Two > > Three > One >> Four. There, that’s the extent to which we need to relitigate Noah Hawley’s Fargo. This love letter not just to the Coen Brothers’ 1996 black-comedy crime classic but to their entire oeuvre is getting to that M*A*S*H point where it’s funny to point out how it’s outlasted its inspiration, but along the way it has aired one truly great season of television, two merely terrific ones, and one that would have gone over a lot better had poor Chris Rock not been miscast as a crime boss. That’s an excellent track record from where I’m sitting, even before you factor in Hawley’s acuity with action sequences, tension and suspense, weird eruptions of uncanny horror, getting gangbusters work out of a slew of fantastic actors both with and without prior Coens experience, you name it. So what if Hawley, on whom I run hot and cold as a rule, is not Joel and Ethan fused into one new guy? Voguish or not, if Fargo is on, I’m watching.
Titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the grand Fargo season-premiere fashion, the show’s first ep in years takes place in the more-or-less contemporary setting of 2019. We’re in small-town Minnesota, and a school board meeting has erupted into a small-scale riot. That’s where we meet Dorothy Lyon (Juno Temple) and her “cub” Scotty (Sienna King). The latter is a quiet girl who prefers suits to dresses; the former is…well, that remains to be seen.
Dorothy gets arrested when she accidentally tazes a cop amid the chaos. Fortunately (?), she has married into money via her husband Wayne (David Rysdahl), a sort of very sweet nebbish who gets pushed around by his plainly psychotic right-wing billionaire mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh, loving every minute of it). It’s hilarious how ill-suited Dot, Wayne, and Scotty look when made to hold automatic weapons for the family Christmas photo. Then again…well, we’ll return to that.
Even though she is quickly released on bail and has the promise of the state attorney general himself (James Madge) to look into the case, Dorothy is still plagued by uneasy dreams of a homestead someplace, presided over by a sinister man played by Jon Hamm. But the real nightmare begins when a pair of masked kidnappers (Sam Spruell and Devon Bostick) show up, the first of whom looming into view wearing a kilt and a sack over his head, like an off-model slasher from an earlier film in the series before the look was solidified.
And in a series of the tensest cat-and-mouse action and suspense sequences I’ve seen since, gosh, The Old Man last year?, Dorothy uses fire, an ice skate’s blade, an unexpected traffic stop over stolen plates, two bags of ice, a bottle of lighter fluid (this doesn’t actually come into play; eat it, Chekov), a shovel, and the help of Deputy Witt Farr (Lamorne Morris) to escape. From her house to a rural road to a gas station convenience store, it’s fantastic action filmmaking.
At the end of it all Dorothy abandons Witt and flees the scene, returns home, denies the kidnapping, and acts like nothing much is wrong, despite having bloody carved-up feet from broken glass in a shootout between the kidnappers and the deputy like Bruce Willis’s in the fourth act of Die Hard. There’s very clearly some dark secret about her past she’s hiding, something she wants to keep from the cops. There’s also some kind of weird traumatic association with Bisquick pancakes; more on this as it develops.
The selling points of this episode, the first of two released as a double premiere by FX, are obvious. Juno Temple is a marvelously unpredictable actor who brings real final-girl energy to her Minnesota Niceness. Hawley’s slow camera movements and long stretches of silence are gold when it comes to creating high-tension crime television, as Fargo, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and The Americans all can attest; you let the audience’s mind race while you stroll confidently from one idea and image to the next. Hawley’s style is not particularly Coensy except when he’s doing explicit homages, but his use of those Errol Morris Thin Blue Line flickering red-and-blues against the darkness, or against Sam Spruell’s 1960s British gangster face, is gorgeous. There’s a scene where they’re walking through a parking lot that has some of the best natural magic-hour lighting I’ve seen on the small screen in an age.
The drawbacks are there too, though I find them minor. I’m not sure we needed the literal dictionary definition of Minnesota Nice on a title card to kick off what is, after all, the fifth season of a show adapting a movie about this concept. Revealing Dorothy’s surname was after she talked about how dangerous it is to come between “a mama lion and her cub” was a real oh, brother moment. The obviousness can get a little grating now and then.
But there’s artistry to be found in the unsubtle and the subtle alike. Usually, on this show, Hawley (who wrote and directed the episode) has an unsubtleness that really works for humor, horror, satire, hardboiled crime, and several other applications. That’s why I’m not litigating the validity of the project anymore; the show has earned respect. This episode is no exception.