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Fargo season 2 finale: Why this show is the heir to Breaking Bad's throne

The two shows have way more in common than it might appear at first blush.

Patrick Wilson stepped into Keith Carradine's estimable boots when playing a younger version of Lou Solverson in season two.
Patrick Wilson stepped into Keith Carradine's estimable boots when playing a younger version of Lou Solverson in season two.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the summer of 2013, Breaking Bad went off the air, at the end of a run that critics essentially named "best show on TV." It left behind what seemed like an exciting new television landscape, with no single series everybody could agree on as "great TV."

Yet look at the results of Hitfix's annual TV critics poll, and you'll see what happened easily enough. Breaking Bad won in 2012 and 2013 — and then it was immediately replaced by FX's Upper Midwest crime series Fargo.

On the surface, the two shows could seem pretty dissimilar, right down to the fact that Breaking Bad put criminals at the center of its narrative, and Fargo tends to focus on cops. And that's to say nothing of how each season of the FX series tells a new story featuring new characters, where the AMC classic told the same story — from inciting incident to bloody climax — over five seasons and six years.

But look a little more closely, and you'll see why the two shows fit together so well. Indeed, there's a good reason that people who liked Breaking Bad often seem to like Fargo nearly as much: They're near-perfect mirror images of one another.

And in the wake of Fargo's tremendous second season and its finale, "Palindrome," it's time to look at just a few reasons why.

1) Both series are about the way even the smallest of evil actions makes good impossible

Peggy and Ed on Fargo
Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) makes one bad choice and loses everything for it.

This is where the two shows mirror each other most clearly. Breaking Bad, of course, began with Walter White choosing to cook meth. He might have had seemingly good motivations — in that he wanted to care for his wife and children after he died from the cancer devouring his insides — but the choice awakened something very dark within him, something that came to consume him as surely as the cancer did.

Fargo flips that idea on its ear. The focus is not on the attractions of evil, but on the long-term reward of leading a good life. Season one's Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and her dad, Lou (played as an older man by Keith Carradine in season one and as a younger man by Patrick Wilson in season two), want nothing more than a nice, quiet little life in small-town Minnesota, something that ultimately protects them from harm.

Most of Fargo's villains are rough twists on Walter and other antiheroes. Season one's Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a tiny man with a nonexistent conscience who is manipulated into darker and darker horrors, while season two's Peggy and Ed Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons) make one bad decision — Peggy runs over a man with her car, and Ed agrees to help her cover it up — that keeps compounding itself.

2) Both series take place in universes with some sort of god

Nothing has polarized Fargo fans more than season two's UFO, a flying spacecraft that enters the narrative at random, then leaves it after causing chaos. It lures a young would-be crime kingpin into the path of Peggy's speeding car, kicking off the season's plot, and then it saves Lou's life when it appears above a hotel during a climactic shootout. Lots of fans have suggested this is pointless weirdness, for the sake of pointless weirdness.

But it's not. It's an indication of the fact that Fargo takes place in a world where some sort of god holds sway over the proceedings. That god may be distant and unknowable, but miracles happen, and the lives of the good are occasionally spared because of them. (Even in those cases, though, good people have to proceed along exactly the right path to get results, as when Molly cannot arrest Lester in season one until she follows procedure almost exactly.) And yet that god can also seem truly cruel and random — as when a rainfall of fish from the sky causes a seemingly unmotivated tragedy in the series' first season.

This was true of Breaking Bad, too. In particular, the series' second season concluded with its own airborne horror — only the event served as salvation, not judgment. Two planes collided in midair, right above Walter's house, scattering the ground with debris. And even if you could say that Walter had caused the plane crash (by allowing the daughter of an air traffic controller to die), the sheer level of coincidence involved in the crash happening right above Walter's house implies some level of divine retribution against a man who had reached beyond his means.

3) Both series are Coen brothers adaptations — sort of

During Breaking Bad's run, it was common for critics to compare its loopy crime storytelling to American independent film, and especially the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers behind some of the greatest movies of the last several decades — including one called Fargo.

Breaking Bad isn't a direct translation of the brothers' work, but it plays in many of the same storytelling arenas and works in some of the same thematic concerns, particularly when it comes to greed and the notion that nobody ever sets out to make just a little money when there's so much more they could rake in (or hide away in their storage unit).

Fargo is a much more direct adaptation — sometimes to a fault. (The series' references to the Coen brothers' work can be cheeky fun; they can also be a little too pleased with themselves.) As such, it exhibits a very similar love for the Coens' storytelling twists and deeper ideas.

