Sunday, February 4, 2024

Television Watch: Fargo Season 5

In the long, long ago, I went to film school and had the rough idea of the kinds of stories I was drawn to, and in the most auteurish version of the world, what sort of thing I'd want to make.  When I watch the television series Fargo, it is with the knowledge that this is the kind of stuff that lives in my wheelhouse, but done light years better than - even in my most self-congratulatory fever dreams - I could imagine delivering.

It's noir, in its way.  And allegorical, most certainly.  Characters have rich inner lives from which they call and respond to one another, and watching each season is mapping and reconciling the arc of each character, understanding how they fit into a larger tapestry as Hawley weaves a picture of the point he's trying to make this time.

Initially, the show seemed like a fool's errand.  The 1996 film upon which the show is based is a bonafide modern-ish classic (I am not taking comment or questions on this statement).  Trying to work in the world of the Coens, aping their style and worldview seemed breathlessly arrogant.  I was part of the audience from the 1980's and 1990's, who - thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen - came to see movies could maybe be a bit more than what I thought.  The Coens provided a fresh take and a clear perspective all their own when it came to style, substance and density of narrative, as much auteurs as you were likely to see in the US film industry, and ushering in the 1990's indie-film era.   

Perhaps delivered at the height of their powers, the Coens' Fargo (1996) managed to become a box-office hit and award winner.  Something about an honest cop from the Midwest getting mixed up into the affairs of what looked like an ideal family and the human weakness, terrible violence, and failure of basic decency that spills out landed first with critics and then the larger audience.  The film's tone swerved between melancholy, terror, hilarity and shock in a particular mix that left the audience stunned into silence by the movie's end.  On the surface it navigated a simple cop story about a crime gone wrong, but worked as a parable for what is wasted in the pursuit of wealth and how it takes you further and further from what actually matters.  

I can't speak to how other people watched the movie, but that was what knocked my socks off.

Anyway, with the announcement of a television show based on the movie, my assumption was that someone was going to take the nutty Minnesota-nice accents of the film, put together some daffy crimes for a plucky cop to solve, and we'd have a show.  Were it not for good early reviews, I might have skipped it.

I confess, when Season 1 rolled out, what writer/ producer/ director Noah Hawley pulled off read to me as a mind-bending re-architecting of the concepts and themes, using parts of the film, parts of other Coen Bros. work, and delivering something perhaps more sprawling but as impactful as the movie.  Plus, he gave the world Allison Tolman, who is not in enough stuff.  It felt very much a piece of the original but not a copy.

Folks will tell you they didn't like this season or that season of Fargo.  Or this one was better and that one was poorer.  And that's a sane and normal reaction to any show.  Especially one that starts over with a new cast and conflict every season, with loose ties to prior seasons.  But I'm good with all of the show, in awe of what's been delivered across five seasons and ten years, whether it's the gangster epic of Season 4 or almost academic exercise of Season 3.  I appreciate the time and care put into each episode, and overall arcs (note: we have a total of 5 seasons over 10 years).  But I also confess, I've not rewatched any of them, and maybe should.    

Each episode begins with the same promise as the film. "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in (year). At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."   It's a false promise, the show is fictional, and interpretations vary as to why the film did this in 1996, and why it's been continued as part of the show.  

While I think it speaks to the sort of thing that draws people into a crime film, and has for generations now, it also echoes what the Coens and Hawley seem to want to say:  No, this isn't true - but we're trying to tell you something true.  As with all stories, there's truth buried within.

Season 5 takes place just before COVID, in 2019.  The political backdrop of the era is constantly in the background, and shoved into the foreground from time to time - in fact, beginning with a brawl at a local school board meeting.  

Discussing the plot across 10 hours of tightly plotted and dense television is a challenge.  But this season felt more immediate with its chronological proximity, pulling in current-ish events in the form of the rugged individualist American Sheriff/ cowboy and the de-evolution of the brave stereotype to Sheriff Joe Arpaio-style elected local dictators who care more about their own version of the law than anything on the books.  It worries about the way the US has been basing itself around the accumulation of financial debts and cynical maneuvering by the wealthy to put useful idiots in office.  It wonders what everyone else is supposed to do when these people are allowed to be the ones we have to live with.

Very quickly:  the story follows Dorothy "Dot" Lyon (Juno Temple firing on all cylinders), a homemaker and mother, who has a minor and accidental brush with the law that gets her into the system.  Soon, two kidnappers appear, and Dot fights them with every fiber of her being, drawing the attention of police (Richa Moorjani) and her billionaire mother-in-law (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  It seems Dot was once "Nadine", a child bride who ran from the cruelty of her husband, a Sheriff in nowhere North Dakota.  The Sheriff (John Hamm) has decided to get Nadine back.  However, one of the kidnappers hired is a wild card - possibly a man made ageless as a "sin-eater" (Sam Spruell) who does not take kindly to having not been told how Dot would fight back.  This being Fargo, things get complicated.  

The plot isn't window dressing, but it's a framework to serve Hawley's meditation on debt and forgiveness (spoilers, I guess).  It's the debt we think of tied to credit cards, and the cruelty of how debts are held and used.  But it's also emotional debts and how we balance our ledgers when we adhere to a code.  Holding a debt can wield power (see Jason Leigh), or the belief someone owes you can destroy you (Hamm) or hold others to a standard to which they did not agree or are unaware (Spruell).  

