After two compelling seasons, the diminishing returns on Fargo slowly started to creep in. It wasn't all at once or within a single season, but throughout the third and fourth seasons, the FX show lost its identity. The plotting got sluggish and uninteresting, and while there were a few good performances mixed in there — shoutout to Carrie Coon — there was little to suggest that the anthology series had much steam left. Creator Noah Hawley basically said so himself, stating that he wasn't going to make a fifth season unless an idea really jumped out at him and he felt compelled to make it happen.
Luckily, it seems like Hawley has stuck to that idea, as the newest season is closer in feeling and tone to the first two seasons and boasts a killer cast and a dark heart that make this trip back to Minnesota very worthwhile. As with most Fargo seasons, this one mixes in a lot of elements from the Coen brothers' filmography, namely drawing from the Fargo film and The Big Lebowski. Here, a housewife named Dot (Juno Temple) seems to live a happy, quiet life alongside her husband, Wayne (David Rysdahl), and their daughter. Everything is peachy until a school board meeting gone wrong lands Dot in jail for a night. This gets her fingerprints in a national database, and a secret past that she's running from comes back to haunt her.
Dot's secret involves Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), a fascist sheriff in North Dakota who believes that justice is delivered in whatever fashion he's so inclined to indulge that day. Tillman comes complete with gun-wielding deputies, a love of control, and pierced nipples, and Hamm clearly delights in the role. He's the kind of character who could easily be played with outrageous scenery chewing, but Hamm plays it more subtle than that. Sure, he's a little over the top, but Hamm always grounds Roy's ridiculousness in a menacing stare and a sense that he can explode into violence at any moment.
That tension in Hamm's performance is indicative of the tone of much of the season. This season pretty perfectly balances dark and gritty violence with a sharp sense of humor. There's no real whiplash, as both tones feel fully grounded in this specific story. While Hamm is remarkable, the true highlight here is Juno Temple. The way she bounces between cheery, modest Minnesotan housewife and ruthless, ingenious survivor keeps the entire season afloat.
The fifth season kicks off with a truly compelling premiere that, for most of its hourlong runtime, focuses on Dot trying to survive a kidnapping. We're with her as she's attacked in her home, stuffed in a car, and then fighting for her life alongside a well-meaning but bumbling cop (Lamorne Morris) in a gas station. Dot, the doting wife, turns into Rambo, fashioning various weapons and traps to ward off her kidnappers. There's an energy created in the premiere that, thankfully, continues through the next few episodes. On top of that, Dot's existence in this world provides the richest thematic territory for the season. Whenever Dot is on screen, she gives the show a feminist "final girl" angle that's thrilling and biting. She's the lone survivor, the only competent voice in the room; the men in this world are either idiots or evil, and it's up to Dot to survive in an environment that's filled with threats. In Dot, Fargo has crafted a character we can truly root for, and that type of emotional investment makes the show feel like it has captured some of its old magic.
Premieres: Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 10/9c on FX
Who's in it: Juno Temple, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lamorne Morris, Joe Keery
Who's behind it: Noah Hawley (creator)
For fans of: Barry, The Flight Attendant, Search Party
How many episodes we watched: 3 of 10