuss their shampoo preferences. Even criminals need bounce and body.
Now, this is where I should pull back a bit, and note again that this review only covers the first four episodes. There’s a lot to pull together here before we get to the promised savagery, and after introducing all the main players across the snow-covered American Midwest, that pulling together is still in its very early stages. A pessimist would tell you that there’s plenty of time and plenty of ways that this could all go crooked. But given the track record of Hawley and company after the first season (the degree of difficulty of which was incredibly high, if you remember), and everything they’ve presented so far in the second, I don’t think pessimism is called for. Not yet. Not even a little. Fargo is back. Fargo is still really good. That’s all you need to take away here.
The second season of Fargo premieres October 12 at 10 p.m. on FX