Season two of Fargo is the best movie-to-TV conversion since M*A*S*H. Like season one, but with more discernment and warmth, Noah Hawley’s series referenced the original 1996 movie as well as many other Coen Brothers films — including, most audaciously, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which also uses a UFO as a deus ex machina of sorts. And yet it never seemed to be strip-mining other artists’ work, or treating viewers’ affection for it as a crutch. Jeff Russo’s music is the key to appreciating what the writers, directors, and crew are doing. The show’s original score evoked Carter Burwell’s film score (right down to the main theme) without going so far as to steal from it, his approach mirroring showrunner and head writer Noah Hawley’s storytelling. To continue the musical analogy, this show is an extended set of variations on the Coens, less a collection of covers than an anthology of original work inspired by a certain band, with specific lyrical and musical callbacks nestled deep within each cut.
But even as TV’s Fargo pays homage to the Coens by borrowing character names, bits of dialogue, situations, and songs, it is resolutely its own thing — more clearly so here than in season one. Some of the most effective allusions in season two were powerful because they were not merely lifted from the Coens and plunked down willy-nilly, but recontextualized in surprising, sometimes haunting ways. I’m thinking particularly of Cristin Milioti’s Betsy recalling a dream, employing phrases familiar from H.I. McDunnough’s final letter as the story flashed forward to show her daughter and now-widowed husband moving through life without her; and the use of the Chieftains’ cover of “Down in the Willow Garden,” sung as a lullaby by Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, over the closing credits of one episode (in both Raising Arizona and Fargo season two, that song is a harbinger of darkness to come, and both contain “demon” figures: the biker in Arizona, the Gerhardts in the show).
All of which explains why the season’s only direct musical quotation — a snippet of Fargo the movie’s main theme — was so resonant. It appeared over a shot of Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson walking toward his squad car, which of course evoked memories of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson at the end of the film. I believe the series has only done this twice before, both times in season one: when the future supermarket king finds the ransom money that Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter buried in the snow and uses it to start his miniature business empire (subliminally confirming that this show does take place in the same universe as the film), and again over the finale’s end credits. It’s indicative of Hawley’s appealing mix of ambition and humility, less a declaration of equality than a question posed to the audience: “So, do ya think we earned the right to call ourselves Fargo, or what?” The ambition manifests itself in the clever and often uncharacteristically patient (for TV) filmmaking, the integration of beloved Coen-esque elements into original stories, the occasional linkage of Hawley’s universe to the brothers’, the knotty, ellipsis-filled, often stubbornly opaque storytelling, and the playful formal devices (such as having episode nine be narrated in detached third person by Martin Freeman, co-star of season one, reading aloud from a nonexistent book about notorious crimes of the Midwest). The humility is evidenced by the way the show resists the urge to tie every character and situation to something the Coens did.
By the time season two entered its second half, the show’s derivative singularity became much harder to deny. It had a sincerely loving relationship between two very polite borderline sociopaths, the hairdresser Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons), which seemed a perverse mirror of the relationship between Lou and Betsy as well as the Gundersons in the film. It had several twists that were more surprising because they felt calculatedly anticlimactic, such as the fate of Bokeem Woodbine’s Kansas City fixer Mike Milligan, who saved his own ass from the furnace of the Gerhardt–Kansas City war only to be consigned to a Kafka-esque accounting job in a comically cramped office. (Mike’s supervisor, actor and regular Fargo director Adam Arkin, urges him to get his mind around the idea that there is only one business now, money, and warns him to get a haircut and a proper suit.)
The flat, snow-dotted panoramas, the camera movements that patiently revealed things rather than jamming them in our faces, and the mournful eruptions of violence all had a faintly Coen-esque feeling, but with more warmth and sadness, as if Hawley had swapped the Coens’ Old Testament God’s-eye view (detached and maybe a bit malicious, though you can never be entirely sure with those guys) for a New Testament, “Forgive them, father, they know not what they do” approach — something close to a lament. Unlike in season one, and in contrast to many Coen Brothers films, there were few moments that opened the series to charges that it was condescending to its eccentric characters or their way of speaking and acting. There was love in every characterization, and understanding, even when the person onscreen was troubling or in some way reprehensible, and there were moments when the series seemed to be warning us, and perhaps itself, against glibly overintellectualizing a story in which so many people suffer. The show is philosophically inclined but resistant toward explanations, and at key moments, it seems to have contempt for those who would sum up human experience with an inspirational quote or an aphorism. (“Camus says knowing when you're going to die makes life absurd,” Noreen says. “Well, I don't know who that is,” Betsy replies, “but I'm betting he doesn't have a 6-year-old girl.”)
