Fargo has been such a success as a franchise that FX generally allows Noah Hawley to take years between seasons, bringing it back when he has a good story and a good cast. It’s been three years since the Chris Rock-led fourth season came out, which was sprawling and ambitious — and sometimes a drag. In Season 5, Hawley comes back to Minnesota and North Dakota to tell the story of yet another “mundane” Midwesterner who is anything but.
FARGO SEASON 5: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A definition of “Minnesota nice” is displayed on the screen, then we see a school board meeting descend into chaos, to the tune of Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People”.
The Gist: The only people who don’t seem to be screaming and/or taking swings at people are Dorothy “Dot” Lyon (Juno Temple) and her daughter Scotty (Sienna King). She tries to get Scotty out of the auditorium, when she’s accosted by one of the teachers. She tases him, then accidentally tases a police officer. Because of that, she’s handcuffed and put in a police cruiser, driven by Scandia, Minnesota police deputy Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani). As Dot sits in the back of the patrol car, we learn the story takes place in 2019.
Of course, Dot is agitated by being arrested, but her agitation feels like it’s more than just something that a normal stay-at-home-mom might have. When she’s released, her husband Wayne Lyon (David Rysdahl) picks her up; they have to go straight to visit his mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to take the annual Lyon family holiday picture.
Lorraine, never a fan of her daughter-in-law, calls her an “outlaw”, and calls Scotty a “cross-dresser” because she’s wearing a suit and tie. The family poses for the picture holding automatic weapons, and the family has dinner with their lawyer, Danish Graves (Dave Foley). Lorraine feels money is the answer to most problems, but Wayne insists on living on his own salary and not touching the trust that’s available to him.
As she falls asleep that night, she sees a vision of Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm) and it keeps her awake. The next morning, after Wayne and Scotty leave for the day, Dot sees a hulking man wearing a ski mask outside her house. The man (Sam Spruell) and his sidekick enter the house, and search around for Dot. What they don’t anticipate is that the woman knows how to fight back.
And even though they eventually manage to grab her — the idea was to take her alive — a run-in with North Dakota state trooper Witt Farr (Lamorne Morris) gives her a chance to escape. Back in Scandia, Deputy Olmstead comes to the Lyons’ house and finds plenty of evidence that Dot has been abducted. Lorraine, thinking that the kidnappers are actually after the Lyon family fortune, vows not to pay much for “some low-rent skirt my son knocked up.”
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Season 5 of Fargo hews much closer to the first season of the show, the one that starred Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton, than any of the seasons since.
Our Take: While we know that any season of Fargo can have a plot that can go in myriad directions, what we appreciated about Season 5, especially after watching the first two episodes, is that series auteur Noah Hawley has focused in on a basic initial story. For all appearances, Dot Lyon seems like a typical upper-middle-class Minnesota housewife and mom. She’s unfailingly nice, she passes the day knitting and loves making her daughter Bisquick pancakes for breakfast. But she’s got a past, one that she thought she left behind a decade prior. And she knows that the incident at the school board meeting is going to end up bringing that past back.
That seemingly basic plot sets in motion a tense but fun-to-watch first episode, as Dot shows skills no one ever though she had, much less the person who sent those thugs after her. In the second episode, she maintains that she just went out to clear her mind, despite strong evidence to the contrary, and that by itself tells us that she’s trying to put the toothpaste back in a tube that’s already been squeezed, and that has all sorts of implications.
We get to know Roy Tillman more in Episode 2; he’s a sheriff who basically considers himself the law in his North Dakota county, with his deputy Gator Tillman (Joe Keery) tasked with handing out Tilman’s brand of justice. He tells the local FBI agents, Meyer (Jessica Pohly) and Joaquin (Nick Gomez) that right and wrong is more important to him than legal or illegal, and that pretty much sums up the kind of guy he is. Hamm plays Tillman with a malevolent glee that we’ve seen in lesser degrees in other roles, even Don Draper, but he gets to chew some scenery as the season’s Big Bad, and we can’t wait to see more evil emanating from Hamm.
We’ve seen Leigh play a condescension-dripping matriarch before, but Lorraine Lyon seems to be particularly nasty, which is a delight. But Temple is the revelation here, managing to shed her British accent and effectively disappear into the intense Dot. She’s figured out how to live her life and avoid her past, and we’re intrigued by the ways she’s able to fight against it when there is a threat. She even gets the “Minnesota nice” concept more or less correct, though we’d imagine Minnesotans are always annoyed at how cartoonishly their accent and niceness is profiled by Hawley.
The first two episodes had more than enough tension and plot propulsion to keep things from getting bogged down, something that couldn’t be said about the last two seasons of Fargo. It certainly made us take notice and get intrigued about in just what direction the story is going to go.
Sex and Skin: We see Jon Hamm’s butt in Episode 2.
Parting Shot: After coming home and denying that she was abducted, Dot vigorously mixes a batch of Bisquick pancakes for Scotty’s breakfast, which seems like it’s a few hours away.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to both Morris and Moorjani as the cops that are going to get very deep into this case. We do see a little of the story of Moorjani’s character, Indira Olmstead; she and her husband Lars (Lukas Gage) are deep in debt as he tries to advance his pro golfing career, and we wonder what part that will play in the story.
Most Pilot-y Line: Lorraine calling Scotty a “cross-dresser” was a bit of a sledgehammery sign that “This woman? She’s up to no good,” as was the family posing for their holiday picture holding automatic weapons.
Our Call: STREAM IT. By scaling down the scope of the Season 5 story, at least to start Noah Hawley has brought Fargo back to the show that we enjoyed so much during its first two seasons.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.