This winter, the evil men arrive from Kansas City, and they don’t believe in “Minnesota Nice.”
Season 2 of “Fargo” tells another gripping Midwestern gangster tale, avoiding the sophomore slump that crippled “True Detective,” the HBO crime anthology that stole its spotlight the first time around.
The first season of “Fargo” wasn’t strictly based-on the 1996 movie but instead tipped its hat in clever ways to the original tale. TV watchers found out what happened to that briefcase full of money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi, but other than that, the story went its own way.
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The new season of “Fargo,” which starts Monday night on FX, treats its source material the same way. Despite being a prequel of sorts, the story can stand alone. But fans of the first season will remember the image of retired Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson keeping guard on a porch with a shotgun on his lap.
Solverson, played by Keith Carradine in Season 1, told his granddaughter that he’d had to protect his family from a faceless threat once before.
“One other time, winter of 1979. Minus 4 degrees. Sat on a dark porch from dusk till dawn. Your stepmom was inside sleeping. Four years old.”
“Who did you think was coming?” she asks.
“It wasn’t a question of who,” he replies, “more like what.”
Lou Solverson — now portrayed by Patrick Wilson — isn’t much of a storyteller, but lucky for us, “Fargo” writer/director/showrunner Noah Hawley is. In its next 10 episodes, the 1979 mess will be laid out in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed: Good cops clashing with apathetic ones, small-time crooks in over their heads, murder intruding on the mundane lives of the less-than-extraordinary folks.
“Fargo” has kept up its theme of the desperate businessman this season. Like William H. Macy’s car dealer and Martin Freeman’s insurance salesman, Mike Bradecich’s Sioux Falls, S.D., typewriter store owner reaches out to a shady silent partner for help, just until he can get those new self-correcting models in.
“They’re not just for women anymore,” he insists.
Like a rock dropped into a pond, the show’s first burst of violence creates a circle of ripples traveling outward from everyone who was unlucky enough to be at the Waffle Hut in Luverne, Minn., one snowy night during the Carter Administration. All because of a delayed shipment of IBM Selectrics.
Selfish, sweet-mannered hairstylist Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst) is one of those unlucky people. She has nothing to do with the three dead bodies inside, but just driving past draws her into the danger, along with her hapless husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons of “Breaking Bad”). The Blomquists embody the “Fargo” mentality toward Minnesotans in peril: They like to take care of things themselves, and they’re really bad liars.
When the Waffle Hut melee is tied to a low-level North Dakota gangster, it reveals a weakness in the ruling Fargo outfit, the Gerhardts. That’s when Kansas City arrives with an offer to buy them out.
The Gerhardts, whose patriarch has just been crippled by a stroke, are a crime family of varying competence. Mama Floyd (Jean Smart) is the obvious choice to take over for her husband, but the oldest of her three sons thinks it’s his turn. Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice”) is like Sonny Corleone in a fur-lined parka, eager to go to war and unwilling to follow any woman’s direction. The oldest of Dodd’s four daughters, Simone (Rachel Keller) is a vampy, coke-sniffing 19-year-old who can’t resist goading her dad with her sexuality.
The depiction of the Gerhardts as they struggle with one another, the police and the Kansas City contingent is masterful. “Fargo” doesn’t allow them to lapse into meat-headed tropes, focusing instead on the small moments of their lives: taking Dad to the doctor, picking up doughnuts, reading get-well-soon cards.
A lot more of those might be on the way if they don’t take the Kansas City deal. This “Fargo,” like the ones before it, features some terrifying hit men who don’t talk. This time, they’re the Kitchen Brothers, chauffeured from Kansas City to Luverne, Sioux Falls and Fargo by a philosophizing enforcer named Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). Emmy winner Brad Garrett, as a mobster middle manager committed to a corporate business model, takes the deal to the Gerhardts: Kansas City takes over, or it’s war.
“Fargo’s” cast is so strong, the story so sprawling, that it’s impossible to touch on every great performance. Nick Offerman appears as Luverne’s loud-mouthed conspiracy theorist. Ted Danson is Lou Solverson’s father-in-law and the county sheriff. Grammy winner Cristin Milioti of “How I Met Your Mother” is Solverson’s cancer-stricken wife. Kieran Culkin is Rye, the youngest and dullest Gerhardt brother. “Evil Dead” acting legend Bruce Campbell will star in later episodes as Ronald Reagan.
How many of these characters will survive to vote in the 1980 election is definitely in question, especially given what Solverson said about the Sioux Falls case in a conversation with last season’s bad guy, Lee Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton).
“I saw something that year I ain’t ever seen, before or since,” he said, after a passing reference to stacks of victims’ bodies. “I’d call it animal. Except animals only kill for food. This was Sioux Falls. Ever been?”
Where to watch
Season 2 of “Fargo” premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on FX.