This is Fargo, and so there's evil and there's stupidity, but there's also goodness and grace.  And, as a novel element in this season, growth.  And forgiveness of those debts.  

Dot clearly echoes Jean Lundergaard of the first film, who does fight back when the kidnappers come for her.  And its to Hawley's credit that he asked the question "what if she won?  What would spark the need to fight so hard?" and center Dorothy in the story.  And what kind of person she would be.

To his credit, Hawley didn't decide Dot was some sleeper agent or a woman with a past in the CIA.  The answer is more banal and cruel and her response one of survival, making the character all the more interesting and sympathetic (something that changes everyone along the way, and those who remain unchanged showing who they are).  

At the time of the 1996 film, Marge Gunderson as a pregnant woman police officer was seen as remarkable - an unlikely protagonist, which doesn't say much great about where we were in 1996, but time marches on.  This season has a largely female lead cast, with men mostly in supporting roles, and the vision of post-John Wayne America* embodied by Hamm's Sheriff the only male lead, telling about what Hawley was also looking at in this moment.  Leigh's sniffy, dismissiveness of his grandiosity as the mentality of a child is... kind of amazing.  

But in his own way, the husband of Moorjani's cop - the layabout husband with dreams of grandiosity wasting everyone else's life, is no less a damning picture.  It's only Wayne Lyon (David Rhysdahl) and his unshakable devotion to Dot that seems worth a damn.   

Perhaps more than prior seasons, the season is also about myths and illusions we tell ourself - whether it's that we're a housewife in Minneapolis, a true defender of freedom, a good partner, or an eater of sin.  

Of course this has always been true.  You don't get the 1996 film without Jerry Lundergaard thinking he can strike it rich, getting in over his head and deciding a kidnapping will make it work out.  But this season gives us Dorothy living a life that seems a fantasy til her past catches up with her.  She can't tell her story even to herself except in a rich fantasy of safety and redemption that can't ever come.  Our Sheriff believes he's protecting freedom and justice while destroying both for anyone who crosses him, believes the things he tells himself are coming from God - his chapel on his own property, far from where he'd need to worship with and look others in the eye.  The Sin-Eater who has created a mythology for himself of how the world should and must work, condemning himself.  Or the Sheriff's son who believes in his position against all evidence.

It's the self-told mythologies that collide, over and over across the show.  Perhaps the most clear-eyed is Leigh's billionaire, but she's left with not much but her cynicism and expansion of power as a means unto itself.  But it's in reading Nadine/ Dorothy's story that she grows.  

Look, this is a *dense* show.  I haven't even got into the amazing cast, really (Dave Foley!).  Or followed explicit plot threads, or dug into the variety of characters 10 hours affords the show, and how they work with the themes.  Not the FBI, how the raid happens or unfolds, how this season sees someone walk away from law enforcement and someone else killed in the line of duty.  Or the delight that is Wayne Lyon.

Certainly there will be folks who are mad about the show, and that it humiliates a figure like Hamm's Sheriff, or at least points to the absurdity and cruelty of folks who might resemble him in the real world.  And to that, I can only shrug.  If the show is political, it's because the nonsense of some people's politics are not without impact and tend to go hand-in-hand with abhorrent views and behavior.

There are innumerable memorable bits from the season, but I salute that final episode.  It's a long epilogue to the "action" climax, but narratively, the climax hits once the smoke clears.  It's in the scene where Munch comes to the Lyon's home, restored and back in operating order, allowed in by Wayne, who likes people enough to just let a guy in.  And I appreciate the show putting a button on it.  There's no need to be ambiguous for any particular artistic reason here.  Wayne already showed you can give without debt, and Dot breaks a cycle of centuries with a simple act.  It's lovely stuff, and it speaks volumes as the show evolves to find a way forward instead of circling the problem.

It's not the explosive violence that punctuates the season, although the threat of the possibility ripples below the surface.  There's so much at stake in the sequence, its execution is phenomenal.  But, above all, it feels like a coda on not just this season but the prior years of the show.  The answer is simple.  You can try a new path.  You can take pleasure in simple things and live without taking, and that's not naive.  It's a choice.  And you can offer it to others.

It was a terrific bit of television and/ or film.  For me, it resonates like mad, and delivered in a package that works.  And I'll be back for whatever Hawley does next, whether it's more Fargo or something else.  

I'm also not shocked that Juno Temple was great - I've not seen her do the same thing twice from Killer Joe to Ted Lasso to The Offer.  But, damn, man.  

*for the record, I am not particularly anti-John Wayne or the movies he made, which are not, mostly, what twitter wants them to be


Steven said...

Really compelling summation. Thanks for the tip. About 60% of the way through I knew it was something special b/c you were talking about *it* (versus memories, industry inside, etc.) with a lot of focus and a lot of ink yet to spill. Sounds very well wrought, almost recalling "The Wire."

The League said...

I think both are well crafted and show some truths, with the tonal difference of "journalistic, from the streets" and "here's a parable told with modern trappings". YMMV.