After wayward creative detours with the dreary feature film “Lucy in the Sky” and the over-ambitious fourth season of “Fargo,” Noah Hawley gets back on track with the new season of his FX anthology series.
The latest “Fargo” has all the elements writer-producer-showrunner Hawley knows how to deploy. They may be well-worn tropes at this point: chaos agents, deadpan black comedy, hapless hit men, formidable women, hapless feds, a few good cops, perfectly orchestrated bloodshed beats, hapless wrong kidnap victims, Upper Midwest accents you couldn’t cut with a wood chipper and perhaps a supernatural element or two. But they’ve been craftily reimagined.
New in Season 5 is some ongoing criticism of right-wing extremism — both of the economic Darwinian and Christian patriarchal kind — and other hints that it’s politics as much as people’s inherent stupidity that’s tearing America apart. The implicit message is that those factors are two sides of the same rusting coin.
What really makes this season classic “Fargo,” though, is a return to the franchise’s core virtues: Brutal encounters that threaten to become pure slapstick and characters who somehow evolve, through adversity and blood, from cartoonish archetypes into full grown tragic or heroic figures. Or in some cases, just bigger monsters.
Set in the fall of 2019, this latest “true story,” told exactly as it occurred out of respect for the dead, opens with a riot at a suburban Minneapolis school board meeting. Trying to get her daughter out of the melee, mousey housewife Dot Lyon (“Ted Lasso” star Juno Temple) tases a cop and is arrested.
“Don’t come at a mama lion when she’s got her cub, ya know what I mean?” Dot rationalizes to arresting officer Indira Olmstead (“Never Have I Ever’s” Richa Moorjani), who replies in the Minnesota Nice tone the show keeps ironically invoking, “Ya know what they call a herd of lions? A pride. Think about that.”
Both actresses bring their likable personas to what seem to be the season’s key protagonists (and two of its few non-hateful characters). Nonetheless, by the second of six episodes FX showed critics, a shell-shocked professional assassin describes Dot as more tiger than lioness. For all of her Bisquick-battered domesticity, petite Dot proves preternaturally adept at fighting off much larger attackers. Which is good for her, since they’re coming at her in waves now that her mugshot’s hit the police wire.
One very interested party is Stark County Sheriff Roy Tillman on the far side of North Dakota. Cast in arguably his best role since “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, Jon Hamm makes Tillman an intimidating tower of frontier privilege. Quoting the Bible as fits his purposes, he’s a hereditary rancher/local strongman who the FBI can’t stop from funneling ordnance to his father-in-law’s militia. When he’s not slapping her around, Tillman’s third wife (Rebecca Liddiard) indulges his role playing fantasies (“How about angry feminist tonight?”). His son Gator (“Stranger Things” star Joe Keery) is also Roy’s, yes, hapless deputy, willing to do or suffer anything for the approval his father will never give.
Gator’s mother was Tillman’s first wife. Who’s Spouse Number Two? Basically, if not near as malevolently, she’s this year’s Billy-Bob-Thornton-from-Season-One figure.
Dot’s current nuclear family consists of sweet, wimpish husband Wayne (David Rysdahl) and the tomboyish daughter Scotty (Sienna King) they both adore. Beyond that, forget it. Wayne’s mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh, layering on the Dorothy Parker airs like a sub zero parka) is a ruthless matriarch and owns the nation’s biggest debt-collecting agency. She’s the type who makes her family pose with automatic weapons for Christmas card photos, has every official in Minnesota on speed dial and delights in demolishing the entire life of a crooked male banker who won’t play ball. She never liked her daughter-in-law and does even less now that Dot’s getting arrested and dragged across state lines by what may be a reincarnated Welsh sin-eater from the 16th Century. Yet Lorraine isn’t about to let some Dakota cowboy get away with any Libertarian nonsense, much less harming her dopey son’s loved ones. Easier proclaiming that than done, though, even for Lorraine.
Grotesque killings multiply, Halloween night turns into a literal horror show and there are horseshoe-shaped nipple rings you will never unsee. At least one other good guy’s on the case, Dakota Deputy Witt Farr (“New Girl” star Lamorne Morris), and there’s a bottomless supply of pretty bad ones, like Olmstead’s needy, golf pro wannabe husband Lars (“White Lotus” breakout Lukas Gage) and Lorraine’s eyepatch-wearing attorney (“NewsRadio” star David Foley). Sam Spruell brings an odd humanity to the maybe not technically human criminal-for-hire Ole Munch.
This show really belongs to Temple and Hamm, though. The actress’ inherent cuteness never gets in the way of Dot’s determined, dangerous survival instinct. It can be effective camouflage, but the nice mom bit isn’t really that, either; it’s more like an integral part of a complex personality, beautifully displayed in scenes such as when Dot enlists Scotty to booby trap their house as a fun family crafts project. Some suspect Dot is a newfangled kind of homebody femme fatale; not likely, but Temple is so good at suggesting possibilities that you can’t discount the notion.
Hamm lends Tillman the steady, superior persona only self-righteous/self-serving evil can project. But behind all of his certainty, sneering and very credible threats, there’s a low-boil hysteria that grows hotter with each setback. Hamm earns perhaps the greatest compliment that a villain performer can get: We can’t wait to see him thoroughly, agonizingly taken down.
Does “Fargo” Season 5 follow the show’s proven formula of quirky behavior and squirmy violence to the letter? No doubt.
Does the new story detail individuals, situations and a society that’s barely coping so well that it all seems fresh as a new rose in the snow? You betcha.
“Fargo” Season 5 premieres Tuesday, Nov. 21, on FX. Episodes are available to stream the next day on Hulu.