Is there anything bolder, more unexpected on TV these days than Fargo? Each season is self-contained and tautly written. It has weak moments but when it is good, it’s the best thing streaming right now. Season 5 begins with almost the same premise as the original 1996 film, with a housewife who’s attacked at home by masked and incompetent thugs.
Unlike in the film, however (I won’t spoil anything), this housewife isn’t a novice hostage. She’s done this many times before. Dot, played by the fragile but fierce Juno Temple, lives a seemingly quiet life at home with her child-like husband Wayne and her cheerful daughter Scotty. But Dot’s life isn’t normal or quiet—by episode 2 she is rigging booby traps in her house using electrical wire and a mallet suspended over the front door. Even before her kidnapping, Dot seems on edge—apt to taser anyone who accidentally bumps into her, eyes darting from side to side, watching and waiting for some person or sign to resurface from her mysterious but clearly traumatic past.
After she is kidnapped there follows a thrilling sequence at an out-of-hours gas station which becomes her fortress. She waits, under siege from the masked men who nabbed her, and prepares for action in intriguing ways—there’s a bag of ice and a toilet bowl used to tremendous effect. Early on Dot’s extraordinary resourcefulness is established—‘I have climbed out of six layers of hell to get here,’ she says to her overbearing mother-in-law, and nothing and no one is going to stop her from getting home to make her daughter Bisquick pancakes. Dot’s devotion to her completely average life and family is the most poignant part of the series. It’s refreshing to have a heroine who is simply grateful for the average things in life, things which many of us take for granted —a healthy family, a loving husband, a nice house and food on the table.
If Fargo is good at one thing, its common heroines with uncommon gifts of insight and perspective. Frances McDormand set the bar for these characters when she played a heavily pregnant cop who unravels an extraordinary string of violence during an average day at work as a state trooper in North Dakota. This trope is one of the most endearing in the series, although it can stray into twee territory.
The singsong accent adopted by most of the show’s cast is successful roughly 70% of the time. I know because I’m from Montana, one of the ‘flyover states’ that borders North Dakota. Some actors are good at the accent and it really enhances the character and environment—others sound like they’re doing a funny voice for a children’s puppet show. Speaking of puppet shows, this season has its fair share of random, seemingly pointless digressions, including a puppet version of the ‘it-was-all-a dream’ sequence which annoyed me immensely until I thought about it for a while and realised it did help the plot and character development a bit.
But mostly it felt like treading water, the writer using up half an hour of running time to fill his 10-episode quota. In an even more baffling sequence, there is a flashback to the year 1552, in ‘Wales, in the Kingdom of England’, supposedly the backstory for the sinister Ole Munch. I could write a novella-length review about this character alone but he has to be seen to be believed. His flashback made no sense then and only a little more sense upon reflection. In some ways, I admire the sheer audacity of Fargo’s writer, his trust in his story and his resilience to angry studio execs and audience members who want to know what the hell it all means.
There is meaning in each strange episode, I’ve found—you just might not know what it is. Noah Hawley wrote the whole series, a man whose CV for film and TV really only comprises episodes of Bones. I bet he’s getting work now, and I will watch anything he writes. Hawley has gone for tonal similarity to the preceding Fargo seasons, a mix of satirical comedy, extreme violence and good old-fashioned American values, but this one feels closer to drama than the rest. Its main plot line is a damaged woman escaping from an abusive husband.
The most satisfying character development takes place between Dot and her formidable mother-in-law, the billionaire debt collector Lorraine Lyon. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lorraine, whose speed dial list seems to contain every US Supreme Court Justice as well as the President of the United States. It’s heavily implied that this is Trump— ‘the orange one,’ she calls him—and amazingly, Trump and his MAGA militia turn out to be the good guys. Or at least, they’re not the bad guys. At the end of the season, they rumble in on their tanks to confront the abusive husband, but not for domestic abuse charges.
That would be unreasonable. The abuser is Roy Tillman (played by a brilliantly menacing Jon Hamm), sheriff of a rural North Dakota county who has set up a little kingdom for himself on the taxpayers’ money, which is why the feds turn up at his ranch. He’s even got a flame-thrower and a tank, though I’m sad to say these don’t materialise. Roy Tillman also harbours a compelling self-delusion that he alone is God’s instrument for justice, and that it is God’s will that Dot be returned to him.
In essence, season 5 is about jurisdiction and the execution of power—who wields the power on Tillman’s ranch, Tillman himself, Lorraine and her lawyers, or the federal government? These three forces collide and Dot is literally caught in the crossfire—but like all good drama, the personal and the political struggles play out at the same time in the same place.
Who has jurisdiction over Dot’s life and body? Dot herself? Law enforcement? Her mother-in-law? Her husband? They all do, at different times and in different ways. This season is about how Dot reclaims her body and her life and returns home just in time to make her daughter Bisquick pancakes for dinner.