The typical season offargo”starts on low heat. Thanks to the famous opening disclaimer (“at the request of the survivors”; “out of respect for the dead”), borrowed heavily from the Coen brothers’ original masterpiece, audiences know that violence is on display. In translating “Fargo” into an anthology series, an interpretive exercise that now spans five different installments over nearly a decade, creator Noah Hawley has stuck to this structure. “Fargo” may traverse time, points of view and the Greater Midwest, but Hawley uses a set of vague, shifting signatures to identify the franchise’s multiplying parts as part of a larger whole: the pace so far between they.
The final “Fargo” story, however, begins in multimedia resolution. We’re in suburban Minnesota circa 2019, and a local school board meeting has descended into chaos. This is also not a situation where a record should be frozen; In the six episodes provided to critics in advance, Hawley doesn’t pull back to show us how a planning meeting for a fall festival erupted into a fight in which a mother and a math teacher, among many others, come to blows. The opening scene is meant to signify an already frayed social order on the verge of falling apart: that this “Fargo,” for once, is not a slow process. There is no waiting for the action to arrive; it’s here.
For season 4, released in 2020, Hawley delved deeper into the past than ever before to present an ambitious and if it is defective, addresses race, immigration, and the American national character. Season five shifts gears to become the most contemporary “Fargo” entry to date, and therefore the first to take place during the Trump administration. (The previous record, season 3, was set in 2010.) The 45th president himself even makes a cameo via main antagonist Roy Tillman’s television set (jon hamm). Tillman is a Joe Arpaio-style outlaw sheriff, loudly proclaiming his love for the Constitution and his disdain for most of the other laws on his North Dakota ranch; Only his horseshoe-shaped nipple piercings indicate that we’re still in the elevated, fable-like reality where “Fargo” makes his home.
This news turns out to be a double-edged sword. season 5 may seem as a sharp break from its predecessor, swapping a “Godfather”-style organized crime epic for the smaller-scale struggle of housewife Dorothy “Dot” Lyon (Temple of Juno) to leave his demons behind. (Dot is the aforementioned mother from the school board meeting; her arrest draws unwanted attention from Roy, which kicks off the season.) But she touches on equally broad and elemental themes. What season four was to racial prejudice, season five is to the battle of the sexes. Roy is depicted berating an abuser not for beating his wife, but for doing so in a way that fails to meet Roy’s arbitrary justifications for violence against women. “Just for instructions,” he says, in a slightly flatter version of Hamm’s typical stern growl. “Never feel any pleasure or satisfaction from the task.” No one says the phrase “toxic masculinity,” but you can tell it’s on the tip of Hawley’s tongue.
These parallels leave “Fargo” vulnerable to repeating some of its previous mistakes. Invoking contemporary culture wars may be a shortcut to urgency, but it also risks puncturing the airtight bubble of “Fargo” (dark criminal syndicates, primordial evil, pure hearts in a cruel world) in search of much less distinctive and often exaggerated. At first, “Fargo” doesn’t even need the extra hook. Virtually the entire premiere is a scene driven by Temple’s nervous panic, moving from the school fight to a home invasion sequence and a gas station shootout for nearly an hour. The season’s epigraph defines “Minnesota nice” as “aggressively nice behavior…no matter how bad things get,” and Temple’s Dot is a captivating woman. After her first encounter with Roy’s henchmen, she makes pancakes for her daughter Bisquick with her bare, bloody feet.
Dot’s connection to Roy is initially mysterious, but as they begin to circle around each other, season 5 becomes closer to two players than the usual ensemble. Of course, there’s still a cast of self-consciously quirky characters with the most outlandish names on television: Danish Graves (Dave Foley), the adviser putting Queen Lorraine Lyon (Jennifer Jason Leigh), also Dot’s mother-in-law, into debt; Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani), the last heir apparent of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand); Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), a mysterious mercenary always dressed in a kilt. However, all of these players are deployed to support or illuminate some aspect of the central duo. Gator (Joe Keery), Roy’s failed son, and Lars (Lukas Gage), Indira’s leech husband, share the lawman’s sense of entitlement to women’s unquestioning obedience, even if they lack his menacing air. .
That simplicity works in “Fargo’s” favor as the season begins. The first few episodes are a fascinating game of cat and mouse with the potential for a heavily foreshadowed role reversal. (“Fargo” hates subtlety almost as much as it hates metaphor-laden monologues, which is why Dot is named Lyon and repeatedly compares herself to a tiger. Who’s the big cat now?) A Halloween showdown pits Dot against a team with spooky masks from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”; A hospital chase crowds the cast into tight, fluorescent-lit spaces. But momentum begins to wane as Hawley works to maintain intense tension for several hours. While watching the screenings, I felt like the season was starting to end and I was surprised to find out that it was only at its halfway point.
This is when “Fargo” begins to lean toward archetypes over individuals. Between Tillman’s character and his recent appearance on “The Morning Show,” Hamm has lately been leaning toward his potential villainy. Like Roy’s shearling-lined jacket, it suits him well. But the more “Fargo” presents Roy and Dot as archetypes of a controlling man and his victim, the less interesting they are. In the “Fargo” canon, Dot instantly stands out because she is sympathetic without being innocent. To survive, she cannot be a paragon of virtue in the style of other “Fargo” heroines. She’s tougher and more cunning, but “Fargo” runs the risk of turning her and Roy into victims and victimizers while trying to make a statement about the dark side of America’s fetish for cowboy conservatism. “Fargo” is a testament to the value of creativity within limitations, transforming a 27-year-old film into a living text. It’s an experiment that works best when it doesn’t explicitly argue for its own continued relevance.
The first two episodes of “Fargo” season five will premiere on FX at 10 p.m. ET on September 20 and stream on Hulu the next day, with the remaining episodes airing weekly on Tuesdays.
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