Welcome back to the snowy north, with a bullet. (Or six.)
Just watch. This thing’s only getting bigger.
Last year, writer and showrunner Noah Hawley pulled off the impossible: taking the beloved Coen Brothers classic Fargo, putting its story, setting, and style into a blender, and presenting a brand-new ten-episode television series that didn’t completely crap on what came before. And once it got over those initial comparisons (the similar character types and frequent nods to the rest of the Coen oeuvre), we realized that Fargo the series was very good indeed: a morality tale full of dark whimsy, sharp direction and pitch-perfect performances.
In the last few years, television has moved toward more shorter-run, closed-ended productions, where an ambitious writer can tell a tighter story, attract bigger stars, and soak up all the prestige that affords. In the case of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, you can make absolute trash and people will still commit to it because 1) they still find it fun, and 2) there’s no real commitment — next year it’s something brand-new. But the real horror story (sorry) is the one of Nic Pizzolatto and HBO’s True Detective, which launched itself into the zeitgeist with its first season, riding the slowly pulsing mind waves of its star Matthew McConaughey, only to crash harder and burn brighter than a Vinci dumpster fire in year two.
It seemed to serve as a cautionary tale for studios who give their creatives too long of a leash, and when Vince Vaughn finally collapsed in the desert and the show sputtered to a halt, all eyes turned back to Hawley. Would he repeat his magic trick, or fall into the same sophomore crater?
Enter “Waiting For Dutch,” the first of ten new episodes set two decades before the events of the first season. Hawley’s idea of an anthology series isn’t a grab-bag of disconnected story ideas, but the ever-unfolding tapestry of “true crime” in the Midwest. Judging from the premiere, this season may have a harder, less whimsical edge, the music may be more aggressive, and the editing may be slicker (with 1970s-appropriate wipes and split-screens), but it’s still Fargo, full of the same breed of weirdos and liltingly-accented misanthropes whose Minnesota Nice masks their shocking propensity for violence. Most importantly, it’s still outstanding television.
The opening twenty minutes almost serves as a short film all on its own, as we quickly meet the Gerhardt family: a mom-and-pop crime organization based out of the titular North Dakota town. There are three sons jockeying for power as the father (Michael Hogan — hello again, Colonel Tigh!) suffers a stroke. The oldest is Dodd, played by Jeffrey Donovan, whose demeanor is so far removed from the sunny Burn Notice as to be unrecognizable. (He’s the one having the most fun with the dialect, elongating his vowels in just the right way to get a laugh.) Then there’s Bear, the bearded, silent middle brother, and Rye, the youngest, played by Kieran Culkin wearing Steve Buscemi’s ratty mustache.
It is Rye who serves as the story’s catalyst, like Martin Freeman’s character before him; like Lester, he’s feeble, emasculated, and with something to prove; like Lester, he explodes into a murderous rage on an innocent person when he doesn’t get his way (and unloads on two more in a state of panic); unlike Lester, he gets hit by a car as he staggers away and is dispatched of by the episode’s end. But that horrific, bloody scene is the linchpin around which our story will turn, as violence begets violence (in a Biblical sense) and the warring factions serve as playthings for Hawley’s gods of storytelling.
We meet Lou Solverson, Molly’s father (played by David Carradine before, and by Patrick Wilson now), a state police officer who will one day tell his daughter the story of a massacre at Sioux Falls, with “the bodies stacked like cordwood.” This is Luverne, Minnesota, not Sioux Falls (and not the one presented in that fake Ronald Reagan movie at the season’s beginning, either), but it will all begin here: three corpses, a shoe in a tree, and a mystery to solve. Lou, as we know, is a good man. We also know he will survive, but his wife (Cristin Miloti) is gravely ill. We meet his father-in-law, Hank Larsson (the warm, reassuring presence of Ted Danson), who is local police and joins Lou at the scene. It’s an ugly tableaux, but they’ve seen its kind before, so they quietly set about doing their jobs, while making plans to have dinner later.
We meet Karl Weathers (that’s with a K, not a C), the local conspiracy theorist, a role that seems practically written for the great Nick Offerman. He has yet to catch a glimpse of that UFO (because it wouldn’t be Fargo without a little unexplained weirdness), but we can imagine he will. We meet Joe Bulo, played by Brad Garrett, a businesslike associate of a crime syndicate in Kansas City, that is planning to expand their operations northward as methodically as Starbucks. The Gerhardts are in their way, and now they are vulnerable, with only their matriarch (Jean Smart) cool-headed enough to stand against them. (This cast is loaded.)
Then we meet the Blomquists, a young married couple. He’s a butcher with dreams of owning his own shop (okay then!); she dreams of owning her own salon. Ed is played by Jesse Plemons, who put on noticeable weight for this role, and now has a face as innocently wide as a prairie. And before you can make a “Killer Landry” joke, there he goes again, giving Rye Gerhardt his final mortal wound in defense of his woman. Peggy is played by Kirsten Dunst, who you’d think wouldn’t be a very good fit for this type of role, but she seems determined to not just play against type, but play it well.
Peggy leaves Rye for dead in her garage while she sets about fixing dinner, having no plan for what to do with him, but desperately hoping her husband won’t investigate those banging sounds. Was she truly in a state of panic, or is she more coldly calculating than she lets on? See how effortlessly she manipulates the dumbfounded Ed into “cleaning up” the mess she made instead of going to the police? If they only knew that this stranger had just murdered three people. But now, they’re in the thick of it, and there’s no escaping the vortex of guilt and retribution heading their way.
Welcome back, Fargo.