Throughout, the story presented different permutations of family, and showed how loyalty to one’s blood kin (or to one’s own pathologies, using “family” as an excuse for all manner of behavior) drove the waves of incident that washed over every character. This is yet another aspect of season two that echoes Raising Arizona, a slapstick comedy that boasted four families (three traditional, the other consisting of the convicts Gale and Evelle, who become attached to the kidnapped baby) plus a demon figure who was demonic because, as he revealed in a monologue, he was given up for adoption by his own parents as a child and sold on the black market.
The Solversons were the steadiest, most law-abiding, most conventional examples of family in season two, and they were contrasted with the Gerhardts, murderous racketeers who appeared to have a deep love for each other even as they fought for prominence within the organization. The Kansas City mob is another kind of family (corporation as family, maybe, and what a pathetic thought that is), while Ed and Peggy are another (child-free) example, supposedly doing everything for their shared future even though they can’t agree on what that is, exactly. Peggy’s determination to take that self-actualization class nearly jeopardizes Ed’s plan to buy the shop, but she’s not wrong to want what she wants, despite Lou chastising her in the police car (“People died, Peggy”) when she talks about how the “you can have it all” message oppresses women and makes them feel like failures. In the end, Ed seems to understand their incompatibility, even as he’s bleeding out on the floor of the meat locker where his wife hallucinates a fire based on a (nonexistent) Ronald Reagan film that is probably a projection of her stunted conscience. “Even if we make it through this, we are not going to make it,” Ed tells her. “We're just too different.”
The Solversons, like the Gundersons before them, serve as an exemplary balance against all the familial dysfunction and chaos. “Someone said you'll know the angels when they come because they'll have the faces of your children,” says Betsy’s cop father, Hank Larsson, who survived the motel massacre. (And just when you worry that Hank is summing up an experience that can’t be summed up, he laughs.) The final shot of Lou and Betsy in bed — and how lovely that the show ended with Molly’s mother still alive rather than with a deathbed scene — mirrored the end of Fargo but had a different, much more poignant feel, celebrating not a domestic Utopia that still was, but one that soon would cease to exist.
The soft-spoken Native American Vietnam veteran turned assassin Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon) detonated inside the series’ clockwork plot like a previously undetected mine, or like the African-American World War I veteran in Thomas Wolfe’s novella A Child by Tiger, who seemed to be getting along okay inside the white man’s world, despite constant indignities, until one day he flipped and started killing everyone. Hanzee’s behavior here seemed of a piece with the two appearances of UFOs, which sparked season two’s main plot in the premiere, distracting Kieran Culkin’s Rye the instant before Peggy’s car hit him, and then saved Lou in the finale by distracting his attacker long enough for Lou to grab his pistol and shoot him through the throat. The Coens’ plots often hinge on bizarre coincidences, wrongheaded assumptions, and misunderstandings, and they frequently include characters and incidents that have an enormous impact on the main characters’ lives while seeming utterly disinterested in their happiness: Think of the demon biker in Arizona who seems to have been summoned by the hero’s unconscious, or the Grim Reaper–like hit man Anton Chiguhr in No Country for Old Men, or the storm at the end of A Serious Man. The UFO and Hanzee’s decision to turn on the adoptive crime family that raised him are a part of this tradition. They are the tsunamis, the collapsing mines, the defective elevator shafts, the missing manhole covers, that can change a day or a life, suddenly and irrevocably. But not every story like that ends in scorched-earth tragedy. Miracles can be dark as well as light, and sometimes they can be a bit of both: Consider Lou’s Vietnam story of the helicopter pilot saving everyone in his hold before crashing into the sea and surviving, which describes not just the predicament of Peggy, who survived a massacre that killed dozens, but also Lou, and Hank, and a lot of other characters besides.
Among its many virtues, FX’s Fargo is proof that, once in a very great while, a richly imagined movie that feels complete in and of itself can be treated as “intellectual property” and spun off, then produce something that feels neither coldly intellectualized nor like yet another damned intellectual property, and that can stand on its own as popular art. The Coen Brothers references that are scattered throughout Fargo the series, and embedded in its DNA, are fun to talk about. But one can easily imagine somebody coming into the series cold, without having seen any of the movies being referenced, and still getting something out of it, and perhaps thinking of it as a classic in its own right, and in its own medium.