Maybe the FX series Fargo is so good because blood looks so beautiful on snow. Red splashes against white, soaking into it, marking something that was once pure with a sudden, swift reminder of violence.
It's an idea the quirky crime drama keeps returning to early in season two. Even the bursts of savagery that happen indoors juxtapose that spray of red with the lighter beige of the '70s interiors. A man kills several in a diner, and the blood streaks across the unremarkable floor or pools amid a spilled milkshake. It feels a little lurid, as if that blood is the only real thing in this space.
Then the killer steps outside — into that white, wintry Minnesota expanse all around him and above him — and the sky rips open, bright lights pouring onto his face from an honest-to-God UFO. As he watches, awestruck, it seemingly lures him out onto an empty country road, where he can be hit by a car, which will eventually lead to his death. This is the unforeseen, the unknowable. God exists in the Fargo universe, but God is Old Testament, even if he manifests as aliens.
This is the show in a nutshell: a bland, beige surface that suddenly erupts with color, life, and death. A snowy field is the staging ground for a conflict of biblical proportions.
Oh, and along the way, the show might have figured out how to do something American fiction has always struggled with: tell stories about the Midwest.
This is the part where I introduce the thesis
There simply isn't a great fictional Midwest like there is a great fictional California or fictional South or fictional New York City. We've had plenty of great authors and filmmakers from the Midwest (including the Coen brothers, upon whose film this series is based), but they tend to tell stories about other regions, or their fictional Midwests work primarily as satire, which is fine but can wear out its welcome.
I think this has something to do with the very structure of Western narrative. At its core, Western narrative is progressive, but Midwestern narrative is conservative. I don't mean these terms in any political sense. I simply mean that most narrative is weighted toward change, but most Midwestern narrative isn't. There are, of course, many exceptions, but the following usually holds true.
Most stories we tell are told from the point of view of the disruptors, the people who enter a closed system and shake it up, or the people who exist within that system, then see something they want and go after it. By the end of the story, a new status quo has taken hold, one where things have changed on some level, thanks to those disruptive elements.
The traditional Midwestern narrative flips this on its ear. The disruptive elements are the enemies, no matter how well-intentioned. All that matters is getting back to what was once normal. Great Midwestern characters, be they Jay Gatsby (who, yes, lived in New York but was from back West and created by a Minnesotan) or Charlie Brown, long to freeze time, to return to some other age, even if they know it's impossible. And yet the wolves are always at the door.
Fargo's second season is a perfect example. Crime intrudes upon blissful small-town tableaux. Blood spills in a vanilla milkshake. Even the characters who initially seem unhappy with the status quo find themselves working as steadily as they can to get back to it.
This tension exists at the heart of the original film Fargo, too, where police chief Marge Gunderson wants to solve a horrible crime to solve it, sure, but also to reassert the dominance of the nice life she has, one that violence and money and greed have messed up.
In all of its many versions, Fargo plays in this middle ground between the thought that a nice, quiet Midwestern life is one of the very best lives you could live and the thought that if you don't quite fit in it, it can be absolute hell. (That puts this season of the show in line with fellow Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis, whose finest novel, Main Street, was a satire about Midwestern towns grinding down their iconoclasts into dust, in the name of the status quo.)
Yet the characters in Fargo (on TV, at least) have good reason to long for the status quo: God is watching.
Now is the part when I tell you that Fargo shouldn't be this good, as all reviews must
If there's an animating principle behind Fargo, it's from the Book of Numbers. In chapter 32, verse 23, there's a warning: "Behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out."
It's an idea at once a little terrifying and slightly thrilling. If God is omniscient, of course he's going to figure out our sins. And yet we're human beings, and lying and cheating and stealing is what we do. Maybe we can get away with that for a little while, but in the Bible (and in Fargo), the UFO is always coming to deliver us to the spot where we might face karmic retribution.
It's also slightly ironic just how thoroughly the show has digested this notion when there are plenty of people who might consider the series a sin against the gods of cinema. The 1996 Coen brothers movie, from which this series takes its name and many of its animating principles, is a stone-cold American classic, one that tells in 98 minutes a near-perfect story of one man's avarice raining destruction on everyone around him. Simply messing around in that milieu is inviting unfavorable comparison, at best.
The TV version of Fargo is also outrunning an entirely different set of demons: the ones that did in the famously disastrous second season of True Detective. Like that HBO series, Fargo tells a new story, with a new set of characters, in every season. Viewers grew attached to the season one characters (who lived in 2006 Minnesota), and now the second season takes 1979 as its setting. Molly, the protagonist of season one, is a little girl in 1979. Her father, Lou, who offered such sage advice as an older man in season one, is now in the prime of his career. Everybody else is a new character.
Television shows based on movies usually don't work. Television shows based on classic movies never work (give or take a M.A.S.H.). And TV shows that have to introduce entirely new sets of characters and situations with every season are at a significant disadvantage when compared with those that can lean on viewers' preexisting love of the cast.
Fargo flirts with disaster at every turn. The first season occasionally felt like it was too beholden to doing a remix of its source material, particularly in its first half, and it ended with a finale that worked too hard to outguess both itself and its audience. And season two is making many of the same mistakes True Detective made, from piling on new characters to telling a giant, overcomplicated narrative.
But it works. Give or take The Leftovers, this is the best show of the fall.
Here's where I tell you why Fargo season two is so great
Fargo's second season at once feels more epic and more intimate than season one. It's big enough to feature aliens, mob wars, and Ronald Reagan, but small enough to mostly be about how two very different women deal with the boxes 1979 Minnesota tries to force them into. (It's also about how to properly dispose of a body when one winds up in your garage.)
