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The typical season of “Fargo” is starting to simmer. Thanks to the famous opening disclaimer (“at the request of the survivors”; “out of respect for the dead”), borrowed largely from the Coen brothers’ original masterpiece, the audience knows that violence is ahead. In translating “Fargo” into an anthology series, an exercise in interpretation that now spans five different installments over nearly a decade, creator Noah Hawley stuck to that structure. “Fargo” may cross time, points of view and the Greater Midwest, but Hawley uses a loose, shifting set of signatures to identify the growing parts of the franchise as part of a larger whole — pacing up present among them.
The latest “Fargo” story, however, begins in media res. It’s suburban Minnesota circa 2019, and a local school board meeting has descended into chaos. This is also not a freeze-frame, no-record situation; In the six episodes provided to critics in advance, Hawley doesn’t backtrack to show us how a fall festival planning meeting escalated into a fight where a mother and a math teacher, among others, come to blows. The opening scene is meant to signify an already frayed social order on the verge of collapse — that this “Fargo,” for once, isn’t a slow burn. There is no waiting for action to happen; it’s already there.
For Season 4, released in 2020, Hawley explored further than ever before to stage an ambitious, if flawed, vision of race, immigration and American national character. Season 5 reverses course to become the most contemporary “Fargo” entry yet, and therefore the first to take place during the Trump administration. (The previous record holder, Season 3, was in 2010.) The 45th president himself even makes an appearance via main antagonist Roy Tillman’s (Jon Hamm) TV. Tillman is a Joe Arpaio-style outlaw sheriff, loudly proclaiming his love for the Constitution and contempt for most other laws on his North Dakota ranch; only his horseshoe-shaped nipple piercings indicate that we are still in the augmented, fabled reality where “Fargo” has taken up residence.
This news turns out to be a double-edged sword. Season May 5 seem as a clean break from its predecessor, swapping a “Godfather”-style organized crime epic for housewife Dorothy “Dot” Lyon’s (Juno Temple) smaller-scale struggle to outrun her demons. (Dot is the aforementioned mother from the school board meeting; her arrest attracts Roy’s unwanted attention, sparking the season.) But it plays on equally broad, elemental themes. What season 4 was to racial prejudice, season 5 is to the battle of the sexes. Roy is shown berating an abuser not for beating his wife, but in a way that does not fit Roy’s arbitrary justifications for violence against women. “Only for instruction,” he said, in a slightly flatter vowel version of Hamm’s typical stern growl. “Never derive pleasure or satisfaction from the task.” No one says the phrase “toxic masculinity,” but you could say it’s on the tip of Hawley’s tongue.
Such parallels expose “Fargo” to repeating some of its earlier mistakes. Invoking the contemporary culture wars may be a shortcut to urgency, but it also risks puncturing the airtight bubble of “Fargo” — shadowy crime syndicates, primordial evil, pure hearts in a cruel world — for much less distinct and often exaggerated elements. At first, “Fargo” doesn’t even need an extra hook. Virtually the entire premiere is a set piece fueled by Temple’s nervous panic, moving from a school fight to a home invasion sequence to a gas station shootout for nearly an hour. The season’s epigraph defines “Minnesota nice” as “aggressive, pleasant behavior…no matter how bad things get,” and Temple’s Dot is a captivating poster girl. After her first contact with Roy’s henchmen, she makes her daughter Bisquick pancakes with bare, bloody feet.
Dot’s connection to Roy is initially mysterious, but as they begin to circle around each other, Season 5 becomes more of a two-person ensemble than the usual sprawling ensemble. Granted, there’s still a cast of intentionally eccentric characters with the wackiest names on television: Danish Graves (Dave Foley), the consigliere to debt queen Lorraine Lyon (Jennifer Jason Leigh), also Dot’s stepmother; Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani), the latest heir apparent to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson; Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), a mysterious mercenary who always wears a kilt. However, all these actors are deployed in support, or to illuminate certain aspects, of the central duo. Gator (Joe Keery), Roy’s son, and Lars (Lukas Gage), Indira’s husband, share the lawmaker’s sense of women’s right to unconditional obedience, even if they don’t look menacing. .
Such simplicity works in favor of “Fargo” at the start of the season. The first few episodes are a captivating game of cat and mouse with heavily heralded role reversal potential. (“Fargo” hates subtlety almost as much as it loves metaphor-laden monologues, which is why Dot is named Lyon and repeatedly compared to a tiger. Who’s the big cat now?) A Halloween showdown pits Dot a crew wearing eerie masks from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”; a hospital chase traps the cast in cramped, fluorescent-lit quarters. But momentum begins to fade as Hawley struggles to maintain intense tension for several hours. Watching the screeners, I was certain that the season was starting to end and I was surprised to learn that I was only halfway through.
This is where “Fargo” begins to rely on archetypes rather than individuals. Between Tillman’s character and his recent stint on “The Morning Show,” Hamm has been delving into his plausible villainy lately. Just 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 likable without being naive. To survive, she cannot be a model of virtue in the vein of the other heroines of “Fargo”. She’s scrappier and more cunning, but “Fargo” risks turning her and Roy into victims and aggressors as it tries 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 limited limits, 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 relevance.
The first two episodes of “Fargo” Season 5 will air on FX at 10 p.m. ET on September 20 and stream on Hulu the following day, with the remaining episodes airing weekly on Tuesdays.
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