While the Chris Rock-starring fourth season of the FX anthology series was a mess, this new season gets back to what Noah Hawley’s show does best
When last we saw FX‘s Fargo nearly three years ago, its creator, Noah Hawley, had taken the franchise away from its home turf, both physically and demographically. The fourth season roamed hundreds of miles south from the show’s usual Minnesotan stomping grounds for a story set on the mean streets of 1950s Kansas City. And after three seasons of showing all the sins hidden behind the polite veneer of Scandinavian-Americans in the Upper Midwest, this new story focused on a war between Black and Italian mobsters.
It was Hawley’s ambitious try at proving that the Fargo name didn’t have to be limited to the territory defined by the classic Coen Brothers movie that inspired the series. It just didn’t work. There were too many characters, too many subplots, and both Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman ultimately seemed miscast as the leaders of the respective mob factions. With a few notable exceptions — like a black-and-white Wizard of Oz homage that’s one of the very best episodes of the entire series — Hawley failed to hit the target each time he aimed high.
The anthology drama’s long-delayed fifth season is such a blatant retreat from the deviations of the previous installment that it opens with an onscreen definition of “Minnesota nice,” a concept that’s fundamental to how Fargo has traditionally worked. All of the action takes place in urban and suburban Minnesota, or in a rural North Dakota county on the other side of the border. The accents are thick, the false politeness aggressive, and there’s snow everywhere. While the characters aren’t all Marge Gunderson or Molly Solverson types — two of this year’s cops are played by Lamorne Morris and Richa Moorjani — the new story is much more in conversation with both the movie and previous seasons than the Kansas City year was.
We open in the fall of 2019, with a tale that could not be more upfront in wanting to discuss America’s ever-widening, ever-angrier cultural divide. The premiere, written and directed by Hawley, begins on an ugly, violent riot. As the camera pulls back, we see that people are trying to tear each other to pieces in the middle of a local school board meeting to plan the local fall festival, where Dot Lyon (Juno Temple) is cowering in a seat, her arms wrapped around daughter Scotty (Sienna King). When the cops arrive to break things up — and to arrest Dot for tasering a man she thought was trying to attack her — one of them laments, “What’s the world coming to, is all I’m sayin’. Neighbor against neighbor.”
From there, we meet Dot’s mother-in-law Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an imperious woman who insists that Dot, Scotty, and Dot’s husband Wayne (David Rysdahl) all hold assault rifles while posing for her Christmas card. Lorraine has built a fortune collecting debt from poor people, and has nothing but contempt for anyone below her rung on the socioeconomic ladder. When local cop Indira Olmstead (Moorjani) tries challenging her in a later episode, Lorraine coolly insists that the police exist only to act as gatekeepers for those who are already rich and powerful.
Though Lorraine represents much of what’s gone awry with the American experiment, the season’s main villain is Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), longtime sheriff of a North Dakota county that he rules like his own private kingdom. Roy is the kind of guy who believes it’s his job to write the laws that govern his people, and who will fight to the last to keep society from evolving past the dark ages. In one early scene, we see him beat up an abusive husband, then immediately tell the battered wife that it’s her responsibility to prevent being harmed in the future by being more attentive to her man’s sexual needs.
Roy is also, it turns out, the husband whom Dot — whose name is not really Dot — ran away from years before. Dot’s arrest puts her into the system, alerting Roy to her new existence, and siccing various goons — from an eccentric hitman called Ole Munch (Sam Spruell) to Roy’s idiot deputy/son Gator (Joe Keery) — on her. But Dot turns out to be far more resourceful and creative with plotting and administering violence — Kevin McCallister meets MacGyver meets a wild animal (Ole Munch compares her to a tiger) — than anyone expects.
It is, in other words, a new collection of performers playing Noah Hawley’s Greatest Hits, as Fargo the TV show leans into what it’s always done best. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with giving the people what they want, especially when you’re giving them Jon Hamm, Juno Temple, and Jennifer Jason Leigh along the way.
Hamm has long been good at playing villains. Roy Tillman’s specific brand of malevolence seems perfectly in tune with the Mad Men star’s gift for playing macho avatars of a bygone era who are confused and angered by change. He’s at once menacing and pathetic, never more than in a delightful scene where Lorraine notes that Roy wants freedom without responsibility, then explains that only one kind of person on earth gets that: “You’re fighting for your right to be a baby.”
Entitled, ineffectual MAGA manchildren are plentiful throughout the season — so much that even Dot’s genius for improvised weaponry can only take her so far. Temple definitely comes closest to caricature of the three leads, but the show is aware of this, and eventually establishes a reason why the accent and a lot of Dot’s personality seems like a put-on.
Leigh is the latest Coen movie alum to appear on the show, joining the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg. Lorraine isn’t exactly the kind of rat-a-tat Forties dame that Leigh played in the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy, but she’s in that same haughty neighborhood. It’s a delight watching Lorraine — and, at times, her eyepatch-wearing, mustachioed attack-dog attorney, Danish Graves — tearing into anyone who displeases her even slightly.
Danish is played by comedian Dave Foley, who continues two Fargo-on-TV traditions. One, he has a colorful name that will stick in your head forever(*). And two, Foley is playing Danish as if he still has at least one foot inside a Kids in the Hall sketch, but it works. Like many Coen films, the show manages to incorporate a wide variety of performance styles that seem like they have no business being in the same story, even as they ultimately do. In this case, that hodgepodge also has thematic resonance, because so much of the season is about characters being in their own silos, completely unable to imagine what anyone else’s existence is like. At one point, Danish tells state trooper Witt Farr (Morris) that he and the Lyons don’t care about any evidence Witt has in a case, because, “With all due respect, we’ve got our own reality.” A flabbergasted Witt replies, “You can’t. That’s not a thing!”
(*) On the whole, though, Hawley is much more restrained with the names compared to Season Four, which featured characters named Deafy Wickware, Doctor Senator, Rabbi Milligan, Constant Calamita, and Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, among many, many, many others.
The collision of these various characters, with their wildly conflicting worldviews, keeps the season moving swiftly, as do the various Home Alone-esque setpieces where Dot repels Roy’s forces. And while the new episodes in many ways feel like they’re rehashing broader conflicts and ideas from the earlier seasons, this is also the closest the series has come to pure horror, with both Roy’s actions and the wildcard violence of Ole Munch, whose backstory is… well, some things should be surprises. Even in a season that is deliberately trying not to surprise the audience but give them what they expect, it’s made at a high enough level that the familiarity feels like part of the fun.
The first two episodes of Fargo Season Five premiere tonight on FX, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first six.