It all starts with a story that feels less immediately indebted to the filmmakers whose movies give the series life. Yes, there are touches of many Coen films here, but the season feels less like a "spot the reference!" game than season one did (particularly in its first few episodes).
Showrunner Noah Hawley and his team move with a little more confidence this season. If the first year was a constant sigh of relief that everybody involved was actually getting away with this, season two has a bit of a confident strut to it. "Yeah," it says, "we're getting away with this."
"Joel and Ethan Coen, they never do the same thing twice, so it felt like we can't either. But then what makes it Fargo? It's a state of mind. It's a tone, a voice. You'll know it when you see it," Hawley told me.
The season has been dinged in some corners for an overreliance on its '70s trappings, and it's certainly not shying away from straightforward appropriation of period fashion, pop music, or the Jimmy Carter malaise speech, usually in sequences that simply stick these things out in the open, as if scrawling the words "THE '70S!!!" across the center of the screen in bright neon text.
But that's also important to the show's central idea for the season, which is nothing less than a symbolic retelling of the death of small-town America at the hands of corporate franchising.
(No, I'm serious about this. As Hawley told me, "Corporate America versus the family business is a big through-runner." Mom-and-pop versus Walmart is just about the weirdest thing you could possibly build a crime drama around, which is why it's so brilliant.)
As we begin season two, the small town still holds primacy for the characters. Jean Smart plays Floyd Gerhardt, matriarch of a North Dakota crime syndicate that's been doing things the family way for generations. Now, however, members of a big-city operation are moving into town, trying to absorb the Gerhardts rather than touch off a costly war. But if you know anything about storytelling, you know where this is headed. There's a hotheaded son. There's an untimely health problem. There's Floyd showing off just how much of a spine she has.
"I mean, her name's Floyd," Smart says with a laugh. "I have the feeling that dad was going to get a Floyd whether it was a boy or a girl. He probably raised her like a boy. He taught her how to hunt and shoot and farm and ranch and not be squeamish and not be sentimental. There's a part of her, as much as she's still a mother and a woman, she's a very practical person. You win, and you lose. That's just life."
Meanwhile, the show's other major storyline, involving a young couple who find themselves wrapped up in something very dark indeed, situates itself directly on the kind of small-town Main Street that essentially doesn't exist anymore in 2015. He wants to take over the butcher shop and buy a house and start cranking out kids. She looks for other things and is filled with inexpressible longing. You know where this is headed, too.
This is the part where I tell you originality is overrated
Fargo (in film and TV form) has always been about these characters, pinned down by the camera like bugs stuck to poster board. It's about how even they can see the ways the story is spiraling toward destruction, but they're powerless to stop it from doing so.
In particular, the franchise has always held a wary eye on the characters who don't quite fit within its Midwestern milieu. Yes, that mostly means the gangsters and small-time hoods who wander into the snowy wastes, but it's also interested in characters who find themselves at odds with the prevailing points of view around them, perhaps best exemplified by a poster of a fish swimming against the current that served as a frequent symbol and catchall thematic riff in season one.
In the '70s, says Hawley, "a large quantity of disenfranchised people felt like they were going to get a seat at the table. You had the American Indian Movement. You had the Black Panther movement. And you had second-wave feminism. It was a big push to change the way America was. And then in swooped Ronald Reagan and corporate America, and things played out in a different way. The question was, how can we turn that into a crime story?"
Season two explores this mainly in three characters, including Floyd, who struggles to find a way to keep her husband's operation running in the wake of his untimely illness but can't seem to get even one of her own sons to respect her as leader of the family.
There's also Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon), a Native American associate of the Gerhardts who finds himself standing out against the series' overwhelmingly white (in all senses of that word) landscape. Throughout the season's first four episodes, Native Americans are props to others around them, whether that means an old wooden Indian in the butcher shop or the many, many extras starring in a movie about something called the "Massacre of Sioux Falls," an imagined Ronald Reagan vehicle that opens the season as an out-of-context snippet. But Hanzee is someone who's taken control of his own destiny, even if the Gerhardts aren't sure what to make of him. The flashes of insight we get into his psyche drive some of the season's most compelling moments.
And finally, there's Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), a character buffeted on all sides. She's not especially fond of her husband, but she also doesn't hate him enough to fully take the advice of a co-worker who spouts second-wave feminism and tries to get her to leave him. She's stuck in a life she doesn't know how to get out of, but when she has what might seem the perfect opportunity to do so, she digs in deeper, fortifying herself against change in all its forms. She is central to this show's tragedy, to the way it uses our own certainty of what's going to happen against us. And she's central to the show's Midwestern storytelling.
I interviewed Hawley in the wake of season one, and something he said to me about the upper Midwest has stuck with me ever since. Pivoting off the Coens' description of the area as "Siberia with family restaurants," Hawley said that in an environment where everyone is intent on preserving the niceness of the status quo, above all else, "to make a declarative sentence is to risk offending someone."
Fargo is filled with characters like Peggy — terrified of giving offense, living quiet lives, sometimes nice, sometimes rife with frustration. And then declarations of violence, of anger, of intent, come roaring down the pike, and everything changes.
What makes Fargo work where, say, True Detective struggled with the same elements is because there isn't any mystery. From frame one, we watch the story unfold. We see the crime happen. We know who's at fault, and we have a very good sense of what's coming. Every new character and situation added to the story is another that stands in the way of the return to the status quo that the characters long for but might never get to.
But they should have realized that by now. Red blood spilled on pure white leaves a stain that won't be easily removed.