“Oh sure, 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.” -Karl Weathers
That’s Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman), a man who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t embrace with both arms, reacting in the first episode of the new season of “Fargo” to the speculation that a triple homicide at a small town Minnesota Waffle Hut was the result of a robbery gone wrong.
Karl not only sums up the Waffle Hut situation perfectly, but also the common through-line of all iterations of “Fargo” – the extraordinary Coen Brothers film and the FX series starting its second season Monday night at 10.
Fans of the TV series need not have worried over whether Season 2 could match the bar set by the first season, which was great, but by no means perfect. Just as last year, when fans of the film bemoaned that a “Fargo” TV show was the worst idea ever. It was not. Strong performances by Allison Tolman (Molly Solverson), Billy Bob Thornton (Lorne Malvo) and Colin Hanks (Gus Grimly) made us overlook most of the flaws in the quirky (though slightly meandering and overly-violent) storyline, and overall, the season was a big winner.
The second season, based on the first four episodes at least, is better. And it has none of the actors from Season 1.
This season is meant as a prequel to the events in Season 1. It’s set in 1979 with Patrick Wilson playing state policeman Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine played the retired father of Molly in Season 1). Molly is a little girl here, and her mother has cancer. Lou’s father-in-law, the local sheriff, is played by Ted Danson.
The “something small” that happens in the first episode – the triple-murder that was actually the result of a bungled blackmail attempt – leads us to the Gerhardts of Fargo, North Dakota, a Midwest Mafia family controlling the trucking and distribution in that part of the country. At the time the youngest Gerhardt son, Rye (Kieran Culkin), is committing the Waffle Hut misdeed, his father has a stroke, setting off a power struggle within that family. And that is at the same time a Kansas City group is seeking to take over the Gerhardt territory.
On top of that ongoing saga, the police, the Gerhardts and the Kansas City toughs are all searching for Rye, while a hapless young couple (played by Jesse Plemmons and Kirsten Dunst) are caught in the middle.
The performances across the board are excellent, but a few do stand out. Wilson is perfect as the pre-Carradine Lou. Bookeem Woodbine is mesmerizing as one of the Kansas City bad guys. And Dunst and Plemmons both so fully embody their roles that it soon becomes hard to recall them doing anything else. Their characters are ordinary, salt-of-the earth Midwesterners who, as it happens, end up doing some pretty unspeakable things.
But the revelation of the series for me is Jean Smart, who plays Floyd, the somewhat oddly named matriarch of the Gerhardt family. Smart plays Floyd with an intimidating steeliness, but there’s great vulnerability there too. It’s the best thing she’s ever done.
At one point in the first episode, one of the Kansas City operatives (played by Brad Garrett) somewhat dismissively describes Floyd this way: “She’s tough but, you know, a girl.”
Yes, well, we’d be foolish to underestimate her. Or this show.