Those who dropped off the wagon during Fargo’s frustratingly inconsistent season four might have been doubtful about making a return for the fifth season of FX’s otherwise heavily lauded anthology series. I wasn’t as disappointed as some in season four, but there’s no arguing that it’s the weakest installment of the series. That being said, anyone who came back for season five more than found the show in fine form—season five is, at minimum, the best the show has had to offer since season two.
Fargo Five both returns the show to its roots while also avoiding being overly tied to the lineage of previous seasons (or the film for that matter). It’s a neat trick show creator Noah Hawley pulls off by making the season simultaneously apart from, yet still within, its own history.
What makes this season so fantastic is that, if you had never seen a second of the previous seasons (or the film), I think you would be no less entertained. Of course, the writing and direction deserve much of the credit, but when it comes to the delivery of this comeback, it’s hard not to want to give the lion’s share of the credit to Juno Temple and Jon Hamm.
Temple has proven in recent years to be a remarkably versatile actor. She’s every bit as adept here balancing a decidedly different comedic tone (with heavier dramatic weight) as she is in Ted Lasso.
The season starts fast with Temple’s ‘Dot’ being kidnapped, and despite looking slight enough to get lifted off the ground by a modest breeze, being every bit the “tiger” her would-be captor describes her as to his benefactor, Sheriff Roy Tillman (Hamm, in at least the second best role of his life). The reason behind the crooked lawman’s desire to bring her to him is explained with patience and gets more horrifying with every revelatory and inhumane detail.
While a significant amount of humor is mined from Dot’s efforts to keep her family in the dark while fortifying their home with warning signals and traps, its Temple’s ability to play fierce when in defense of her life and home and tender and quirky when talking about having chili for supper with her husband and daughter (“Shoot, I forgot to pick up the sour cream”) that sells you on her character.
If Temple’s performance swings as steady as a pendulum, Hamm’s portrait is of a very specific sort of wickedness—one that takes a man to task for beating his wife, but not before making the point that there are times a hand must be raised to a spouse but only for the purpose of “correction.” And that may well be the closest Hamm comes to being charming. While I think it would be unfair to consider Hamm’s post-Mad Men career unsuccessful, there can be no doubt that with Roy Tillman he has now finally found a second signature role.
Hamm doesn’t just take a conventional evil route here. Tillman has a philosophy and a code, but both are twisted around views so scabrous as to be truly vile. At no point does Hamm make any effort to turn on his natural charm or use his classic handsomeness to his favor. Those two factors may come with the Hamm package, but as Tillman, he suppresses those natural assets until they are all but pulverized by the certitude of the Sheriff’s heavy hand.
While the bulk of the season deals with Tillman’s efforts to take revenge upon Dot, and their two characters are firmly at the center of this leaner than usual Fargo ensemble, the supporting characters ably make the most of their screen time.
Jennifer Jason Leigh has long been one of our finest (if somewhat under-heralded) actors. As Dot’s mother-in-law Lorraine, Leigh gives off an iciness colder than the Minnesota winter, but then shows just the slightest thawing in the season finale, before lowering the chill factor again in a scene where she and Hamm battle for a sort of mental superiority that Hamm’s Tillman, in his hubris, wrongly thinks he can win. “That’s very Christian of you,” Hamm says with casual venom. “No, not that book,” Leigh replies with a menace that trips lightly off her tongue like Lauren Bacall in a ‘40s film noir.
Sam Spruell as a very Nordic kidnapper with the worst bowl cut since the seventies, gives a lesson in creepy and eccentric minimalism, and supplies a level of tension in the last scene that is almost intolerable in its provoking of anxiety coupled with hope. But my two favorite characters from the extended cast are uniformed deputies Indira Olmstead (the terrific Richa Moorjani) and Whit Farr (played in a fashion that practically defines decency by Lamorne Morris). Both officers are simply trying to do their often boring jobs to the best of their ability and, on this occasion, take on great risk in doing so. Moorjani and Morris give both of their characters a basic goodness that I’m sure might have been dull in the hands of others, but not these two.
Of course, being Fargo, there’s always going to be one flight of fancy in the season that catches you off guard (such as season two’s flying saucers or four’s black and white tornado episode), and that’s the case here as well, with a 500 year flashback to, let’s say, an even more difficult time to be alive than in 2019 (when this season takes place) while being chased by Roy Tillman. I can’t imagine the UFOs are ever going to be topped—no matter how many more seasons Fargo runs, the “500 years ago” title card and the mini-story that follows gives it one hell of an effort.
Still, in the end, for whatever flourishes and folksy whimsy mixed with bloodshed that is this series’ stock and trade, this season will rightly be remembered most for the performances of Temple and Hamm. Not only (I predict) by the next Emmys, but also for restoring Fargo to greatness.