• Big themes in a small town: Thoughts on the first three episodes of 'Fargo'

    A television series as subtle as FX’s Fargo requires multiple viewings to catch all the trivial details and muted puns. It also requires patience as each episode pieces together a patchwork of midwestern vignettes, gruesome deaths, and supernatural occurrences. As devoted fans, we feel like we’re in on the plot since we know exactly where Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) is, and we understand something about how this season will end up given the foreshadowing (or should we call them flashbacks?) in Season 1. But simply knowing the location of ‘point B’ is little comfort in this tense and turbulent Season 2. If creator/head writer Noah Hawley proved anything in his first stab at bringing the Coen Brothers’ classic to the small screen, it was that viewers should discard their expectations and enjoy the ride.

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    The overarching message of the first season pretty seamlessly matched the theme of the 1996 film: there is evil in the world, but it is also full of fundamentally virtuous people. They can’t prevent horrible things from happening, but the bad guys will get theirs, and the good guys will go home and make babies. But if Season 1’s Lester (Martin Freeman) corresponds with the film’s Jerry (William H. Macy), Season 2’s accidental murderer doesn’t fit the mold. Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) isn’t a mild-mannered weasel who stumbles on a chance to act on his sociopathic fantasies; she’s a victim herself of the buttoned up small-town life that weighs on her and exacerbates her anxieties around marriage. I initially thought Season 2 would flesh out this thematic obsession with family: seeing the relationship between Lou Solverson and little Molly; the Waffle Hut murders set in motion due to sibling rivalry; and sweet Ed (Jesse Plemons) agreeing to hide Rye’s murder after Peggy’s promise to start a family. By the third episode, however, that idea has gone out the window.

    Rye’s bizarre UFO sighting was one of my first critiques of the premiere. It felt more Twin Peaks, less prairie realism. But then episode two ends with “The Eve of the War (1980 Disco Steve Thompson Remix)” and Deputy Solverson (Patrick Wilson) has an eerie conversation with a man about “visitors” and “strange happenings,” and I’m beginning to think there’s more to this metaphor than meets the eye. Hawley’s constant references to war and political contexts are even more heavy-handed than his talk of aliens. The first episode mentioned the actor “Ronnie Reagan” and the opening credits rolled over President Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech; the Gerhardt matriarch, Floyd (Jean Smart) channels women’s lib rhetoric in her assertion of power; Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) muses to his Vietnam veteran son in law, “[s]ometimes I wonder if you boys didn’t bring that war home with you;” and Solverson’s associate describes the Waffle Hut massacre with the euphemistic acronym FUBAR.

    These motifs get broader and broader with every episode. We learn more about the Gerhardt family history, we hear more characters speculate about how “the world” is changing, and we get a sense that there is some fundamental shift, a breaking up of something, in the upper Midwest of 1979. What’s more, the scope of the season itself feels much more epic, practically all-encompassing. Season 1 connected with the film tangentially (remember the red ice scraper?), but Season 2 takes the parallels between the film, and in fact the entire Coen Brothers universe, to the next level.

    The premiere used the original film score to open the season, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that the Gerhardt family drama will result in the shadowy criminal machine “up in Fargo” that permeates every iteration of this work. Larsson comes so close to uttering Deputy Gunderson’s (Frances McDormand) famous line from the film (“And for what? A little bit of money.”) in the beauty shop that fans couldn’t help but notice the connection and grumble that it wasn’t an exact quote. On top of this, Hawley has apparently started including easter eggs to other Coen Brothers’ films. Nick Offerman’s Karl Weathers is such a ringer for The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak that I was just waiting for him to refer to his sidekick as “Donny,” and songs from the old-timey bluegrass O, Brother! Where Art Thou? soundtrack have made their way into season 2 as well.

    These first few episodes have crystallized the “Midwestern Nice” that pervades the film, both television seasons, and basically every other cultural expression of life in the flyover states. As Paul Kix’s recent article explains, our language is subtle and our emotions run deep. Solverson and Larsson struggle to have a natural conversation through a medium as rigid and official as a police radio (“Over ‘n’ out… I guess.”) Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) perfectly sums it up in his response to Lou’s assertion that Minnesotans are “a friendly people:” “That’s not it. It’s the way you’re unfriendly, always so polite.” Our manners have a dark side, evidenced by Peggy’s hoarding tendencies and Floyd’s tactical use of food to control her sons. We’ll see how this tension -- between affability and repression, honesty and appearances -- is resolved in season two. Or maybe the hardy folk of the upper midwest will simply continue to suffer in silence.