In best universe-of-Coen style the first scene of Fargo’s second season – following a context-setting 1979 montage – is an apparent feint, but which might not be: it’s a beautifully constructed pastiche of an imaginary black-and-white Ronald Reagan movie. Ronnie himself, still being given fake wounds, doesn’t appear on screen, and a crew member and an actor playing a Native American bicker more or less amiably. By 1979, of course, Reagan was on the campaign trail, about to fulfil a desire which the USA didn’t even know it had. It’s all reflected in the episode title: Waiting for Dutch.
While America’s waiting, though, the paterfamilias of the Gerhardts, a South Dakotan crime family, has a stroke, leaving a leadership vacuum to be filled by one of his three sons. (Or, perhaps, by his wife, who will later be dismissed as “a girl” by a rival syndicate.) But just as you’re thinking “didn’t Empire already bring King Lear into the age of peak TV?” the storyline spins smartly in another direction: youngest son Rye, keen to prove himself, tries to threaten a local judge at a waffle house, which ends with everyone there being killed, and with Rye himself being struck by a car on leaving.
The murders are investigated by State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law Sheriff Larsson (Ted Danson). But Rye isn’t at the waffle house: what they don’t know is that the driver who hit him, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), panicked, somehow managed to heave him into her car and thereafter into her basement, not knowing whether he’s alive or dead. Peggy’s husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), trying to sell his wife on his dream of owning a butcher’s shop and having “a litter of kids”, hears mysterious thumps and groans in his house; on investigating, he’s attacked by Rye, who he kills in self-defence. Ed and Peggy decide to keep it a secret, and throw the body into their chest freezer.
So an apparently inexplicable mass killing; a deceptively intuitive investigator; a couple of straight-arrows caught up in homicide; and a body which needs disposed of. It’s all very Fargo. But, as with the first season, it’s quite beautifully done: the filming is extraordinary (the blood running into a white milkshake in the Waffle House, for example); the acting is flawless throughout, and the script is witty and clever, but with a heart.
The episode reaches a kind of rapturous perfection in two of its final scenes. There’s an unshowy but moving one, in which Lou channels Walter Winchell when saying goodnight to his cancer-stricken wife, “and all the ships at sea”. And there’s a surreally brilliant one, in which a mid-ranking gangster offers his boss a slide-show, made to look like the late-70s equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation, outlining the proposed Kansas City Northern Expansion Strategy, with information provided by the “boys in research”. The strategy, of course, is to take advantage of the Gerhardts’ misfortune to take over their business.
All in all it’s a fantastic episode, and the show has yet more in reserve: Jeffrey Donovan has hardly featured. Nick Offerman, as local conspiracy nut Karl Weathers, got – and stole – a scene, but no more. And – apart from on a poster – we’ve still to see Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan, a casting idea so goofily perfect that, on one level, I’d actually be quite pleased if we only ever got to imagine it. I thought the first season of Fargo was the best new show of 2014. On this sort of form it might well be, without qualification, the best show of 2015.