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Fargo by the Seasons

Fargo stands as a masterclass in storytelling, blending dark humor, intricate narratives, and unforgettable characters that linger long after the screen fades to black. The television series pays brilliant homage to the original Coen Brothers film without ever falling into parody or becoming an echo of something greater, with each season offering a fresh yet connected tale.

Diving into the snow-swept chaos of Fargo is a journey worth taking, season by standout season (even if one of them loses its way a little). I’ll tell you which one is my favorite and why at the end. 

Season 1 sets a high bar, with its compelling plot and captivating performances, particularly from Billy Bob Thornton, playing the bad guy with a chilling ballet of menace. Lorne Malvo is a simmering cauldron of malevolence that threatens to boil over in every scene, and his smile can slice right through a Minnesota winter.

Lester Nygaard, portrayed with a mix of desperation and dark evolution by Martin Freeman, finds his life disastrously intertwined with Malvo’s, leading him down a path from which there’s no return.

Meanwhile, Molly Solverson, the tenacious and morally grounded detective, brilliantly played by Allison Tolman, becomes the beating heart of the investigation, unwavering in her pursuit of justice amid the chaos.

This first season is also the most quintessentially Fargo, establishing the show’s ability to meld the macabre with the mundane.

Season 2 expands the universe amid the backdrop of a colorfully tumultuous 1970s. This season elevates the narrative scope, weaving a multitude of storylines to explore the fragility of morality against the backdrop of societal upheaval.

Lou Solverson, a young state trooper recently returned from Vietnam, embodies the quiet strength and moral fortitude required to navigate the murky waters of a small town ensnared by a crime syndicate war. Portrayed with stoic empathy by Patrick Wilson, Lou is the season’s moral compass.

The Gerhardt crime family, led by the matriarch Floyd Gerhardt (played with a steely resolve by Jean Smart), finds itself at a crossroads, battling internal dissent and external threats. Their fierce loyalty to family and power is tested as they defend their empire against encroaching rivals, with their saga adding Shakespearean depth to the exploration of power, succession, and survival.

Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers add an unpredictable and charismatic threat to the mix, and Bokeem Woodbine’s portrayal of Milligan offers a mesmerizing blend of menace and charm. His poetic philosophizing and strategic cunning make him a formidable foil to the forces of law and order, highlighting the season’s thematic exploration of ambition and identity.

“You make us sound like a prog rock band: Ladies and Gentleman, Introducing Mike Milligan & The Kitchen Brothers,” he says when stopped by Lou’s father-in-law, a sheriff named Hank Larsson who is played by Ted Danson.

Season 2’s audacious blend of dark humor, intricate storytelling, and rich character studies set against the backdrop of a 1970s Midwestern landscape delivers a retrofitted masterpiece. Its commitment to marrying historical context with the series’ signature suspense and cultural commentary offers a visually-striking and narratively-complex chapter in the Fargo anthology.

Season 3 takes a deep dive into the icy complexities of human nature, exploring a riveting narrative of sibling rivalry set against an unforgiving backdrop of stark Minnesota landscape.

Ewan McGregor delivers a tour-de-force performance in dual roles, embodying the Stussy brothers, Emmit and Ray, whose embittered relationship spirals into a vortex of greed, envy, and betrayal. Emmit is the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” an embodiment of the American Dream turned sour, while Ray is a down-on-his-luck parole officer, representing the dark shadow of unfulfilled ambition.

Nikki Swango, played with fierce intelligence and cunning by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, defies expectations at every turn to tell a tale of love and manipulation that challenges the audience’s perceptions of morality and loyalty.

Gloria Burgle, the steadfast and resourceful police chief portrayed by Carrie Coon, serves as the moral core of Season 3. Her dogged pursuit of the truth while struggling for relevance in a world that seems to be moving on without her adds an existential layer to the exploration of identity and the quest for meaning.

David Thewlis delivers a bone-chilling performance as V.M. Varga, a malevolent force of nature whose manipulation and control over the Stussy brothers’ empire exemplifies the season’s thematic concerns with power, greed, and the insidious nature of corruption. His monologues, filled with chilling insights into the human condition, provide some of the season’s most memorable moments.

Like this gem: “A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. You see, it’s all a matter of perspective. The chicken sees it one way, the egg another. So let’s start again: this is not your office, just as your wife would not be your wife if I came to her in the night with a platter of cold cuts.”

With a masterful blend of suspense, dark humor, and existential drama intertwined with personal dilemmas and broader societal themes, Season 3 is a profoundly-engaging chapter in the series.

Season 4 boldly ventures into the vibrant and violent melting pot of 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, where two criminal syndicates — one Italian, led by the Fadda family, and the other Black, led by Loy Cannon’s outfit — vie for control. This season ambitiously tackles themes of immigration, assimilation, and the American Dream, examining how these forces shape and are shaped by the relentless pursuit of power.

Chris Rock takes center stage as Loy Cannon, occasionally delivering a performance that balances the ruthlessness required to lead a crime syndicate with the depth of a man fighting not just for power, but for a legacy for his people. I like Rock a lot, but would have loved to see an actor like Idris Elba in this role.

Jessie Buckley is a butcher, and Oraetta Mayflower, a nurse with a penchant for mischief and malevolence belying her wholesome exterior. Their darkly comic storyline blends right into the broader narrative, adding a layer of unpredictability and suspense to the story.

Josto Fadda (a reluctant heir to the crime family), offers a fascinating look into the burdens of legacy and the struggle for respect in a world that values brute strength over subtlety. His complex relationship with Oraetta is one of the season’s most intriguing dynamics. But as with the casting of Rock as Cannon, I never felt like Jason Schwartzman was right for this role.

Season 4 is the weakest for me by far, diverging just a wee bit too far from the show’s usual winning formula for my taste. But it still remains a thought-provoking exploration of our past, exploring the intersections of culture, loyalty, and betrayal, while showcasing Fargo’s unflinching willingness to delve into America’s complex societal fabric.

Season 5 seamlessly weaves the complex with the comedic. After a subpar (for Fargo) fourth season, the series returns with proof that it could still reinvent and elevate itself, maintaining its core essence while exploring human nature and delivering a healthy dose of societal critique.

Jon Hamm plays Sheriff Roy with a compelling mix of menace and charm, darkly charismatic and clearly dangerous. It’s his most riveting role since the iconic Don Draper, solidifying his status as a master of nuanced roles. Every scene with Sheriff Roy is electric.

Juno Temple’s portrayal of Dorothy is spectacular, offering the audience a nuanced look at the resilience and complexity of her character, living beneath the veneer of “Minnesota Nice.” An incredible badass who never loses sight of her compassion or her love for her family, even though she’s facing down a horrific threat.

Ole Munch (punk rock Braveheart) is magnetic, unsettling, and a gritty counterpoint to the other characters, offering viewers a glimpse into the soul of a man who navigates the world with a unique code of honor, despite his brutally-rough exterior. He’s an excellent example of the show’s ability to create characters that are as compelling as they are complex.

Season 5 is my favorite, not just because it’s a return to form and then some, but because I’ve been waiting for Jon Hamm to chew on dialogue worthy of his charismatically-commanding yet subtle delivery ever since Mad Men.

It was also while watching that last season when I finally realized that writing dialogue for Hamm is one of my life goals.

From chilling landscapes to its full suite of morally gray characters, Fargo transcends its genre constraints to create a viewing experience that is rewarding for seasoned storytellers and casual viewers alike.