Oh Yeah, 'Fargo' Is Still a Twisty Treat in the Crime Caper's Jon Hamm- and Juno Temple-Led Fifth Season

You betcha this small-screen take on the Coen brothers' big-screen masterpiece keeps proving one of the best film-to-TV adaptations there is.
Sarah Ward
November 22, 2023

This is a true story: in 2014, Hollywood decided to take on a task that was destined to either go as smoothly as sliding on ice or prove as misguided as having a woodchipper sitting around. Revisiting Fargo was a bold move even in pop culture's remake-, reboot- and reimagining-worshipping times, because why say "you betcha" to trying to make crime-comedy perfection twice? The Coen brothers' 1996 film isn't just any movie. It's a two-time Oscar-winner, BAFTA and Cannes' Best Director pick of its year, and one of the most beloved and original examples of its genre in the last three decades. But in-between credits on Bones, The Unusuals and My Generation, then creating the comic book-inspired Legion, writer, director and producer Noah Hawley started a project he's now synonymous with, and that's still going strong five seasons in.

For the TV version of Fargo, the setup mirrors the film. "This is a true story," all iterations of Fargo claim. "At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed," each season of the series goes on, as the movie did before them. "Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred," they also advise. What follows from there is always a twisty tale set in America's midwest, as filled with everyday folks in knotty binds, complicated family ties, crooks both bumbling and determined trying to cash in, and intrepid cops investigating leads that others wouldn't. Hawley's stroke of genius: driving back into Fargo terrain by making an anthology series built upon similar pieces, but always finding new tales about greed, power, murder and snowy landscapes to tell — including the latest, which starts releasing episodes via SBS On Demand in Australia and Neon in New Zealand from Wednesday, November 22.

Consider Fargo a Coen brothers remix, too, nodding to its inspiration while existing in the same universe, and also winking at the sibling filmmakers' other features. It's a series where stars from Joel and Ethan's movies have key roles, such as The Man Who Wasn't There's Billy Bob Thornton, A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg and The Big Lebowski's David Thewlis, to mention a few. References to The Big Lebowski's white russians, mugshots that ape Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?-esque bluegrass and calling someone "friendo" No Country for Old Men-style also happily pop up. Lines of dialogue, monikers, shots, scenes, character types, plot specifics: from Blood Simple and Barton Fink to Burn After Reading and Hail, Caesar! — and Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as well — the links keep coming. 

Hawley's Fargo adores the Coenverse overall, enthusiastically scouring it for riches like it's the TV-making embodiment of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter's namesake. That film hailed from Damsel's David Zellner instead, and took cues from the urban legend surrounding the purported Fargo ties to the IRL death of Japanese office worker Takako Konishi; however, wanting the contents of the Coen brothers' brains to become your reality is clearly a common thread. Of course, for most of the fictional figures who've walked through the small-screen Fargo's frames, they'd like anything but caper chaos. Scandia, Minnesota housewife Dot Lyon (Juno Temple, Ted Lasso) is one of them in season five. North Dakota sheriff, preacher and rancher Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm, Good Omens) isn't as averse to a commotion if he's the one causing it. Minnesota deputy Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani, Never Have I Ever) and North Dakota state trooper Witt Farr (Lamorne Morris, Woke) just want to get to the bottom of the series' new stint of sometimes-madcap and sometimes-violent mayhem.

The events depicted in Fargo season five take place in 2019, after the film's 1987 timing, then season one's 2006 setting, season two's jump back to 1979, season three unfurling in 2010 and season four using 1950 as a backdrop. This is the most current of the franchise's interconnected stories in two ways, with America's recent political climate and corresponding polarisation key to its ten-episode narrative. Indeed, when Dot and her tween daughter Scotty (Sienna King, Under the Banner of Heaven) are introduced in the fifth season's opening scene, it's at a PTA meeting-turned-brawl. After Dot busts out a taser to escape the mob, her presence in the melee ends with an arrest by Olmstead, worry from her car salesman Wayne (David Rysdahl, Oppenheimer), disapproval from his debt collection company CEO mother Lorraine (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hunters) and the latter's in-house lawyer Danish Graves (Dave Foley, The Kids in the Hall) snapping into action. Similarly a consequence: the dawning realisation by those around her that this stay-at-home mum has secrets.

Fans of the movie are in for a treat as Hawley treads in its footsteps more directly than ever, but still cleverly, entertainingly, and while reinforcing the idea that basic human nature sparks tales like this over and over. A home invasion and kidnapping, dispatched criminals doing a job that goes awry, a massive face wound and the line "it's a beautiful day" — uttered here by Olmstead — all feature. As Dot joins Fargo's array of indomitable women, so do Olmstead and Lorraine, offering three stripes on an upstanding, ruthless and caught in-between flag. And the saga's savaging exploration of masculinity? The Trumpian Tillman, who sees the law as a mere guide, is all about boosting his own status, has son Gator (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) following his lead and also sports the Anton Chigurh doppelgänger Ole Munch (Sam Spruell, The Gold) on the payroll, is its primary target.

Season five kicks off with a title card in addition to the playful "this is a true story" spiel (it's well-established by now that Fargo trades in anything but, at least where narrative facts are involved). Defining "Minnesota nice" as "an aggressively pleasant demeanour, often forced, in which a person is chipper and self-effacing, no matter how bad things get" gives way to the school riot. In mere minutes, Hawley hammers home the truth that even putting on niceties is a rare occurrence in today's America — and 2019's. The season unpacks this notion, setting its sights on the society, attitudes, leaders and powerbrokers perpetuating self-serving fractures so deep that smiling and pretending to get along isn't possible. Fargo sees the fightback, too, both when class and gender are involved, and especially in the resourceful Dot. She could give MacGyver a run for his money, gets compared to a tiger and, out of necessity, never stops notching up ways to outsmart her foes.

Add Temple's lead performance to Fargo's long list of standout portrayals; Frances McDormand received her first of three Best Actress Oscars (before also winning for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Nomadland) for the film, after all. Add Hamm to the franchise's can't-look-away villains, swapping his Mad Men charm for the prickliest of confidence. And, add another delight of a run to the show's pile, this time delivering a striking service station siege, the memorable use of The Prodigy's 'Smack My Bitch Up' and multiple references to The Nightmare Before Christmas along the way. Here's another genuinely true story: Fargo keeps proving one of the best film-to-TV adaptations there is.

Check out the trailer for Fargo season five below:

Fargo season five streams via SBS On Demand in Australia and Neon in New Zealand from Wednesday, November 22.

Images: Michelle Faye/FX.

Published on November 22, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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