The typical season of “Fargo” starts at a simmer. Thanks to the famous opening disclaimer (“at the request of the survivors”; “out of respect for the dead”), borrowed wholesale from the Coen Brothers’ original masterpiece, the audience knows violence is in the offing. In translating “Fargo” into an anthology series, an interpretive exercise that now spans five different installments over nearly a decade, creator Noah Hawley has stuck to this structure. “Fargo” may hopscotch across time, points of view, and the Greater Midwest, but Hawley uses a loose and shifting set of signatures to identify the multiplying parts of the franchise as part of a greater whole — the pace heretofore among them.
The latest “Fargo” story, however, starts in media res. We’re in suburban Minnesota circa 2019, and a local school board meeting has descended into chaos. This isn’t a record-scratch-freeze-frame situation, either; in the six episodes provided to critics in advance, Hawley doesn’t rewind to show us how a planning meeting for a fall festival broke out into a brawl where a mother and a math teacher, among many others, come to blows. The opening scene is meant to signify an already frayed social order on the verge of unraveling — that this “Fargo,” for once, is not a slow burn. There’s no waiting for the action to arrive; it’s already here.
For Season 4, released in 2020, Hawley reached further into the past than ever before to stage an ambitious, if flawed, take on race, immigration and the American national character. Season 5 reverses course to become the most contemporary “Fargo” entry to date, and thus the first to take place during the Trump administration. (The previous record holder, Season 3, was set in 2010.) The 45th president himself even makes a cameo via the television set of main antagonist Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm). Tillman is an outlaw sheriff in the Joe Arpaio mode, loudly proclaiming his love for the Constitution and disdain for most other laws from his North Dakota ranch; only his horseshoe-shaped nipple piercings indicate we’re still in the heightened, fable-like reality where “Fargo” makes its home.
This topicality proves a double-edged sword. Season 5 may seem like a sharp break from its predecessor, trading a “Godfather”-esque organized crime epic for the smaller-scale struggle of housewife Dorothy “Dot” Lyon (Juno Temple) to outrun her demons. (Dot is the aforementioned mother from the school board meeting; her arrest earns Roy’s unwelcome attention, setting the season in motion.) But it plays into similarly broad, elemental themes. What Season 4 was to racial prejudice, Season 5 is to the battle of the sexes. Roy is introduced chiding an abuser not for beating his wife, but doing so in a way that falls short of Roy’s arbitrary justifications for violence against women. “Only for instruction,” he says, in a slightly flatter-voweled version of Hamm’s typical stern rumble. “Never taking any pleasure or satisfaction from the task.” No one says the phrase “toxic masculinity,” but you can tell they’re at the tip of Hawley’s tongue.
Such parallels leave “Fargo” vulnerable to repeating some of its prior mistakes. Invoking contemporary culture wars may be a shortcut to urgency, but they also risk piercing the hermetic “Fargo” bubble — shadowy crime syndicates, primordial evil, pure hearts in a cruel world — for material that’s much less distinct and often overdone. At first, “Fargo” doesn’t even need the extra hook. Practically the entire premiere is a set piece powered by Temple’s nervy panic, pivoting from the school fight to a home invasion sequence to a gas station shootout over nearly an hour. The season’s epigraph defines “Minnesota nice” as “an aggressively pleasant demeanor…no matter how bad things get,” and Temple’s Dot is a captivating poster woman. After her first brush with Roy’s henchmen, she makes her daughter Bisquick pancakes in bloody, bare feet.
Dot’s connection to Roy is initially mysterious, but as they start to circle each other, Season 5 plays closer to a two-hander than the usual sprawling ensemble. Granted, there’s still a cast of self-consciously quirky characters with the zaniest names on TV: Danish Graves (Dave Foley), the eyepatched consigliere to debt queenpin Lorraine Lyon (Jennifer Jason Leigh), also Dot’s mother-in-law; Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani), the latest heiress apparent to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson; Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), a mysterious mercenary always clad in a kilt. Yet all these players are deployed in support, or to illuminate some aspect, of the central duo. Roy’s failson Gator (Joe Keery) and Indira’s leech of a husband Lars (Lukas Gage) share the lawman’s sense of entitlement to women’s unquestioning obedience, even if they lack his menacing air.
Such simplicity works in favor of “Fargo” as the season begins. The first few episodes are a riveting cat-and-mouse game with the potential for a role reversal heavily foreshadowed. (“Fargo” hates subtlety almost as much as it loves metaphor-laden monologues, so Dot is named Lyon and repeatedly compared to a tiger. Who’s the big cat now?) A Halloween showdown pits Dot against a crew in eerie masks from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”; a hospital chase crams the cast into close, fluorescent-lit quarters. But the momentum starts to flag as Hawley works to sustain drum-tight tension for several hours. While viewing screeners, I felt certain the season was starting to wrap up and was startled to learn I was at only its midpoint.
This is when “Fargo” starts to lean into archetypes over individuals. Between the Tillman character and his recent turn on “The Morning Show,” Hamm has been leaning into his plausible villainy as of late. Much like Roy’s shearling-lined jacket, it suits him. But the more “Fargo” plays up Roy and Dot as archetypes of a controlling man and his victim, the less interesting they are. In the “Fargo” canon, Dot instantly stands out because she’s sympathetic without being guileless. To survive, she can’t be a paragon of virtue in the vein of other “Fargo” heroines. She’s scrappier and more cunning, yet “Fargo” risks flattening her and Roy into victim and victimizer as it tries to make a statement about the dark side of America’s fetish for cowboy conservatism. “Fargo” is a testament to the value of creativity within constraints, reworking a 27-year-old movie into a living text. It’s an experiment that works better when it doesn’t explicitly argue for its own continued relevance.
The first two episodes of “Fargo” Season 5 will premiere on FX at 10 pm ET on Sept. 20 and stream on Hulu the next day, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Tuesdays.