"This is a true story. The events depicted took place in [location] in [year] ... "
-- the stock opening of an episode of the FX series "Fargo"
The following contains mild spoilers for the first three episodes of the fifth season Fx series "Fargo."
Because it's fun, let's assume that all the "Fargo" stories -- the original 1996 movie by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and the television series created and primarily written by Noah Hawley that debuted in 2014 and is in the midst of its fifth season -- occur within the same universe. It's not our world, but a near-perfect facsimile inhabited by the likes of Marge Gunderson, Peggy Blumquist, Loy Cannon, Gloria Burgle and Lorne Malvo.
We have dipped into this world at different points in time, rubber-necked the violence, and enjoyed the blackness at the heart of the comedy. More than anything else, "Fargo" is a particular tone -- dry and bloody with a top note of exquisite absurdity. All the stories are "true" -- at least emotionally. And in Fargo World, they really happened. Because anything imagined might as well be true.
And lots of Our World murders are -- when you step back -- slapstick debacles. Most murders, both in Our World and in Fargo World, are failures of the imagination, committed by desperate losers. It's so sad we have to laugh. It's safe to laugh at "Fargo" because no one in the story is related to anyone you will ever meet. There is no bridge to Fargo World; it is hermetically sealed behind your screen.
This season of "Fargo" takes place in 2019, which means it is pre-covid (though Fargo World does not impinge on Our World, we have certain things in common; our histories run parallel) and America is coming apart. A fistfight at a school board meeting is emblematic of the lines of fissure.
A young mother living in Scandia, Minn. (a place that exists in both OW and FW as a suburb of St. Paul) named Dorothy "Dot" Lyon (Juno Temple) is at the meeting in the school auditorium with her preteen daughter Scotty (Sienna King) and is seemingly the only rational, peaceable person there. Her first and only thought is how to extricate herself from a riot. As they make their way out, they are accosted by Scotty's math teacher, who is barreling toward them screaming, "No one's listening to me!"
Reflexively, Dot puts him down, holding her taser to his neck. When a police officer tries to restrain Dot, she wheels and tasers him. Oops.
For this she is arrested, booked and fingerprinted -- she worries that her prints will be put in some national database. She should have thought of that before she tasered the police officer. ("On accident.")
BURDENED BY DEBT
The officer who arrests Dot is Deputy Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani). Indira is burdened with the debt racked up by her husband Lars (Lukas Gage), who is chasing his dream of becoming a touring golf pro by beating drives into the simulator in their basement.
Despite having the worst golf swing this side of Glenn Ford in "Follow the Sun," Lars did come second in some event in South Carolina, so good for him. And in "Fargo" (the movie), Marge Gunderson's maiden name was Olmstead, which means Lars might be her nephew or some more distant relative, though it's only fair to point out there are a lot of Olmsteads in Minnesota.
At the same time, Hawley (who wrote the first three and directed the first two episodes of this season) intentionally made Indira an Olmstead. Not just because it's a common name -- every choice a creator makes ought to be intentional, otherwise it's a wasted opportunity, and Hawley is not the sort of writer to waste opportunities. Maybe she's not related to Marge, but she does have some of the same diligence, practicality and grit, though her variety of Minnesota Nice might have slightly more edge than Marge's.
Three episodes in, and we can receive Indira as at least an echo of Marge.
DOT IS THE FOCUS
But the focus of this season is on Dot. If "Indira Olmstead" is an intentional name, then how can "Dorothy Lyon" not be? Especially given the fourth season's many allusions to "The Wizard of Oz" -- a fan theory even held that the season was a rewrite of Frank Baum's American fairy tale with several Fargo characters directly corresponding to Dorothy -- we have to believe that Hawley chose this name with that subtext in mind. (Maybe to tweak the exegesis freaks.)
Already we've seen her proclaim herself a fierce "Mama Lyon/Lion," and her courage credentials are firmly established in the first episode. Dorothy (a stranger in a strange land) seems to have a particular set of skills, and when Ole Munch (Sam Spruell) and his henchman Donald Ireland (Devon Bostick) come to kidnap her (in a scene that's pretty much a shot-by-shot re-creation of a kidnapping in the original movie), she fights back hard, burning Ireland's face and slicing Munch's face with an ice skate.
