Winter, when used correctly, can be wielded as an immensely powerful aesthetic. It also may be the year’s most emotionally versatile season. Visual artists may use the endless, reflective surfaces of snow to suggest a form of levity, or even pure innocence. More frequently, artists may harness the bleakness of the season to convey something more introspective, somber, and brooding. The ability to portray both simultaneously is nigh impossible, but if achieved can create something truly unique and impactful. In recent memory, only three individuals have been able to accomplish this: the Coen brothers, and Noah Hawley.
The original “Fargo” film, released in 1996, remains one of the Coen brothers’ strongest works. With a pitch-perfect cast, beautiful landscapes, and constant balance of tone, the film encapsulates the charm and horror of Minnesota, their childhood home. Nearly two decades later, for some inexplicable reason, Noah Hawley was approached with a pitch to turn the film into a television series. Hawley found the prospect impossible. One could create a series that expanded the soul of the film, but not its narrative. FX agreed, and production began on a new breed of “Fargo,” produced by the Coens. And in an impossible turn of events, they may have created something stronger than the original source material.
“Fargo” the television series follows an anthology format. Each season is tangentially linked with the film and each other, but each narrative is self-contained. The stories feel like different riffs on the same melody; similar notes are hit, but in new and surprising ways. In the first season, new characters approximate roles occupied by the original film cast. Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard sharply parallels William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard. However, Lester’s fall into monstrosity is sharper and deeper than Jerry could have ever imagined.
The story of the first season, at first, does not stray far from the film. With the help of Billy Bob Thorton’s Malvo, Lester finds himself caught in a world of blood that he cannot control (though he certainly tries). Newcomer Allison Tolman (as Molly Solverson) echoes the role that won Frances McDormand her Oscar, and plays a rising police officer trying to piece the murders together. Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Key & Peele, and many other familiar faces join the cast to form ten episodes that consistently balance comedy with heartwrenching suspense. Tolman and Freeman in particular give performances of a lifetime. One close-up from Molly can cause devastating heartbreak.
Each episode subverts expectations. The show adjusts pace as it will, taking its sweet time to increase dread and then jumping forward by large amounts of time when least expected. Billy Bob Thornton offers an incredibly unsettling scene from an elevator. One snowstorm scene can rotate through the full spectrum of emotional responses, and the show uses snow in every way it can.
Along with aesthetics and references, the soundtrack ties the seasons and film together more than anything else. Composer Jeff Russo takes Carter Burwell’s theme from 1996 and modernizes it for the show. The new sound of “Fargo” is less folksy and more vibrant. At times Russo amplifies the tension, at others he makes sequences far more playful than they would be otherwise. Two assassins are underscored with a cheerful drumbeat. For season two, he carries over the old motifs for new uses, just as the narrative does.
Ultimately, “Fargo”’s first season is one of the best-crafted seasons in television. That is not an easy bar to meet. And by abandoning its first story and cast, there was severe risk of “Fargo” falling into the same sophomore slump that “True Detective” suffered (the shows air mere months apart). However, all fears were immediately doused with the second season’s premiere last Monday. Season 2 jumps back in time to the onset of the Reagan era (with Ronald himself being placed by Bruce Campbell). We now follow Molly’s father (Patrick Wilson) in the wake of four murders in the midst of Minnesota winter. Kirsten Dunst plays an aspiring, neurotic hairdresser. Jesse Plemmons plays her boyfriend and aspiring butcher shop owner. The premiere includes Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) and Cristin Milioti (“How I Met Your Mother”) as guest stars. Bad things happen to everyone.
Unlike the first season, which was written entirely by Noah Hawley, the second season has multiple writers. It still remains unclear whether this changes the show’s smoothness in structure. However, the series remains as visually striking as ever. Winter might as well be the show’s most important character, and interiors are just as beautiful. The second season’s editing has become more experimental, with dual-frame shots and blackout cutting for new effects. This works better for some scenes than others, but the techniques are intriguing.
Really, what makes “Fargo” so impressive is its ability to amuse and horrify its audience at the same time. Hawley is able to take the ludicrous climax of the film (in which a man tries to stuff a limb into a wood chipper) and drags that tone out across an entire series. He’s able to make us deeply fear for the lives of actors who essentially act as they would on their sketch show. Characters will give long diatribes on Biblical passages and fables which straddle the line between ridiculous and profound. In one sequence, the sky rains fish, and we have no idea of whether we’re to laugh or to cry (or both) given the context. Season 2 opens with a pan of the aftermath of a battle. Corpses of troops and Native Americans litter the landscape during a long take that turns out to be part of a film set. Not only does this telegraph another season of carnage to come, but also another ten hours of the blending of humor and horror.
The show jumps between the perspectives of many different people, the majority of which are horrible. Some are irredeemable, others we care for despite ourselves. But the heart of “Fargo,” since the beginning, is that there must be a fundamental good. An unyielding source of innocence. In the film, it was McDormand’s Marge. In the series, it’s the Sulversons. As the winds of winter become more chaotic in every sense, their determination remains absolute.
Time will tell if “Fargo” will be able to both reinvent itself and keep to its formula for several seasons. However, with each episode, the show has been able to not only prove itself, but rise above expectations, and it shows no sign of stopping now. Amongst its organized crime intrigue, family drama, and introspection on the very heart of human nature, “Fargo” continues to be one of the most fascinating, inventive, and entertaining shows that television has to offer.