By Ryan Johnson
After a bloody start, the second installment of FX’s 10-part “Fargo” series slowed things down a bit to develop the characters and answer some of our questions.
Still, this is “Fargo” – or at least Noah Hawley’s new take on the Coen brothers’ movie – and it’s not all bars and hotdish in Duluth and Bemidji, Minn., this time around.
A visit from the rumored Fargo crime syndicate, a meeting with the so-called “Supermarket King of Minnesota” and, yes, yet another murder all factored into the next chapter of this fictional “true crime story.”
The second episode opens in Bemidji with new characters, a duo of thugs (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) with North Dakota license plates.
“We’re from Fargo,” Goldberg’s character says – and just like that, we meet some of the Fargo crime syndicate.
At the garage of recently deceased businessman Sam Hess, former employees explain their theory about his murder that puts Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) square in the crosshairs of this criminal duo.
Other characters spend time at two post-funeral gatherings, but there’s little closure here for insurance salesman and wife murderer Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) or the ambitious Bemidji Officer Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman).
Solverson tries to tell new Police Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) that Nygaard could be a person of interest in the murder of Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle). But Oswalt has little belief that a man who couldn’t dissect a frog without fainting in high school could be a violent criminal.
Nygaard breaks down at home, crying into his wife’s sweater – though probably not because he misses her – until persistent Solverson and skeptical Oswalt ring the doorbell. The insurance salesman is a bad criminal mastermind, stumbling his way through pathetic answers to Solverson’s questions while trying to conceal an incriminating shotgun wound to his hand.
Still, Oswalt has no interest in putting a supposedly grieving former high school classmate through the wringer, and suggests the murders may be the work of “drifters.”
Now in Duluth, Malvo picks up a package with a book and a fake ID to get his next assignment.
“I’m a minister, apparently,” Malvo says as he gets into character.
He heads to the grocery store to meet “Supermarket King of Minnesota” Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt), who recently got a ransom note demanding a peculiar amount of money. Platt suggests it could be the work of his soon-to-be-ex.
Duluth Officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) faces tough questions from his daughter, who wonders if he’d step in to stop something bad. It’s clear the cop wants to justify his previous decision to let Malvo drive away during a traffic stop, but he’s not doing a good job selling his logic to Greta Grimly (Joey King).
“Sometimes there’s more than one right thing,” he says, offering up more excuses.
“But it’s your job,” she eventually replies.
The Fargo duo drives to the Bemidji bar where Hess was killed to find a possible suspect, and a dancer suggests it just might be Lenny, that hard-drinking regular downing a drink at the bar. They put Lenny in the trunk and drive him to Hess’ garage, where they’re told the man in the trunk isn’t the right guy.
Meanwhile, Malvo visits Milos’ estranged wife. But her well-bronzed personal trainer, Don Chumph (Glenn Howerton), turns out to be more suspicious when Malvo later finds bronzer stain on the back of the ransom note.
In his hotel room, Malvo is threatened by a longtime Milos employee and told to leave. Instead, he walks into the bathroom, drops his pants and sits on the toilet, leaving the bathroom door open and not saying a word the whole time, until the man finally leaves.
Back in Bemidji, Nygaard works up courage to retrieve the still-bloody hammer that killed his wife from its hiding place inside the washing machine. He moves in with his brother, telling the family he’ll sell his house and get a “fresh start.”
Nygaard later tries to get medicine for his hand wound, but Solverson confronts him at the pharmacy, and this time gets her chance to question him – at least until Nygaard claims he’s starting to feel “harassed,” poorly playing the role of a grieving widow in an attempt to deflect her questions so he can drive away.
The next morning, Oswalt confronts Solverson for disobeying his orders and takes her off the Thurman murder case. Instead, she’ll now lead the inquiry into the “frozen fellow” found during the premiere episode.
And then it’s time for the only murder of the night.
The Fargo duo takes Lenny out of the trunk, only knocking him out at first. But once they start to drag him onto the middle of a frozen lake, ice auger in hand, Lenny’s fate is sealed, and we say goodbye to this short-lived character as he’s dropped into the water. Poor Lenny.
Just two episodes in, “Fargo” has done a good job of setting the stage for the rest of the series and giving us more questions than answers.
Thornton once again is amazing in this role, and Malvo is certainly one of TV’s best characters in years.
But the second episode also gave a chance for Tolman to shine as Solverson became an increasingly compelling presence in the show, driven by a demand to find the truth and strong moral compass but also unsure of what she’s getting into as she investigates Bemidji’s recent crime problem.
As with the movie’s Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), small-town Officer Solverson is now finding herself in the midst of darkness and evil that she’s not prepared to handle, but will face anyway.
After listening to her frustration about Oswalt’s blunders so far as the new police chief, her father, Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine), offers some major foreshadowing of the “savagery” she will see – and the struggle she’ll have to not be ruined in spite of it.
“One day, you’re going to get married and have kids, and when you look at them, their faces, you need to see what’s good in the world,” he said. “Because if you don’t, how are you going to live?”
First, Solverson is going to have to deal with a lot more crime.
Grimly will have to revisit his decision to let Malvo free, especially after recognizing the license plate from that traffic stop during a police briefing on the investigation.
Nygaard needs to do a better job covering his tracks if he hopes to stay ahead of Solverson, who seems to be right on his trail, even if he has the chief on his side for now.
And with the introduction of the Fargo crime syndicate, we should be prepared for some more murder by frozen lake, as long as the ice auger keeps working.
Body count after two episodes: 5