An added twist this season comes in the form of extraterrestrial involvement.
BY HUGH ELLIOTT
The second season of the unforgettable FX series “Fargo” takes place in 1979. Fun fact: I actually visited Fargo, N.D., in 1979.
At college, I was the gay BFF for a trio of girls on my dorm floor. One invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Fargo; I agreed because I was young and thought I should explore the world. Fargo was cold and flat. What I wanted more than anything was a pair of authentic cowboy boots, and I was told they’re sold everywhere in Fargo. I didn’t ask why, and I didn’t care. I got the perfect new pair for $25. This, I told myself, was the reason I went to Fargo. It was my destiny — my fate.
Of course, it wasn’t. But something in that frozen, monochromatic landscape invites one to ponder destiny and fate. “Fargo” agrees.
The second, currently airing season deals with the clash between two organized crime factions in the Midwest. One side of this war is the Gerhardt family, whose patriarchal leader just suffered a debilitating stroke. His remaining two sons struggle to keep the family business afloat while their mother steps in to lead.
Meanwhile, a small-town couple becomes involved in the death of the youngest Gerhardt son. All these people come under investigation by a state trooper and the local sheriff.
As befits the Coen Brothers’ filmic source material, “Fargo’s” plot can seem convoluted, a random series of events. Part of the show’s satisfaction lies in how skillfully disparate occurrences align and click like a Rube Goldberg contraption. There was a brilliant turn in Season 1, and Season 2 — which has a completely different cast and plot — ups the ante as “Fargo” mixes in characters’ brushes with history.
The year 1979 was a turning point in our country. Americans were still dealing with the aftershock of the Vietnam War — almost all of “Fargo’s” characters discuss the war’s impact on them — while the year also marked the ascension of Ronald Reagan and a new Conservative Right. Reagan himself makes a campaign stop in Minnesota, and the state trooper (Patrick Wilson) is assigned to protect him. Reagan gives his rote stump speech, featuring his infamous call for America to be “a shining city upon a hill.” He saw it as America’s destiny — and his own fate — to lead.
It also was the year Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister. On “Fargo,” when Floyd Gerhardt’s husband is paralyzed by a stroke, Floyd (Jean Smart) quietly and resolutely takes over leading the family. When she tells adversaries about becoming a strong woman, she begins with her children, both dead and alive, each one a battle she fought.
“I’m not afraid of a war,” she calmly intones in her best Iron Lady mode. Smart’s performance is riveting, not the least because of the power and determination she exudes with the most minimal affect. And she smokes a pipe. Never underestimate the power of a woman who smokes a pipe. Whatever you think you know about Jean Smart, leave that behind. She will be rightly remembered at award season and deserves every accolade she gets.
Nineteen-seventy-nine also was the deadline that came and went for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress. Floyd Gerhardt stealthily moves into a position of power, but other women in the series wrestle with women’s changing societal roles.
Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) is a small-town beautician who dreams of escaping matrimonial destiny with her butcher husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). Dunst’s trademark unfocused gaze and scattered, nervous energy perfectly suit a woman unsure of her place in her world. She is, as another character says, a “bit touched.” As her blocky, steadfast husband, Plemons exemplifies remnants of the past that Peggy wants to leave behind. For what, she’s not sure, but her unpredictability brings its own tension to the proceedings. For both husband and wife, fate has curious plans in store.
State Trooper Lou Solverson attempts to connect the dots between these characters and events. Indeed Wilson’s character and his 6-year-old daughter are a younger version of the first season’s retired father (Keith Carradine) and his adult daughter.
This is the sly connection between the two seasons. Wilson doesn’t mimic Carradine, but he exhibits the same dogged resolve to solve a case. Amid chaos, he is the one person who’s looking for some logic to it all — to have destiny explain itself. His father-in-law (Ted Danson) is the local sheriff, and the two men calmly go about their business, searching for the reasons some people’s fates lead to murder.
An added twist this season comes in the form of extraterrestrial involvement. At first, this subplot seemed unlike the meat-and-potatoes world that the “Fargo” brand always inhabits. But it’s presented so quietly, with minimal intrusion, that it somehow works perfectly. Humans historically have looked to the stars for a hint of their destinies. One “Fargo” character posits that there is no fate; humans actually are just the playthings of aliens. This theory comes and goes without rebuke, as plausible as any for the path our actions take — paths endlessly intertwining on flat, snow-covered land. “Fargo” brilliantly, fearlessly takes us down these roads in a completely engrossing way. You don’t want to miss it.
Hugh Elliott reviews film and TV for ABQ Free Press. He lives in Los Angeles.