‘Fargo’ Season 5 Leans Into the Coen Brothers’ 1996 Film but Politely Avoids a Head-on Collision

Joel and Ethan Coen have a love-hate relationship with America’s Midwest. They could never come out and say it, however. The fifth installment of FX’s “Fargo” is set in Minnesota and North Dakota, in the year 2019. It opens with a definition, which is presented as a disclaimer. “Minnesota Nice” is described as “an aggressively pleasant demeanor, often forced, in which a person is chipper and self-effacing no matter how bad things get.” Anyone consistently watching the series knows this could also be considered a mission statement for the groundbreaking cop anti-procedural. These “Fargo” players attract the Minnesota-nicest criminals someone could ever meet.

Juno Temple stars as Dorothy “Dot” Lyon, a Midwestern housewife with mad survival skills which beg the question: Why? Her husband, Wayne Lyon (David Rysdahl), doesn’t have a clue, and can’t appease his mother, Lorraine “Queen of Debt” Lyon” (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She sees Dot as a gold-digger, and her son as a car dealership-owning fool. The only bright light in the family is her more-than-tomboy granddaughter, and there are doubts there too. Lorraine is CEO of the largest debt collection agency in the country, about to expand, and distrusts the woman who bore her granddaughter with a bemused delight. This doesn’t stop the matriarch of the Lyon name from appointing in-house counsel Danish Graves, played by Dave Foley with a tree-trunk, possibly pine, up his ass, to keep things close to home when Dot mistakenly Tasers a cop during a parent-teacher conference. The shock is heard for miles.

The crime of the season is kidnapping, much like the 1996 movie “Fargo,” where car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) arranges his wife’s kidnapping so he can collect a ransom from her father. But the auto dealership owner’s wife Dot swears she wasn’t kidnapped, and no one seems to be in it for the money in this chapter of the series. This isn’t to say finance doesn’t play a big part in the circumstances surrounding the mysterious kidnap caper. The motive behind the crime is passion, with vengeance as collateral. 

Roy Tillman is unlike any characterization given by Jon Hamm. The North Dakota Sheriff is a character designed to be hated. He has a promising introduction. Sheriff Tillman greets the FBI in a wooden backyard sauna, built for one lonesome cowpoke. He is clothed only in what God gave him. As the agents insist the lawman accept the towel they offer, Tillman embodies the pioneering spirit of the old west. The audience doesn’t know what the sheriff’s packing, but he’s happier to show it than the agents are to see it. 

The FBI is coming down on Tillman because of his now-renowned selective law enforcement. As a constitutional lawman, Roy is the law, and therefore above the law, or at least that’s how he interprets it. Sheriff Tillman doesn’t waste his time chasing down low-level, prison-clogging pot smokers or true American gun owners. He believes in freedom. Some rules are meant to be broken in the service of that freedom, but he is confident “there is no one on God’s green earth who is a greater enforcer of the laws of this land than Roy Tillman.” This is ironically also where Hamm will lose most of the audience, at least their good graces. He is still eminently watchable, especially as he goes dark. The Sheriff spent a long time searching for Dot. Her checkered past is a chess game. Roy Tillman just wants to lasso the Queen. He’s already put his brand on her.

The sheriff is a rancher and a preacher who tends his flock much like his herd. Get him home at night, and he’s ready, eager, and dangerously able to use a riding crop on his past or current wife to ensure a perfect run. His lawfully deputized son Gator, played by Joe Keery of “Stranger Things,” gives a crash course in desperation and arrogance, not particularly in that order. Gator isn’t the brightest bulb in Sheriff Tillman’s shade, but has a knack for catching the spotlight. Though not in a good way, like the street rep of the larger-than-life Sheriff Tillman. The man with the biggest badge calls in a veteran mastermind of painful ends, Ole Munch (Sam Spruell). 

Ole Munch may not be the most featured character this season, but he makes quite an impact with what we get. He is a big man, formidably athletic, who wears a kilt, and covers himself with earth and blood before deadly missions. He is year five’s most mysterious character, and one of the most intelligent. Spruell is fun to watch. Ole Munch’s calm acceptance of fate is a lethal weapon, while his glares just say goodbye. 

Regardless of the importance of any other crucial character, “Fargo” is nothing without its resourceful, female, law enforcement agents, with too much on their plate. In the film, Frances McDormand’s Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson is seven months pregnant when she chases down those ultraviolent criminals. This season of “Fargo” finds Minnesota Police Deputy Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani) saddled with a manchild husband. He wants to be a golf pro, and spends all their money on it. He used to want to play the drums, and blew a fortune on an ostentatious set. The Gundersons are in debt, which Lorraine can sniff like a shark smells blood. This leads to a moral quandary, which is dished out deliciously.

“This is a true story,” the film and each season of “Fargo” opens, unwittingly unleashing a slew of true crime show promises never intended to be delivered. “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” The reality captured by each of the actors, from the resolute adherence to local accents to the authentic immediacy they put into each of the sequences, is a promise kept. It doesn’t look like the ice was even cleared.

“Fargo” year five dares to ask, “When is a kidnapping not a kidnapping, and what if your wife isn’t yours?” This is merely the most apparent level of the chilling doings in the snowy-set landscapes of the series. The audience is also privy to many insider trades which come across as so much blackmail, and political dealings filled with wit but against unmatched opponents. Monopolies are attempted, arms sales to domestic terrorists is a minor subplot. A gender war subliminally launches counterattacks. The majority of the battles are amusing, as each character has an inner sense of humor, or lives on their wits. 

“Fargo” consistently plays with tone, not merely darkening the snow-blindingly bright daytime sets with uncertain currents, but also squeezing each aspect of possible tension into pincer-tight arcs which can sink or implode at a moment’s notice. 

Fargo” season 5 premieres Nov. 21 with new episodes airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.