When Great Isn’t Good Enough: The Conundrum of FARGO Season 2

Let’s start with a couple caveats before digging in.

Numero uno, there are, as of this writing, two episodes remaining in the second season of FX’s Fargo. So all the concerns and hesitations presented herein may be discovered to be utterly groundless in the wake of the show nailing its final hours, should it do so. It is more than possible that creator/head writer Noah Hawley will pull all the pieces together and deliver a climax that not only caps the story, but turns into a cohesive and singular whole. Here’s hoping.

And numéro deux, it is important to note that, as much as I am going to wring my hands and shake my head at what’s been going on on Fargo this season, that shouldn’t detract from the fact that this show is, by any metric, an exceptional piece of televised fiction. My comments and concerns come from a place of deep love and admiration for what Hawley has built, and even as I’ve been frustrated by some of what has happened on Fargo this season, it’s still been wonderful to watch the show week-to-week.

In fact, let’s talk about the strengths for a little while. Firstly, Hawley and his writing staff take more joy in language than just about any writing team since the days of David Milch’s Deadwood. Most every scene is a carefully constructed ballet of words handed to a cast that is visibly delighted to tear in.

That cast truly is remarkable, with a host of character actors delivering exceptional, even career best work. Patrick Wilson has always seemed to be out of place in Hollywood, but Fargo makes a strong case for him as a true leading man, giving Wilson ample opportunities to convey more with a one-liner than some actors could do with entire monologues. He also does well with the actual monologues. Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons are equally excellent as a ‘normal’ couple who find themselves entrenched in a massive mob war.

That mob war has brought in faces like Jean Smart as a matriarchal crime lord, Jeffery Donovan and Angus Sampsun as her varying-degrees-of-psychotic sons, Brad Garrett as the face of corporatized crime and, in a true standout performance, Bokeem Woodbine as an endlessly chipper hitman named Mike Milligan.

And that’s not even counting the more minor side characters like Nick Offerman’s loquacious lawyer, Ted Danson as a folksy sheriff, or Zahn McClarnon as an especially terrifying enforcer.

And the talent behind the camera has been equally as enthusiastic as the cast. The ’70s period of this season has allowed for bold and striking set design and costuming, and the team of directors dug into the cinematic aesthetic of the time to bring in techniques ranging from split screens to irises to long zooms and a whole range of approaches that keep the show visually dynamic even as giant swaths of time are given over to characters sitting around and talking.

Most importantly the show is fun in a way that much prestige entertainment often seems afraid to be. In a time where so much ‘adult’ entertainment is driven seemingly-exclusively by grimness and misery, it’s refreshing to see a show that deals with weighty thematic and subtextual concerns while also being a fucking blast to watch. Whether it’s Bruce Campbell’s pitch perfect turn as Ronald Reagan, or a gangsters-arming-up-for-battle sequence timed with Woodbine’s recitation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, or the seemingly endless bevy of violences – funny, gruesome, or both – visited upon characters, Fargo is a visual and psychological treat.

And yet…and yet…

And yet for all that good stuff there’s something off about this season, something that is keeping it from attaining the heights that season one reached, no matter how much talent and skill is thrown in.

Part of it is just that the Coen Bros. shit isn’t cute anymore. Fargo season one utilized the archetypes and tropes familiar from, well, Fargo, and other assorted Coen Bros. films, but it used them as a way to keep you off balance and confound you. Hawley knew what the audience expected from a show with this title, and there was gleeful genius in the way he used that knowledge against you. The few times the show pulled whole characters from the films (like with, say, Glenn Howerton’s riff on Brad Pitt’s Burn After Reading chump) were the few times when the whole endeavor seemed off-balance.

But this season, Hawley and his writers (Hawley wrote every single episode last year [after using a writers’ room to help generate ideas and plot out the season] but this year he opted for a more traditional writers’ room) are loading up episodes with tons of hat-tips to the Brothers Coen, and all it does is distract from the drama of this world and keep the audience at a distance. A recent episode featured three different needle-drops from various Coen films, not to mention remaking perhaps the most iconic scene from Miller’s Crossing almost shot-for-shot. And this week’s most recent episode did a gratingly obvious riff on one of No Country for Old Men’s most famous scenes, while also folding in dialogue from the film Fargo.