4) The shows boast some of TV's most distinctive visual palettes

Fargo takes place in the great white wilds.
Not often you see such a wintry expanse on American television.

Even when it was a low-budget up-and-comer on a network still best known for showing crappy old movies, Breaking Bad made the most of its Albuquerque, New Mexico, shooting location, sending its characters out into endless desert landscapes for tense standoffs and long meth cooking sessions.

Fargo, again, apes its cinematic forebear with its lengthy shots of barren, snowy landscapes, but it's taken this quality in its own direction with much greater skill. Think of the shootout in season one, which was staged entirely by focusing on the outside of the building where said shootout was taking place. Or think of how good season two was at setting up shootouts that had the believable chaos of a real-life burst of violence.

Above all, Fargo is steady and patient, holding on lengthy takes and stopping to rest on wide shots of the snowy expanse. That, too, is reminiscent of Breaking Bad.

5) Both shows feel random but rarely allow for true randomness

Everything about Fargo and Breaking Bad feels carefully thought out and designed. Pieces fall into place with a satisfying exactitude, and the pieces that don't fit always feel like they don't fit because it wouldn't be true to life if everything made sense. (Fargo, after all, claims to be based on a true story.)

I once described the type of story world where every last thing is just so as a "clockwork universe," a place where the writer has made sure to indicate that absolutely everything that happens has a point. For the most part, TV shows that take place in such worlds can feel shallow, didactic, and overly controlled, with little room for random tangents or rabbit trails. But Breaking Bad and Fargo (at least so far) have escaped that problem.

The reason for this is simple: Both shows are interested in the frustrations and triumphs their characters might feel at living in such a world. Whenever Walt pulls off a particularly horrific plan or a Solverson brings down a criminal she's been tracking all season long, it's easy to understand the characters' elation — it's as if they've outsmarted the universe itself.

6) Both shows' best seasons have wrestled with their characters' complicated morality

Bokeem Woodbine in Fargo
Bokeem Woodbine turns Mike Milligan into one of TV's most compelling characters.

Breaking Bad was at its height in its second and third seasons, when Walter's endless quest to take over the Albuquerque drug trade pulled in many around him, and the show examined how these characters might try to live their lives in the midst of such an outsize tale.

Fargo has similarly excelled in season two, as its landscape has burst with colorful characters, from Lou to the Blumquists to chatty criminal Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) and alienated Native American gangster Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon). There's even room for a crime matriarch in her 60s (Jean Smart). The series doesn't make excuses for its characters' evil actions — they're still evil — but it does try to place them in a context where we might better understand and empathize with them. It's a show about how wonderful Midwestern values can be for some people, and how torturous they can be for those who don't fit in for one reason or another.

All of this is driven home in the season two finale, when Lou, having finally arrested Peggy for her hit-and-run (and other crimes accrued along the way), tries to tell her all about the privilege of being a man who's caring for his family. Peggy tries, futilely, to explain to him just how trapped she felt in her old life, married and stuck on a track she couldn't escape, tries to tell him how the old-fashioned world he longs for was a prison for someone like her. And yet, as he says, "People died, Peggy," you can understand something awful. You can even believe it was justified on some level. But it's still a terrible thing.

7) Both shows are about America in crisis

Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan in Fargo.
Bruce Campbell plays Ronald Reagan. Yeah, that happened.

Breaking Bad is deliberately set during the early days of the financial crisis, where the economy seemed to be falling apart and getting effective health insurance could cost far too much for a high school chemistry teacher to afford. It was one of the few shows of its era to deal with the idea that the middle class was being completely gutted, and that such an experience could lead said middle class to take desperate measures.

Fargo, especially in its second season, is about similar ideas. Its larger story — about a small-time crime family taking on a big corporate syndicate — is a rough riff on mom-and-pop stores facing off against (and losing to) big-box stores. It even incorporates Ronald Reagan as a character played by Bruce Campbell, a man who offers easy answers on the stump but can't seem to calm Lou's fears in private.

The characters of Breaking Bad long for security, only to realize that having lots of money will just make you worry about people taking your money. The characters of Fargo long for happiness, only to learn there's no easy elixir that provides comfort, just a world that serves up crushing disappointment. Happiness comes not from a magic pill, but from getting to spend a little more time — no matter how short — with those you love. And outside of that, maybe, the swirling, snowy void.

Breaking Bad's complete run is available on Netflix. Season one of Fargo is available on Hulu, and season two is available on FX Now.

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