Fargo’s new season has thrills and comedy, but also a fresh maturity

Jon Hamm, Juno Temple, and Jennifer Jason Leigh headline the latest season of thriller anthology series Fargo. Tony Stamp dives in to experience what multiple outlets are calling a ‘return to form’.

On the day its fourth season finale aired, Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley was asked about the possibility of a fifth, and responded, “I don’t want to try and make another one unless I think, ‘Oh, we have to make this one. It’s the best one yet.’”

Evidently a good idea eventuated, because season five has begun airing in the States to critical acclaim, with multiple outlets calling it a ‘return to form’.

The show has always managed to attract big names: Billy Bob Thornton, Ewan McGregor, and Chris Rock have headlined various instalments, and this time out includes a roster of acting heavyweights like Jon Hamm, Juno Temple, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Hawley continues to play with archetypes, and push them in unexpected directions, and it’s easy to see why it might be an attractive proposition to performers. Everyone gets plenty to chew over. He also keeps drawing on scenarios from the Coen brothers film that spawned the show (and their entire filmography), remixing and repurposing them to suit his story.

He must be well aware of audience expectations at this point, too, and after episode one begins with a bravura slow motion shot of a town hall meeting in disarray, eventually honing in on Temple sitting amongst the carnage, he proceeds with a sequence that feels a little too familiar. Just as you’re starting to feel slightly cheated though, he upends it in shocking, hilarious ways, and you realise you’re in safe hands.

It ends in completely unfamiliar territory, involving a standoff in a gas station that’s one of the best set pieces the show has ever delivered; incredibly tense and patient, it recontextualizes everything the episode has established, particularly Temple’s character, as we realise she might not be the wholesome Midwestern housewife we thought.

She’s miles away from her Ted Lasso role here, capable and tough as nails beneath a rosy exterior, and consequently emerges as the highlight of an incredibly satisfying first ep. It ends on a bloody, poetic conclusion to its tinderbox setup, adding riffs on Die Hard and Ready Or Not to the show’s box of tricks, and as you catch your breath at its end you realise there is much more to come.

The next few episodes proceed to deal with the fallout, pulling some characters together while pushing others apart, and crucially, introducing Hamm’s Sheriff Roy Tillman.

He’s revealed to be an imposing, murky character. We catch flashes of him in Temple’s dreams, then delivering some deeply misogynistic advice to a beaten wife and her husband, but he’s properly introduced wearing a cowboy hat, in an outdoor hot tub looking out at his many acres of land, the camera panning around to highlight his two pierced nipples.

That last aspect deliberately rubs up against the conservative rhetoric he spouts and indicates another layer to him that’s unveiled down the line. Hamm is scarier than you might expect in a role that’s familiar from prior seasons—a powerful man who always gets his way—but more well-rounded than past iterations, too.

That’s what impresses most about season five and explains why prestige actors seem to flock to this show. Hawley has gotten much better at investing his characters with inner lives and ambiguity. The quirks are still there, and each could be summed up in a line, but he ensures there are many layers beneath.

Hamm’s son is played by Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, clad in junior-fascist garb and desperately trying to impress his dad. He rises to the occasion of playing against type, menacing in his own way despite a good dose of incompetence. Really all you need to know is that his dad named him Gator. How could you live up to that?

In season three Hawley was clearly preoccupied by Trump-era America, and insecure men in positions of power who thought force was all they needed to win. The Tillmans are a hangover from that, crypto-fascists with a curdled alt-right philosophy. The question of how they relate to Temple’s character is what drives these early episodes.

Jason Leigh plays her matriarchal mother-in-law, frightening in her own way (and prone to revealing her own outdated prejudices), with Leigh clearly relishing every stone cold monologue and dead-eyed glare.

Rounding out the cast are Lamorne Morris and Richa Moorjani as a pair of deputies who team up after the gas station incident. Hawley keeps the original movie’s fondness for cops, as these two are clearly the show’s moral compass. Morris comes closest to the Coen’s Marge Gunderson, in that he seems (for now) to be a thoroughly decent guy, while Moorjani has more going on, with a complicated homelife involving a surprise appearance from Lukas Gage.

Hawley will occasionally dip into the woozy, psychedelic approach he brought to the show Legion, and those moments bring some horror film frisson to proceedings, but by and large Fargo: Season 5 feels like its most mature. There are thrills, and comedy, but the ironic detachment is dialled down a bit, and the results are all the more satisfying.

This season is set in 2019, and the show clearly occupies its own universe at this point, separate to that of the film (two sunglass and suit clad FBI agents from the Fargo bureau show up at one point, ending the notion that this is a small town), and works as its own distinct story, dynamic and gripping from the outset.