It’s the thematic cohesion that really elevates Fargo to another level. The first season and the second both share a common theme of discontent and inadequacy, of being angry with the way that the world has left you behind. But the second season improves on the first in that it broadens its horizons from a focus on masculinity to a focus on more varied concepts. It takes the end of the Vietnam War, female discontent with their place in life, and the corporatization of America, funneling all of these into an explosion created by a general malaise that has boiled over. Because that’s what Fargo is ultimately about: the Midwest is a place that has been left behind by the rest of the country, and despite manners and poise, that frustration will continue to grow and grow until it explodes.
The scope of this season is absolutely staggering, not only because there are so many different storylines, but also because these storylines are littered with characters that feel alive and interesting. Every character has a place in the world, and they interact with the world in a different way than any other. Peggy Blomquist interacts with the world in a different manner than Ed does, just as Lou Solverson interacts with the world in a different manner than his wife Betsy or his father-in-law Hank. Fargo makes it clear that the people in this show all have different places in the world, but also makes it clear that they’re all looking to improve their standing. Nobody is happy with how life has turned out for them, and that discontent always results in making a stupid mistake. It’s clear that Dodd taking over the family business is a terrible idea, as his mother Floyd would do a much better job stabilizing the situation, but he wants the legacy that he believes he’s entitled to.
Entitlement runs thick through Fargo, and it’s not necessarily entitlement bred from being spoiled or narcissistic. Everybody in the show is affected by the history of the world, and the war in Vietnam was an era in which we were exposed to an America that is ugly, painful, and nihilistic. Mike Milligan, a new character who works as an enforcer for the Kansas City Syndicate, is continually talking about how the world is decaying. When extorting the typewriter salesman, he talks about a coffee machine he bought from Sears that doesn’t work, and he uses that as evidence that the world is failing. We all expect America to work in the way it was promised to us, and when it doesn’t we try to force it to work. But that doesn’t help. The presence of aliens on the show is still a bizarre turn, but it does speak to that force outside of our control, to the way that we don’t entirely understand the world that we try to twist to our favor. And when we do try to twist the world, we fail.
Plot-wise, “Before the Law” fills all 58 minutes of its runtime with more than enough to justify the expanded length. The Gerhardt’s story is laid out at the beginning, as Floyd is at odds with her son Dodd. She understands the legacy and the story of their family far better than her son does, and she has the connections to back up her assertion of that understanding. Dodd might seem spoiled and selfish, but he just wants to feel like he’s worth something, and he’ll do anything to achieve that feeling. That same lack of gratification can be seen in Ed and Peggy’s marriage, where Ed simply wants peace in his home but Peggy wants to feel important. Her boss seems like the one to push at what it is that Peggy thinks she wants, as she questions Peggy and Ed’s plan to buy the butcher store. Ed’s desires are fairly simple; he grew up in a world where your aspirations end at owning some mediocre store in a small town. But Peggy sees a world that she’s closed off from, a world that closes her off far more than Ed, and she wants to do more (even if “more” is going to some seminar). When she steals the toilet paper from work, it’s to prove that she has the capability to push boundaries. She’s similar to Dodd in that she pushes boundaries, attempting to see how far she can exist outside of the status quo.
Meanwhile, the Solversons live in this sort of idyll state, where they’ve found a level of contentment existing inside of the status quo. It isn’t that they’re wrong in any way; it’s that they’ve simply found a level of complacency that makes them happy. But the world does work to push on that complacency. Lou’s wife Betsy has cancer, which saps away at her energy, and the murders bring gangsters to the town, such as Mike Mulligan and his henchmen, the Kitchen brothers. We create these bubbles of comfort for ourselves, but they’re always popped by the way that life is unpredictable. They’re also popped by the individuals who don’t want to live by the status quo and thus disrupt it for others. The choice to cast Mike as a black man works fantastically to show a man with a marginalized identity intentionally disrupting the status quo for the typewriter salesman, the Solversons, and the town of Fargo in general.
“Before the Law” does a great job setting up the relationships between the characters, deepening the exposition that was established in the season premiere. It takes the discontentment that runs thick through the characters and begins to ramp up the stakes, showing us how people react to the way that the status quo constrains them, as well as the way that the status quo is inevitably broken. Because change is inevitable. We see this season of Fargo intently focusing on the ways that the world changes, how corporations come in and destroy small businesses, how the value of people changes as time goes on. While that change may work for some people, such as the Kansas City Syndicate, it doesn’t work for everybody.
And when change doesn’t work for you, when you see your life degrading as a result, there’s little choice you have but to lash out.
What did you think of “Before the Law”? How much better do you think the season is going to get? And who’s your favorite character so far? Let me know in the comments!