'Fargo': How the Midwestern Noir Just Got Even Better

More ambitious and deeper, the second season of this Coenesque true-crime anthology reaches new highs

Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson in 'Fargo.' Credit: Chris Large/FX

Minnesota, 1979: a massacre at the Waffle Hut, three bodies riddled with bullets. Nobody knows why. This kind of crime isn't supposed to happen in a small town near South Dakota. In the local vets' hall, a cop talks it over with his buddies. One of them starts popping off — Nick Offerman, as a boozy vet ranting about JFK and RFK, with a Reagan campaign poster on the wall behind him. The cop says, "It's a diner robbery in Minnesota, Karl — not a presidential assassination." "Oh, sure," Offerman snorts. "That's how it starts, with something small — like a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. But just watch. This thing's only getting bigger."

Those words apply to Fargo too — the audacious and intense second season of FX's true-crime anthology series improves on the first installment in every detail. The first season achieved the damn-near-impossible task of taking off from the 1996 Coen brothers classic Fargo and telling a new story. The second chapter has a different narrative and a new cast — and the confidence level is through the roof. Fargo sets the scene with Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" and a loop of 1970s images: Jimmy Carter, John Wayne Gacy, the Rev. Jim Jones, lines at gas stations. America's mood-ring setting is "bummed out," yet nobody realizes how much uglier it's going to get in the Eighties.

The cop at the center of the story is Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson (played in Season One by Keith Carradine). Here, he's a Vietnam vet faced with a crime that nobody can explain. His father-in-law on the force is Ted Danson — instantly recognizable, but utterly different — gruff and stoic, with a mountain-man beard. Jesse Plemons is the palooka at the butcher shop, whose wife, Kirsten Dunst, has a few dark secrets. Jean Smart, the matriarch of a crime family, is trying to keep small-town organized crime alive, but the Kansas City mob wants in.

With its deep cast and eccentric rhythms, Fargo sketches out a fascinating portrait of America at the crossroads. When a local girl complains that she missed the Sixties, the gangster she's in bed with snickers. "The Seventies were always coming, like a hangover," he says. "And you know what happened to Flower Rain Blossom? She's on methadone in Bismarck, turning tricks for breakfast meat." The country is changing so fast, these people on Fargo can't recognize it. But this thing's only getting bigger.