I’ll admit to being a little baffled by all this. The first season proved that Hawley could mix-and-match elements from these films almost effortlessly, and it almost never felt obvious or overly literal. The dull thud with which each successive Coen ‘homage’ hits this year only grows louder with each episode.

And then there’s the issue of sheer tonnage of show. The labyrinthine plotting of this season has brought in what feels like 20 separate main characters, all with individual motivations and agendas, and many engaged in elaborate schemes against one another. Episodes have routinely run up to 90 minutes, and it’s like someone pouring Skittles down your throat after you’ve eaten your fill of ice cream (except without the diabetes). Or, I don’t know, maybe you will in fact get diabetes from watching Fargo; the science isn’t back yet.

Still and all, none of these would be dealbreakers, ladies, were it not for the core issue: The show has no core.

Now, let’s be fair: the show has a core, it’s just buried way deep. Theoretically, the soul of the show is Patrick Wilson’s good cop, a Vietnam vet trying to make sense of a world that seems to be sinking into a morass of violence of greed. Hawley has spoken in interviews about how he intended the mob war that forms the spine of the season to function as a metaphor for the way big box stores and corporations forced out the mom-and-pop enterprises of suburban America.

In that way, Fargo season two is meant to be a portrayal of the last gasp of the idealized, post-WWII America, the Baby Boomer vision of white suburban perfection, before the nihilism of Vietnam gave way to an era of unchecked greed that resulted in the economic and violent morass in which the world is still struggling.

Sounds like a strong foundation, but the problem is that Hawley has jam-packed his cast so tight with wacky, and crafted such an elaborate device of plotting, none of the emotional resonance sticks. Wilson is meant to be our constant as we bounce through the story, and yet he often spends entire episodes hovering at the fringes of a show that he is ostensibly the center of. Periodically the show will check in on him and his dying wife and his doubts and fears about the world he is living in, but it often feels more like checking something off so the show can get back to who is killing who, who is scamming who, who is grinding up corpses into meat, etc.

And Hawley’s allegory about mom-and-pop vs. corporate America doesn’t exactly hold water, given that most every character in the mob storyline is a scumbag of varying degrees. Wonderfully entertaining scumbags, sure, but after eight episodes and who knows how many hours, I don’t actually care who comes out on top. I mean, I hope Woodbine’s Milligan stays for the whole show because holy shit is he exceptional, but that’s a matter of relishing a performance, not actually giving a damn about the character.

Like I said at the top, the final two episodes could very easily bring the whole season together and tie what I thought were faults and oversights into a combined and powerful whole. But it’s bothersome, given how the first season managed to be a brutally funny and funnily brutal crime story AND an exploration of moral forces in the universe AND, most importantly, an incredibly affecting character study of Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) as a steadfastly decent human being beset on all sides by cruelty and greed. Molly was a character that I tuned in every week to watch because I was desperate to see if she would come out alright in the end, because I needed to see that her compassion would win out over the malevolent forces around her.

This year? I’m curious to see how it all shakes out, sure. The season has been building to a long-teased out bloodbath, so there’s a natural curiosity to learn who killed who with what for what reason. But curiosity is not the same as caring, and at this late date there are precious few characters in Fargo that I care about, and since the first season already spelled out the Patrick Wilson character’s fate, there isn’t even that element.

No, at this point I’m watching out of a mechanical desire to see how the story ends, to learn how the pieces come together, if at all. But that’s an intellectual pursuit, not an emotional one. And it truly saddens and frustrates me that season two of Fargo, for all its remarkable qualities, has rarely moved my heart as well as my brain. The first season did a tremendous job with both, but this second season is unfortunately proving that sometimes great just isn’t good enough.

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.