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Fargo (Season Five)

FX, November 21, 2023

Nov 21, 2023 Photography by Michelle Faye/FX Web Exclusive
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The fifth season of FX’s Fargo features some of the acclaimed series’ best performances and most thrilling action sequences. That’s an impressive feat given the heights Fargo reached in prior seasons.

Yet the first two episodes of this season, both airing on November 21st, get off to a shaky start. This is especially true of the premiere, which begins in the midst of an obnoxiously slow motion, sensationally shot riot at a Midwest school auditorium. It’s a grating send up of “Minnesota nice,” especially because writer/creator Noah Hawley begins the scene with a dictionary definition of that stereotype on a title card. Then he proceeds to heavy-handedly depict the opposite.

As police arrive to put an end to the parents’ rampage in the auditorium, one level headed mom accidentally injures an officer while trying to escape. The unfortunate mother, Dorothy “Dot” Lyon (Juno Temple of Magic Magic, Ted Lasso) is arrested, spends the night in jail, and is eventually bailed out by her wimpy husband Wayne. Wayne’s overbearing mom, Lorraine Lyon, is displeased and quickly becomes suspicious of her seemingly mousey daughter-in-law (“You told your mother?!!?” Dot exclaims at Wayne in a funny early scene). Played by the legendary Jennifer Jason Leigh, (Single White Female, The Hateful Eight) with icy formidability, Lorraine is the type of wealthy small-town Republican who insists her relatives pose with guns in a Christmas card photo. This makes for a surreal early scene after Dot makes bail, where Hawley’s newfound penchant for over the top humor works better than in the opening act, especially as Lorraine totes a machine gun while sporting a mink stole for the camera. But it’s not quite funny enough to keep you from missing the more nuanced humor and writing of Fargo’s prior seasons.

No matter the quandary, Dot remains pathologically upbeat, amounting to an obvious metaphor for patriarchy and underappreciated motherhood as she “aww shucks” (or more like “oh yeahs” as the famed Fargo catch phrase goes) her way through her husband’s aimless response to her incarceration and Lorraine’s judgmental demeanor.

Fortunately, Hawley stops hitting us over the head with these themes before long, revealing more compelling layers under Dot’s façade. Although the contrived riot from the opening sequence is seemingly random and is never explained, it does serve as a dark foreshadowing for the violence yet to befall Dot. Just as she seems to put being bailed out of jail, and her mother in law’s miserable reaction, behind her, intruders break into Dot’s home while her husband and daughter are out. Dot goes from beaten down housewife to action hero, lighting her hairspray to scald one of the assailants. Here, Hawley’s love of slow motion and intensely scored scenes is far more effective as Dot tussles with villains who underestimated her, before fleeing for safety.

An even better scene occurs while Dot is on the run. She hunkers down in a convenience store and deftly turns aisle items into weapons as her kidnappers close in. Temple is a remarkable action hero in the waiting during these scenes, exuding steely determination and morose lived experience as she keeps her attackers at bay. She’s clearly been through worse, and before long Hawley introduces the engrossing antagonist from Dot’s much darker prior life, who refuses to let her carry on as a humble housewife in a sleepy Midwest town.

That villain is Roy Tillman, played by Jon Hamm, the famously debonair star of Mad Men. Hamm dazzles with a performance that subverts audience expectations as much as Temple’s turn as a capable action hero. He quite literally trots into his first Fargo scene on a horse against a picturesque Montana mountain range in the background. He wears a horizon-wide Stetson cowboy hat and a sheepskin coat straight out of a ‘70s American New Wave film’s wardrobe.

Tillman is intent on settling an old score with Dot by sending his henchmen to track her down. Hamm’s scenes unfold gradually and eerily, hinting at untold depths of corruption as he lords over his small town. He holds court, for instance, among disputing neighbors who defer to him as if he’s Solomon straight out of the Bible, ready to suggest cutting a baby in half. In particular, an abusive husband is handed rough justice by an Old Testament quoting Tillman, who then urges the wife to abide by her man and maintain the sanctity of their marriage.

As if that wasn’t twisted and surprising enough, a later scene finds Tillman soaking in a hot tub while a pair of FBI investigators visit to question him about alleged abuses of power. Hamm’s reaction is both chilling and midnight black-humored, as he sits forward in the hot tub, revealing a nipple ring that hints at unexpected layers beneath his old-timey righteousness and Bible thumping.

These later surprise-laden and richly complex scenes handily salvage Fargo’s fifth season after a ham-fisted start. That, and consistently remarkable performances at even the most shoddily written early moments, along with breathtaking action and bleak humor, show Hawley is still a TV visionary well suited to build on the Coen Brothers’ Fargo 1996 film legacy–even if he takes commendable big swings that occasionally miss. (www.fxnetworks.com/shows/fargo)

Author rating: 7/10

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