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California Dreamin’: Kirsten Dunst, Don Draper and ‘Fargo’s’ second season

| Tuesday, October 13, 2015

CaliforniaDreamin_WEBLAUREN WELDON | The Observer

Art has always been something of a Rorschach test. Each of us carries a myriad of past experiences and preferences that shape our interpretation of every book we read, every film we see, and yes, every television show we follow. (Television IS art. Get over it.) “Mad Men” concluded in May, meaning I’m up to date with only one current television series. (Come back to me, Liz Lemon and Don Draper!) I miss “Mad Men” dearly. I’m quick to flaunt my fandom in all of my FTT classes — where I’m probably known as that kid who never shuts up about “Mad Men” — and the show has even informed much of my work in history and philosophy classes. “Mad Men’s” effect on me is a supreme example of past experiences shaping current interpretations, for better or worse. I can’t help but wonder if I’m a little too eager to connect whatever I’m reading or writing about these days to “Mad Men,” if my love for the show clouds my judgment and if all of the parallels I see between life, art and “Mad Men” merely amount to wishful thinking. It’s possible that the midterm paper for my European History class — written partly through the lens of the show — is utter garbage. So, being fully aware that we often see what we want to see in art, I’m still thoroughly convinced “Fargo” draws significant connections to my favorite television show.

And of course, that show I’m up to date with is “Fargo,” which just kicked off its second season Monday at 10 p.m. on FX. “Fargo,” an adaptation of the Coen brother’s 1996 masterpiece, is very much of its moment. A dark, quirky sense of humor pervades each episode. Its depiction of violence stretches the limits of decency. And it’s an anthology series, meaning each new season presents a new story with a new cast of characters. (“Fargo” actually borrows a couple of characters from its critically acclaimed first season, but, since this season is a prequel to the first, younger actors are cast in these parts.)

Monday’s episode, “Waiting for Dutch,” set a lot of story pieces in motion. It’s 1979. Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech captures the tone of a changing nation. The North Dakotan Gerhardt crime family experiences power struggles after their boss suffers a stroke. A low-level member of the Gerhardt family is working an angle to score some extra cash, and this being a show inspired by the Coen brother’s film and sensibilities, we know his scheme will only lead to trouble. A state trooper comes home to his daughter and ailing wife. A rival crime family plots to move in on the Gerhardt’s territory. And oh yeah, four people are brutally killed.

That this incredibly dense hour of television never felt exasperating is a testament to “Fargo’s” writing, acting, and perhaps most notably, its style. Where the first season drew many visual cues from its source material — vast panoramas of a snow-covered landscape, punctuated by cars, parkas and blood — season two nods to action films of the ‘70s. Wipes set to absurd leitmotifs, extensive use of split-screen and a mustard-yellow that seems to pervade every set announce more than just the show’s time period, they announce its mission statement: to swing for the fences. Season one’s comparatively modest style at time’s felt like its apology for attempting to create a successful television adaptation of a classic film, something many (including myself) felt was impossible. We were all proven wrong, and now, “Fargo” is back with a vengeance. This season’s sheer bravado is reminiscent of “Boogie Nights” and is why “Fargo” is the best show on television. (Does he ever shut up about “Mad Men” and “Boogie Nights?”)

Season two’s style isn’t its only point of departure from previous iterations of “Fargo.” Rather, showrunner Noah Hawley seems to be inverting many of the themes explored in the film and first season. Last year Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard was cut from the same cloth as William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard (one of the villains from the film). Both were husbands, both were all around disappointments to their families, and both turned to crime when the familial pressure became too great to bear. This year we are presented with the Blomquists, Peggy and Ed (played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons). Like the Nygaards and the Lundegaards, they’re a middle class family struggling to get by. But Ed is completely different from Lester and Jerry. He has ambitions. He yearns to provide the white picket fence, the 2.4 children and all the other trappings of the American dream for his wife … who, frankly, doesn’t seem all that interested in him or his efforts. (When Ed attempts to coax her into making a baby, she replies, embarrassed, “We just did that last weekend.” Ouch.)

It is Peggy who provides the show’s connection to “Mad Men.” She yearns for a new life beyond the confines of the great white north. A postcard of California taped to her mirror graces her view as she puts on her makeup. When she and Ed end up with a body to hide, she suggests they pretend the crime never happened, that they flee to California to start again. And how many times did Don Draper start over? How often did he turn to California as a site of rebirth? For Peggy’s sake, I hope she, like Don, doesn’t only like the beginnings of things … because the path she embarks on is not for the faint of heart.

It seems to me that California is more than a symbol of regeneration for Don and Peggy (Blomquist not Olsen). If this first episode — with its newfound audacity, style and themes — is an accurate sample of what’s to come, then California may mean regeneration for “Fargo,” too.

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