The Wolves Came, Whispering

Fargo was such a singular movie, such a unique and multilayered take on the typical heist-gone-wrong film, that it was almost unthinkable that it could be remade, rebooted, adapted or made sequel in anything like a satisfying manner.  That someone actually managed to do so almost twenty years later — managed, in fact, to do all those things, and to not only avoid making a complete mess of the effort, but to produce one of the finest shows on television in the process, beggars belief to the point that it seems almost implausible. Surely, one thinks, there must be a trick to it.

The trick is even more astonishing when one considers that this isn’t even the first time someone tried to capture the frozen lightning in a cracked bottle that is the Coen’s masterful small-town neo-noir in television form.  The first attempt, only a year after Fargo‘s release in theaters, wasn’t a complete disaster, but it wasn’t all that great, either; it made a hash of the film’s deft combination of grim-faced, bloody fiasco and frequently hilarious character study.  It also didn’t quite know what to do with itself plot-wise, turning Marge Gunderson into a very different creation and sticking her in what would surely have been a dreary weekly procedural had it not been yanked from production after a single poorly-received episode.  Nothing more was said of the matter for a decade and a half, but finally, Noah Hawley, after some difficult negotiations for the rights to the name, came to the FX Network, and the result was one of the best shows of 2014.

The second season of Fargo begins in two weeks, and it remains to be seen if Hawley and his writers can capture the same magic as they did the first time around.  They’re off to a good start, at the very least, with the cast they’ve put together, a factor that did much to sell the show.  The first season wrapped itself in a showy, effective cloak with the casting of Billy Bob Thornton as the malevolent, mad hornet of a man who kickstarts the entire blood-soaked proceedings, but he would have stuck out like a rash if it weren’t for the skillful staffing of the rest of the show’s universe.  Martin Freeman is surprising as a man whose violent break from the prison of his meekness both liberates and destroys him; Shawn Doyle is tragic confidence and ease as a small-town sheriff; Keith Carradine is laconic wisdom and Joey King innocent charm; and Bob Odenkirk, whose dramatic skills have, amazingly, begun to rival his comedic ones, has never been better than he is here as a decent local policeman who’s in far over his head, and learns it almost too late.

But best of all is the acting find of the year.  Allison Tolman came from a theater background and had very few television credits to her name, but she is absolutely perfect as Molly Solverson, a role that ought to launch her into the demand her copious talent deserves.  Molly is wry, talented, and immensely dedicated, but she is also ambitious and inexperienced; so certain is she of her insight that she cuts corners and then expresses a heartbreaking frustration when she’s unable to make her case.  Tolman gives her just enough intelligence to make her a figure we admire and root for, but just enough vulnerability that we understand and empathize with her every setback.  No television performance came close, and Tolman is a major talent.

Fargo has a lot more time to work with than its movie inspiration, and it doesn’t always make the most of it.  Hawley, though, is clever enough to know when things aren’t working, and by and large, he sidesteps major errors; the unexpected time-jump late in the series comes just as the progress of the story is beginning to lag, and keeps it from entirely losing steam.  The show is funny, and just funny enough:  it leavens even its darkest moments with humor, but it never goes entirely off the rails and degenerates into farce, and if a few of the jokes don’t stick, Hawley knows well enough to keep moving.  The biggest problem, of course, is Lorne Malvo; he evinces many of the same qualities — and problems — that are inevitable whenever you create a nearly supernatural villain of depth and mystery.  While there’s nothing wrong with Thornton’s excellent performance, Malvo is simply on screen so much that he takes to many risks, comes across as almost literally super-villainous, and risks the vital suspension of disbelief that allows us to embrace the rest of the story.  Fargo probably would not have been nearly as good a show without him, but any more of him might have sunk it.

Hawley’s best trick, however, is in the conception of Fargo and the way it reveals itself to be a sequel to the film, but not the kind of sequel anyone would have been able to predict.  It manages to maintain its eminently enjoyable mood by taking concepts, ideas, characterizations, relationships, and even lines of dialogue from the Coens (and not just from Fargo) and rearranging them into something that is not quite a sequel, not exactly a reboot, not precisely a remake, and not wholly an interpretation.  In fact, it shares with the terrific Hannibal, another surprisingly good re-imagining of existing material, this fascinating approach: both are more or less mosaics of their source material, almost completely new artistic visions made up of small bits and pieces of existing works and and then laid out in a hypnotic new pattern.

Faced with a surprising degree of both critical and popular success, Hawley’s next trick will be to replicated the quality of season one.  He’s certainly got his work cut out for him, great cast or no.  But with the anthology format making a comeback on television, he’s figured out an effective way to address its many inherent flaws.  True Detective failed in its second season by offering too little difference in theme and tone, too radical a departure in storyline with too complex a plot and too few lasting relationship; American Horror Story understood its own structure and feel, but blew it trying to constantly one-up itself and double down on disjointed madness.  Fargo, though, seems to be attempting something new:  its second season will be a thread in a tapestry, unique in color but inextricably tied to every fabric of what has gone before.  Hawley’s claim to be telling a true story is as intentionally phony as was the Coen’s, but it’s been a hell of a story so far.

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