The first season of Fargo feels, at times, overly indebted to its namesake. The plot certainly is, centering around a nebbishy protagonist (Martin Freeman) who takes violent actions against his wife as a way to exert the rage he’d presumably been hiding all his life. Showrunner Noah Hawley also borrows from other elements of the Coen Brothers canon, making his antagonist a psychopathic killer reminiscent of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and placing little Easter egg references to other Coen films throughout. While it’s hard to fault a writer for being reverent to the work he’s basing his own work on, the series is often at its weakest when it invites direct comparison to the Coens: it’s reminiscent of their films, but not quite as great. It also seems petty to fault a writer for not being as accomplished as two of the finest living screenwriters, but Hawley can’t help but bring the judgement on himself when he directly references their work.
By contrast, in the Season 2 premiere, “Waiting for Dutch,” Hawley certainly still draws on the spirit of the Coens, but the episode feels much less constrained and is all the better for it. A big part of what makes the Coens so great is their mastery of conveying character through dialogue, and “Waiting for Dutch” contains Coens-esque, laugh-out-loud idiomatic speech throughout. It begins in the hysterical prologue, in which a hapless director tries to “whitesplain” the Battle of Sioux Falls to a Native American actor, who’s clearly uninterested. The director uses a series of unsatisfactory excuses (“I’m Jewish!”), all of which create the portrait of an impotent, flailing white male in the vein of Lester Nygaard.
Things only pick up in the astonishing first act, in which the rough outlines of the violence around which the season will presumably resolve are laid out. Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) is the punching bag in his family of criminals, and his oldest brother, Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), doesn’t hesitate to call him “the comic in a piece of bubble gum.” Rye owes money to Dodd, and he needs a judge to unfreeze some funds in order to work things out. He follows her to the 24 hour Waffle Hut, where she invokes the story of Job (in a clever move on Hawley’s part, explaining her unwillingness to yield, demonstrating her Christianity, and linking him with the Devil), at which point he murders her and two employees. In an act of cosmic retribution, he gets hit by a fast-moving car while staring at what looks to be a UFO.
The car is driven by Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), a bubbly woman who very well may be Lester’s female counterpart. She’s married to Ed (Jesse Plemons), a butcher’s assistant who appears even more mild-mannered than anyone in Season 1. Their hilarious back and forth about his desire to procreate and her lack of interest (“We did that last weekend, didn’t we?”) establishes their relationship perfectly. It also makes for the perfect segue into his discovery of both the car and Rye, whom he then murders, kicking Season 2 into full gear.
The final crucial element of the season established in “Waiting for Dutch” is Lou (Patrick Wilson), the father of last season’s Molly (Allison Tolman) and the cop tasked with investigating the violence at the Waffle Hut. He gets introduced, like Peggy and Ed, through a snapshot of domestic life. He reads Molly a children’s book with a surprising use of the world “ejaculated” (Wilson’s subtle eyebrow twitch at the line is amazing) and has his wife, Betsy (Cristin Milioti), explain to him that their daughter is not, shockingly, “Pol Pot.” Lou gets torn away from the domestic bliss when the crime scene beckons, pairing him with his father-in-law, County Sheriff Hanks Larsson (Ted Danson).
After the initial investigation, Lou needs a break, leading him to a bingo game with Korean War veteran Karl Weathers (an incredible Nick Offerman). Karl spouts conspiracy theories about the “military industrial complex” and “They,” delivering accusations about the wider connections of the murder, which are more on the money than Lou might think.
The final scene of “Waiting for Dutch” hints at some of those links, depicting Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), the patriarch of a Kansas City crime family, describing his future plans regarding the Gerhardts. Rye’s actions appear to have broader implications than Lou assumes, presumably influencing who Bulo and his cronies decide to “liquidate.”
Hawley presents this scenario through riotous, spot-on dialogue worthy of the Coen brothers. As with their best writing, Hawley evokes the relationships between characters without getting bogged down in clunky exposition. The little side comments throughout “Waiting for Dutch” keep the episode light on its feet, but never in a way which overwhelms the story or characters, making for a fantastic start to the season. Okay, then.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.