Following an underwhelming 1950s-set fourth season that threatened to put a final nail in its coffin, Noah Hawley’s Fargo leaps to the almost-present of 2019 for its newest go-round (premiering Nov. 21 on FX) and, in the process, regains some of its suspenseful and comedic mojo.
There’s nothing mind-blowingly novel about the writer/director’s latest 10-episode tale of murder, mischief, and misogyny most foul on the rural borderlands of Minnesota and North Dakota, and at this point its references to Joel and Ethan Coen’s body of work have lost some of their original inventive luster. Nonetheless, thanks to dexterous stewardship and fine performances from an all-star cast led by Juno Temple, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jon Hamm, it’s a sinister remix that by and large satisfies, no matter its frequent habit of telling rather than showing.
(Warning: Minor spoilers follow.)
In Minnesota, housewife Dorothy Lyon (Temple) finds herself in the thick of a school board meeting gone to hell, and in order to defend herself and her tomboy daughter Scotty (Sienna King), she tases a teacher and, accidentally, a cop. This results in an arrest (with fingerprinting) that puts her in the criminal justice system.
Though she appears to be merely the chipper wife of timid car dealer Wayne (David Rysdahl) and the daughter-in-law of wealthy debt collection agency tycoon Lorraine (Leigh), her authentic nature starts coming to light when, one evening, two masked men arrive at her house and, after a furious struggle that leaves one with a charred visage, she’s kidnapped. That abduction doesn’t last long thanks to a run-in with the cops, which leads to a convenience store skirmish in which Dorothy assists wounded state trooper Witt Farr (Lamorne Morris) and doles out some serious, if not fatal, brutality to malignant Swedish criminal Ole Munch (Sam Spruell).
Upon escaping her dire circumstances, Dorothy returns home and pretends that she wasn’t abducted, making cheery excuses that confuse her docile spouse and raise the suspicions of Lorraine and her eye-patched right-hand man Danish Graves (Dave Foley), as well as that of Deputy Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani). Something strange is afoot with this seemingly nondescript woman, and Fargo slowly parcels out revelations while nimbly staging set pieces (indebted to The Strangers and The Nightmare Before Christmas) that thrum with malevolence.
Those bombshells largely have to do with North Dakota Sheriff Roy Tillman (Hamm), who’s running for re-election on the strength of his crypto-fascist Christian strongman record. Lording over his county as judge, jury, and executioner, his ethos rooted in the biblical idea that God expects women to serve men, he’s a Trump-loving psycho whom Hamm embodies with a type of authoritarian confidence that’s made all the more unnerving by his calm, poised demeanor.
It’s not long before Fargo reveals that it was Roy who tried to have Dorothy snatched, and that he’s not too pleased with Munch—setting the two against each other over a money dispute—nor with his henchman son Gator (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery), a loyal acolyte whose cockiness far outpaces his competence. Together, Hawley’s characters are a familiar bunch of hayseed morons, right-wing psychos, big-business tyrants, greedy strivers, and desperate innocents caught up in a mess of their own clumsy making.
Complicating those matters further is Munch, a monster whose viciousness is downright ancient (as suggested by flashbacks to 1522), and whose role in this saga is as an agent of quasi-supernatural evil. It’s another of Hawley’s smartly concocted Coen stews, regardless of the fact that its ingredients are easily identifiable and not quite fresh.
Fargo’s fifth iteration isn’t altogether original but it makes up for that with engaging personality and smart plotting. Hawley knows how to tantalizingly intertwine his threads, and he draws his characters in bold, amusing colors and then upends expectations (and our feelings) about them in surprising ways.
That’s most true with regards to Lorraine, who’s introduced organizing a Christmas card photo shoot in which her family members wield machine guns (to display “strength”), and who makes jibes about her granddaughter as a “cross-dresser.” She’s a caricature of capitalist MAGA ruthlessness, and yet instead of leaving her as an ugly stereotype, the series eventually imagines her as something more once it pits her against the woman-hating Roy—a conflict which makes Lorraine consider an alliance with officer Olmstead, who’s dealing with her own deadbeat sexist man in wannabe-golf-pro husband Lars (Lukas Gage).
Fargo’s narrative is quite obviously rooted in gender-war dynamics so it’s frustrating that it feels the need to articulate its ideas as bluntly as it does, often via ice queen Lorraine. By constantly having characters state things that are already patently clear from the action at hand, the show exhibits a lack of confidence in its storytelling abilities. At least what it has to say is spot-on, particularly concerning Roy, whose faux-libertarian ethos is mercilessly laid to waste by Lorraine when she explains to him that, by coveting freedom without responsibility, “You’re fighting for your right to be a baby.”
Hawley doesn’t mask his contempt for Trumpers like Roy and Gator, the former a cruel zealot who believes his intolerance is divine, and the latter a dipshit whose violence is a childish reaction to his weakness and ineptitude. They’re the proceedings’ unquestioned villains, and if that’s italicized a bit too plainly by unsubtle dialogue, Hamm and Keery’s excellent turns still make them compellingly menacing.
Fargo, however, is ultimately the story of disparate women who come to realize that they share a common cause, and that there’s strength in numbers, and Temple, Moorjani, and Leigh craft equally captivating portraits of feminine exasperation, resolve, and fortitude.
Hawley imbues their quest with just the right amount of humor and gravity, casting them as different variations of the same theme, and rendering their male adversaries as either cretins who covet domination and fealty, or buffoons who don’t deserve respect (and are all the more dangerous for it). In Spruell’s Munch, meanwhile, he fashions a mysterious specter who embodies the implacable and incomprehensible malice of all ages—and lends this return trip to the Midwest its disquieting chill.
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