If the varying degree of quality in “True Detective” and “American Horror Story” seasons are any indication, anthology shows are a tricky beast. They are the television equivalent of a short story collection, bound by theme and style, and destined to only have a tenuous connection to the seasons that surround it.
All of which is to say that FX’s “Fargo” had its work cut out for it when it came to its second season premiere, “Waiting for Dutch.”
To its credit, “Fargo” seems completely uninterested in trying to live up to what it accomplished in its tremendous debut season and is all the better for it. Centered around the “massacre at Sioux Falls” referenced obliquely in Season One, this season follows young Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) as he investigates a bloody triple homicide in 1979.
“Waiting for Dutch” is a product of the era it’s set in, flush with lurid colors, split screens and footage of Jimmy Carter speeches, yet the most effective weapon in its arsenal is the way it represents the atmosphere of both the time period and the Midwest in its simple execution of the stories that drive the entire season.
At the center is the quiet tragedy of the Solverson family, as Lou’s wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) begins chemotherapy treatment for cancer. It’s a situation that’s largely talked around but when it is addressed, it’s the men who exhibit emotion, be it a friend’s anger at her diagnosis or her husband’s anguish at the situation, but Betsy herself seems matter-of-fact about her illness. There is a pluck about her that typifies one’s idea of Midwestern women and she goes about her life and caring for her family as though nothing were out of the ordinary. In fact, the only indication that she may be looking at her life differently is a newfound commitment to exploring recipes of the world.
There’s also the matter of the Gerhardt clan, a Midwestern crime family that seems to be falling upon hard times. The sons jostle among themselves for position, the patriarch, Otto (Michael Hogan) suffers a sudden stroke, and matriarch Floyd, portrayed by the outstanding Jean Smart, is left to clean up the mess.
But most telling about the Gerhardt family is that they have no idea the trouble about to befall them, as they become the target of a huge out-of-state crime syndicate. That means that the bulk of the season will be watching a huge corporate-like entity trying to squeeze out a small family business, a scenario that’s played out time and again in the upper Midwest, be it with small-town retailers and big box stores or family vs. corporate farms, a new and fresh take on the death of the small town.
Then there’s Peggy and Ed Blomquist, played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, respectively, who end up murdering Rye Gerhardt (Kieren Culkin), whom Peggy accidentally hit with her car as he was absconding from the diner after killing three people. But before they get down to the business of cleaning up Peggy’s mess, the pair have dinner and it becomes clear that their marriage is far from idyllic. Peggy is anxious to have a new and different life, hesitant to have kids, and not interested in being physical with her husband, whereas Ed wants to settle down, have a few kids, and take over the butcher shop where he works.
Contained wholly within a single relationship is the struggle that plagues young people everywhere, the pressure to live a conventional life and the allure of running away and becoming someone new. From just a handful of scenes, Peggy and Ed’s story seems clear. Likely high school sweethearts who married young and were certain of what the future held, until someone changed their mind.
There’s a point in Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” where she refers to her female characters as “frail creatures… made out of thin, invisible steel.” As FX’s “Fargo” returns for its second-season premiere, it’s clear that these are precisely the types of women who populate the show’s universe.
What began in Season One with Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), continues this season with Floyd and Peggy and Betsy, three uncompromising women who don’t flinch when it comes to doing what they have to do. Though the season may promise violence and heartbreak, what truly drives it is the need to watch these women navigate the treacherous waters that surround them and see if they make it safely to the other side, with or without the quailing men at their sides.
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