TV could use more failures like the fourth season of FX‘s Fargo.
The last installment of Noah Hawley‘s Coen Brothers-adjacent anthology series didn’t get the level of adulation of its predecessors. But it was full of tremendous performances (too many, possibly); sketched out a complicated commentary on racial and ethnic assimilation in the American narrative (too complicated, possibly); and, in episodes like the predominantly black-and-white “East/West,” was sometimes as good as ever.
The Bottom Line Less ambitious but lots of fun.
Airdate: Tuesday, November 21 (FX)
Cast: Juno Temple, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Rysdahl, Joe Keery, Lamorne Morris, Richa Moorjani, Sam Spruell, Dave Foley
Creator: Noah Hawley
Yet it feels, going into season five, like Fargo is in need of a comeback.
Through the six episodes sent to critics, the show seems to be on more comfortable footing. We’re back in Minnesota and North Dakota after an extended detour into the Kansas City area. We’re back in the recent past after spending 10 episodes in the early 1950s. And, after a sprawling season in which episodes frequently ran over an hour apiece, Hawley has reined in his focus; only the premiere has topped 50 minutes thus far.
Is the season perhaps less thematically ambitious? Yes, though the late Trump-era miasma hovering over a plot driven by kidnappings and murder is pointed. More than anything, the fifth season of Fargo is wonderfully acted, swiftly paced, nasty fun.
We begin in 2019 with the sort of heightened school board meeting that has become commonplace in recent years. A riot breaks out and, in the process of trying to escape the bedlam with her daughter Scotty (Sienna King), peppy housewife and all-around community participant Dorothy “Dot” Lyon (Juno Temple) accidentally ends up tasing an officer of the law.
Dot’s crime leads to booking and fingerprinting, which sends up red flags because Dot hasn’t always been the portrait of domesticity known to her daughter, husband Wayne (David Rysdahl) and Wayne’s disapproving mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Dot has a dark past involving North Dakota frontier lawman Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), who honors God’s rules more than he does the pesky regulations of the United States.
Dot, it turns out, is a survivor and a fierce Mama Lion (or Lyon, a pun the season never lets you forget). She has a particular set of skills, which will surprise Wayne, Lorraine, Roy and the local cops — Richa Moorjani‘s Indira Olmstead and Lamorne Morris‘ Witt Farr — trying to make sense of the mounting body count across two states. Lurking in the shadows and adding to that body count is the enigmatic Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), perhaps the most primal baddie in the history of a series that gave us V.M Varga (David Thewlis) and Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton).
It’s always tempting with a new Fargo season to try to guess which Coen Brothers movie was inspiring Hawley. With season four, the Miller’s Crossing ties were obvious. With season three, there was a pleasing amount of A Serious Man mixed into the DNA. The fifth season of Fargo is probably most reminiscent of, well, Fargo — and probably more the first two seasons of the TV show than the film.
Actually, the movie these early episodes reminded me of most frequently was (a Coen-ized version of) Home Alone, because Dot’s greatest gift may be elaborate booby-trapping. The series hasn’t lacked for earnest-minded depictions of violence, but this is far zanier stuff, moving toward almost Looney Tunes territory in a way that keeps multiple home invasion scenes from ever being too scary and, in turn, offers hints of Raising Arizona. It’s all part of a season that tends more in the direction of “fun” than anything excessively moody or, as was the case in the fourth season, anything excessively challenging.
Hawley still has things on his mind, of course. Returning to the show’s more traditional formulas — the season even starts with an on-screen definition of the familiar concept of “Minnesota Nice” — is a good way to underline certain recurring themes. Lorraine has made a fortune in the debt collection business and several other characters have found themselves deep in either financial or spiritual debt, allowing Hawley to muse on an American Dream that, increasingly, is only accessible for people prepared to go into arrears — and to depict the desperation that ensues when the bill comes due.
The season’s core conflict stems from the polarization of a country that aspires to democracy despite a quarter of the population that insists on living in a theocracy. The Trumpiness of our current predicament is limited to a single televised clip of the oft-impeached former president, and I didn’t need more direct political satire than that.
What does feel lacking, thus far, is some awareness of the weight that comes from setting a season that features cops among both the most and least sympathetic characters in the Minneapolis area less than a year before George Floyd.
Most fans, though, will be happy to leave behind the subtext to concentrate on the often marvelous text. With Hawley writing the first five episodes and co-writing the sixth, this is vintage linguistic Fargo, all twisted syntax, antiquated vernacular and digressions into allegory, folklore and history. Hawley builds characters with murky motivations, illustrative names — I haven’t mentioned Dave Foley‘s Danish Graves or Joe Keery‘s Gator Tillman — and unique verbosity.
His dialogue has a naturally musical quality, with cadences more indebted to Sondheim than your average TV scribe, and the delight of Temple and Leigh’s performances in particular comes from how well they understand the assignment. Both performances are exaggerated — Temple with perhaps the broadest regional accent ever attempted on Fargo and Leigh seemingly trying to outdo her Hudsucker Proxy mannerisms — but every line reading is a small, lyrical journey. Temple’s feigned cheeriness and Leigh’s layered sourness are especially good when the characters go head to head.
Sheriff Tillman is a great role for Hamm, probably his best since Don Draper: a man of simmering menace and unapologetic silliness, disarming people equally with threats and pierced nipples. Spruell is chilling and weird, while I want to give Foley some credit for delivering the most understated performance imaginable as a character named “Danish Graves” with an eyepatch and funny mustache.
If there’s a thing lacking in the early going, it’s the sort of effectively sentimental relationship — think Gus/Greta in season one or Lou/Betsy in season two — amid all the dark wackiness. Still, Moorjani — deviating in fun form from her Never Have I Ever work — and Morris are nicely grounded, and King’s Scotty (who’s gender non-conforming in a way the show doesn’t quite want to explore) brings out touches of sweetness from Temple and Rysdahl.
It’s possible that Hawley just wasn’t in the mood for too much heart this time around. He, like the audience and unlike the characters, knows that the world — both real and fictional — is on the verge of getting even more chaotic. Fortunately for us, Fargo is a show that thrives on chaos.