Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief Frances McDormand played in Fargo the movie, does not appear in Fargo the show. Not in the flesh, anyway. In spirit, she’s all over FX’s hit anthology series — reincarnated into a new body each season, her famous Minnesota gumption worn like a badge. Allison Tolman played the show’s first, most obvious Gunderson proxy. Since then, we’ve seen a gender-flipped Gunderson in Patrick Wilson’s nice-guy deputy and a double dose of Gunderson in the intersecting Stussy cases investigated by Carrie Coon and Olivia Sandoval. Last season even delivered a kind of evil Gunderson, with Jessie Buckley putting a malevolent spin on McDormand’s Midwest folksiness as a psychotic 1950s nurse. (In classic Fargo terms, you could say she put the “chipper” in wood chipper.)
The mantle passes once more in the show’s upcoming fifth season, premiering on November 21. And in accordance with a clear attempt to take this ongoing riff on snowy Coen noir back to basics, we get a rather traditional Gunderson again: a Minnesota police officer investigating a series of violent crimes. In case the resemblance to Brainerd’s (and maybe cinema’s) most lovable cop wasn’t clear enough, we first meet Deputy Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani) behind the wheel of a cruiser, expressing her disappointment — and her appreciation for a “beautiful day” — to the handcuffed woman sitting in the backseat.
That woman is Dorothy "Dot" Lyon (Juno Temple), and she’s got a little Marge in her, too, at least when it comes to cadence, vocabulary, and what Hawley defines, via epigraph, as “Minnesota nice.” Dot has been arrested for accidentally tasing a police officer during the season’s opening scene, a community meeting turned brawl. That’s only the beginning of her bad day, which will culminate with a kidnapping like the one towards the start of the Fargo movie, complete with criminals in ski masks and a wimpy car-salesman husband (David Rysdahl). But Dot is no helpless victim. She’s Gundersonian in her wits, too.
Though the scope of the story will expand to North Dakota, much of the action unfolds in Minnesota circa 2019. That’s just one way that Hawley retreats to the formula of his Fargo after a divisive fourth season that transported audiences outside the Coen brothers’ home state and into a midcentury Kansas City rocked by mob warfare. In theory, it was admirable to see the writer-director-creator try something different, riffing more on Miller’s Crossing than the show’s namesake masterpiece. In practice, Season 4 was a bloated, self-serious mess devoid of almost everything that made the previous seasons worth watching. Season 5 restores the dark-comic tone — that existential screwball, a play on Joel and Ethan’s — but still succumbs to some of the same problems, like Hawley’s increasing preference for loudly stated themes and clashing acting styles.
In terms of pure star power, the biggest name on the call sheet is probably Jon Hamm, suppressing most of his Don Draper charm to play a figure of patriarchal menace: a cowboy lawman acting as judge, jury, and executioner of his Great Plains fiefdom, convinced he’s ordained by God. (If nothing else, this bastardly sheriff at last complicates Fargo’s depiction of the police as a force of quaint benevolence, doggedly pursuing justice in the face of corruption and dimwit greed.) Hamm’s Roy Tillman has a history with Dot, the smiling housewife with a past. He arranges the kidnapping, hiring one of the season’s other instruments of evil, played by Sam Spruell — a kind of composite of Coen villains, combining the cold blood and bad haircut of Anton Chigurh with the towering psychopathy of Peter Stormare’s Fargo character, plus a wink of self-declared Lebowski nihilism.
And then there’s Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dot’s wealthy, monstrously uncaring mother-in-law. Trying out a slower variation on the affected mid-Atlantic dialect she offered in the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, Leigh conspires with Hawley’s broad script to deliver a total caricature of venomous privilege. Every line and line delivery is a groaner. Plus, how did this icy goddess of industry, this unfunny Lucille Bluth, raise a son so Midwestern in accent and disposition? Jerry Lundegaard sure didn’t come from old East Coast money.
The full ensemble is thankfully slimmer than the overstuffed perp walk of Season 4, but it still expands to include Lamorne Morris as another cop caught in the crossfire, Jessica Pohly and Nick Gomez as exasperated FBI agents, Joe Keery as Roy’s incompetent son, and a cartoonishly eye-patched Dave Foley. All of these characters orbit Dot, a resourceful survivalist likened to a tiger by one bamboozled assailant, to Rambo by a grateful ally, and to Kevin McCallister by the author of this review. She’s a fun character — an unlikely action heroine poised, via Temple’s spirited performance, on the ledge between chatty suburban hospitality and the desperation of an identity crisis.
Season 5 is at its best in pure genre mode, simply observing Dot slip in and out of peril: The premiere climaxes with a showdown in a gas station that thrillingly confirms No Country for Old Men as a point of reference for this latest round of remixed Coenalia. But Hawley’s talents behind the camera (he directed the first two installments) are frequently eclipsed by his missteps in front of the keyboard (he wrote or co-wrote all 10). The strain of expanding a criminal caper of reusable elements into a full season of television has started to show, particularly in Fargo’s wheel-spinning repetitions; there are two invasions of the same home in the six episodes provided to critics. And even the show’s creative peak, its ’70s-set second season, suffered from Hawley’s tendency to resolve his plots with little more than bloodshed, the high body count betraying a failure of imagination.
He’s got a lot on his mind this year. The first few episodes touch on institutional sexism, our national love affair with guns, and the corrosive relationship between capitalism and religious extremism, embodied by the heavies looming over Dot on her failed quest for reinvention. The problem lies in Hawley’s distrustful insistence on spelling all this out, either through subtext-destroying dialogue or, say, the presence of Trump on a TV set, babbling away while Hamm’s conservative cop slaps his wife. One longs for the implications of Burn After Reading, which let a political point grow organically out of the darkly farcical developments of the plot. Too often does this Fargo flirt with the declarative language of a #Resist meme, even having one good guy respond to the fascist talking point of a bad guy with an internet-friendly, very un-Coen “That’s not a thing.”
Fargo has never just been an exercise in recycled style, a Coens cover. Hawley treats the original movie as a lens he can throw over American culture, using the repeated appearance of key components to make a point about the cyclical nature of crime and tragedy in this country. To that end, there’s something rather poignant about how the show keeps sticking a new heir to the sheriff’s office on the margins of a new cheekily fabricated “true story.” If Marge was the moral conscience of Fargo, it’s heartening to see her live on through a lineage of like-minded characters. But it’s also a pity to hear her plainspoken empathy crowded out by a bunch of blunt thematic commentary, the Hawley speak Moorjani is forced to deliver here. To the list of Gundersons we must now sadly add a mouthpiece.
Fargo Season 5 premieres November 21 at 10:00 PM ET with the first two episodes on FX. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.