(Munch bears some resemblance to the ruthless and efficient killer played by Billy Bob Thornton, Loren Malvo, in the series' first season and, in his awkward haircut, to Anton Chigurh, as portrayed by Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men." He also announced his kinship with the nihilists who rampaged through "The Big Lebowski." ("Fargo" is hardly the only Coen Brothers movie to which Hawley calls back.)
But eventually Dot is overcome, and when her husband, soft-spoken Wayne (David Rysdahl) and daughter Scotty come home, they find the obvious evidence that she has been kidnapped. Indira is the first officer on the scene, and soon enough it's confirmed that the blood on the floor isn't Dot's. The burned-up ski mask in the bedroom upstairs can't mean anything good either.
Like Jerry Lundegaar in the 1996 movie, Wayne is in the car business; he goes directly to his mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a high-powered businesswoman who runs some kind of credit repair/financial services for the desperate company that has made her unspeakably rich. Lorraine doesn't approve of "gold-digging" Dot, who she suspects of arranging her own kidnapping for the ransom. Still, after conferring with her consigliere Danish Graves (Dave Foley), Lorraine agrees to pay whatever ransom demand is made.
But none is forthcoming, because -- leaving out a lot -- that evening Dot strolls back into the family home in Scandia, her bare feet bloody and Bisquick on her mind. She explains to Wayne and Scotty that she had a bad day and went for a walk. Despite the evidence, she denies she was kidnapped. She posits her own set of alternate facts and prepares to bully her way through.
What we understand is that the kidnapping was arranged by duly elected sheriff of Stark County Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm). Tillman bills himself as a "constitutional sheriff," which in his interpretation means he follows "justice and tradition ... the law has very little to do with it." Roy claims Dot is actually his runaway wife, Nadine (he found her through the fingerprints), and he means to bring her home, which led him to hiring Munch and Ireland.
With Ireland dead (we skipped over that part) and the mission a failure, Tillman orders his skeevy son Gator (Joe Keery from "Stranger Things") to take Munch to the "fixin' place" and settle things, by which he means assassinate him. But Munch is more competent and lethal than Gator and his goons. He kills one of them and leaves a note for Tillman: "You Owe Me."
Three episodes in and I love this season. But a lot of things I love aren't quality. I like Jack Reacher novels and the Monkees and Matt Helm movies, and while I can argue for their delightfulness, I am self-aware enough to admit that they are just junky pleasures. Nothing to feel guilty about, perhaps, but I understand why some people would pass.
"Fargo" -- the series, especially season five -- is rich and dense and sweet, but maybe not so nutritious. Maybe I just like the in-jokes and the idea of a nipple-ringed Jon Hamm. And it's too early to tell where this season is going anyway.
But there are some ideas here; Scotty likes to play with gender norms, and while Wayne and Dot might be complicit in whatever nefarious business has Lorraine in trouble with the FBI, they at least seem like good parents raising a good kid in dangerous times.
Hawley seems to have nailed the contention and free-floating anger of the age. Lorraine and Tillman are hardly caricatures; we see them all the time on cable news. We see their wannabes and acolytes, we read their bumper stickers and T-shirts every time we go out in public.
Lorraine has her family pose for the annual Christmas card holding AR-15-style rifles that we have to careful not to call "assault weapons" lest we infuriate those lying in wait for insult. It's not such a broad gesture -- it's something some people actually do. And more people will probably do it now that Hawley has given them the idea.
There is a lot of talk about who owes what to whom. Tillman owes Munch. Dot owes Tillman, at least according to justice and tradition. Lorraine has built her empire on debt. Indira owes everyone.
And Hawley owes us entertainment. So far he has delivered it. Having only seen three episodes -- they don't expect you to review a movie off the first 30 minutes! -- it's too soon to say what it all means and whether it works. (FX actually provided six episodes for review, but I'm watching it in real time.)
But scene by scene, it's pretty thrilling, and so far every episode has left me wanting more. I've never binged a series, but had they dropped the entire fifth season of "Fargo" all at once, I might be through it already.
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