‘Fargo’ Review: Noah Hawley’s Critical Darling Returns To Its Roots With Timely, Funny Fifth Season

After an ambitious fourth season in 2020 that arguably drifted into something different from what Noah Hawley had produced before in his Coen Brothers-inspired “Fargo,” the fifth chapter of this twisted anthology series returns to the roots of the film that gives it a title. It’s as if Hawley and his team put some of the basic elements of the 1996 Oscar winner on a whiteboard—kidnapped housewife, pair of bumbling criminals (one foreign), car salesman husband, kindly Minnesotan police officer, etc.—and then figured out how to warp them through their funhouse mirror approach to Coen-esque black comedy. The result is a season that’s funnier than recent installments of the show while also maintaining a dark undercurrent of cultural commentary on the divisive time in which it unfolds.

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It’s not coincidental that the fifth season of FX’s “Fargo” takes place around Halloween in October 2019, a time of great unrest in the country leading up to the 2020 election—it’s about as close as one could get to that politically chaotic year without having to incorporate Covid. By using this time period in a show that has jumped through history, Hawley is not only investigating veins of violence in the heartland of the United States but how those divisions are amplified by a political climate that often emboldens our most toxic citizens. He also interjects a fascinating pattern of gaslighting into the narrative this season as multiple characters simply deny what’s happened, is happening, or is about to happen.

That’s certainly what Dot Lyon (an excellent Juno Temple) does after what one would presume is the most terrifying day of her life. After being arrested for what is essentially self-defense at a raucous school event that descended into violence before the season opens, Dot is sitting on her couch when a masked figure comes to her door. In one of several scenes in the season premiere very intentionally designed to mimic the film, two kidnappers invade Dot’s home, but she’s not your average housewife, and she nearly fends them off. After Dot is barely overtaken, the kidnappers, including a mysterious foreigner named Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), are pulled over by the police on a nearby road, leading to a shootout in a gas station. Deputy Will Farr (Lamorne Morris) is basically saved by Dot, which makes it all the more startling when she just goes home, pretending she was just out for a few hours clearing her head. Never mind the blood all over her floor or the dead guys at the convenience store.

Dot’s milquetoast hubby Wayne (David Rysdahl) basically goes along with whatever Dot says, but he’s almost instantly caught in a war of wills between his wife and his sociopathic, uber-wealthy mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Dot’s mother-in-law could never stand her and now suspects Dot is after the Lyon fortune somehow with this kidnapping scheme. The truth is that Dot’s former husband, Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), is behind the attack, trying to reclaim someone he considers property. Working with his loyal son Gator (Joe Keery), Tillman is a Sheriff who believes in laws that would politely be called problematic, essentially running his own fiefdom in North Dakota. Dave Foley, Lukas Gage, and Richa Moorjani fill out a typically colorful “Fargo” cast.

Hawley may be going back to the “Fargo” drawing board this season with significantly more dark humor than the last outing, but he’s also created his angriest and most topical chapter to date. It’s not just the commentary on rampant misogyny—all the men except for Deputy Farr are generally incompetent or viciously violent—but the thread of simmering tension in places like Tillman’s awful corner of the world. In one great scene midway through the season, authorities are advised to let Tillman do his thing rather than anger one of the most powerful militias in the upper Midwest, suggesting that it’s good to have chaos agents in the system. Hamm nails a quiet viciousness in a man who advises a husband never to hit his wife… unless she deserves it. He’s a Trump-defending, Bible-quoting maniac, but Hamm plays him terrifyingly low-key, the kind of man who gets what he wants with a stare or a backhand instead of a yell.

Once again, Hawley’s writing draws out fantastic performances, especially Temple’s protagonist. She understands this character who so desperately wants to put her past behind her that she’s able to deny it exists, but the brilliance of the acting turn is how much Temple carries in her eyes—the sadness, the fear, and the fury that she’s able to unleash, pushing past “Minnesota Nice” to get what she wants when she needs to. In many ways, she’s the inverse of the traditional kidnapped wife, a character who has been underestimated by everyone in her life because she’s never been able to tell them about her traumatic past. Temple gives one of the best TV performances of the year here.

There are fun ones circling around the scene stealers of Temple and Hamm, too. Morris and Keery are consistently engaging, while Leigh takes the juiciest role and chews every scene that she’s in. She plays a woman who has amassed wealth off the hard work of others and has lost not a minute of sleep over any decision she’s ever made. She looks down on Dot in every interaction, only coming to life really when she finally senses that her daughter-in-law may actually be a cunning opponent. Dave Foley has a ton of fun as Lorraine’s enforcer, but it’s Richa Moorjani who gets the part that will likely be the most memorable in the back half of the season not-yet-screened for press. She gets the “Marge Gunderson” role, even opening the season driving a cop car, talking about the state of the world on a “beautiful day.” Moorjani grounds the season, the classic “ordinary” character in a Coen world of colorful maniacs.

The original “Fargo” was about a man who opened the door to a criminal underworld, proving that making such a cruel, selfish decision can set things in motion that can’t be stopped. Noah Hawley’s show has had some rocky seasons, but it finds itself this year by really going back to not just similar plot points but taking that idea of toppling dominos almost to a national level. He seems to be asking what happens if we let cruelty, criminality, and violence go unchecked and if we keep denying what’s happening to us as the dominos fall. We are all Dot, trying to escape a reality that we don’t want to admit is unfolding. And it’s a beautiful day. [B+]