"Before the Law," the second episode of FX's returning limited series, "Fargo," lays it on thick from the opening minutes. "Based on a true story," the familiar title card promises, each letter accompanied by the thwack of a typewriter, as director Noah Hawley lavishes the Minnesota landscape with stylistic embroidery. Freeze frames and aerial shots nestle within split screens, which give way to extreme close-ups of meat streaked with white fat, as if to acknowledge the new season's portly construction. In terms of casting, storytelling, and aesthetics, "Fargo" has bulked up since last year, but not all of the added weight is muscle.
Though still intermittently sublime—Jean Smart's thorny Floyd Gerhardt, matriarch of a North Dakotan crime family, is a blackguard in floral prints and pearl earrings, as transfixing as she is cold—"Fargo" now seems strained, as though it needs to loosen its belt. The season premiere alone contains a faux Ronald Reagan vehicle called "Massacre at Sioux Falls," a possible UFO sighting, and an upstart tough with a Napoleon complex (Kieran Culkin), a mess of forced eccentricities from which the central narrative does not quite emerge unscathed.
Set in 1979, the new episodes follow the Gerhardt clan, a bunch of Kansas City mobsters, State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), and hairdresser Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst) in the aftermath of a gruesome triple murder, and in part the heavy-handedness is a knock-on effect of the insistent period detail. With so many Nixon references I half expected Frank Langella or Anthony Hopkins to turn up in a motorcade, and explicit nods to Jim Jones, gas shortages, Love Canal, and Pol Pot, "Fargo" hews too closely to the textbook interpretation of the Carter years to come alive. It's overstuffed with the type of received wisdom about place and time that the first season, not to mention Joel and Ethan Coen's eponymous 1996 masterwork, more or less easily brushed off.
These would be the qualms of a pedant were it not for the new season's thoroughgoing investment in a certain shopworn understanding of the era, beginning with archival footage of Carter's inaptly named "malaise speech," which warned, with now-startling prescience, that the excesses of consumer culture were inextricable from both the energy crisis and the destruction of the environment. "Fargo" prefers the more popular reading—presidential address as admission of defeat—and thus lashes its bursts of violence to its forced attempts at historical awareness. "Isn't that a minor miracle, with the state of the world today, the level of conflict and misunderstanding?" Kansas City gangster Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) asks Solverson's father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), during a tense traffic stop. "That two men can stand on a road in winter and talk calmly and rationally, while all around them people are losing their minds?"
Echoing, or papering over, its preening, multi-pronged treatment of murder in exurban Minnesota as a sign of the times, the second season of "Fargo" veers into mannerism; it's not any one of the stylistic fillips that can be identified as the culprit so much as their constant collision, an aesthetic pileup on an icy road. For every brutal, darkly comic moment of invention—the slow-motion sight of a severed finger slipping under the door, a pool of blood and spilled milk in a diner's booth—there's the long, overwrought montage that begins "Before the Law," or an unseen narrator reading from the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, as at the conclusion of the season premiere. Inconsistent to the point of frustration, it's "Fargo"—and not "the whole world," like Lou suggests—that's ultimately "out of balance."
For the stretches in which the series bluntly addresses the characters' hardscrabble origins, the meanness of countenance that abides in those truly desperate to protect what they've managed to make from life, are also the moments in which "Fargo" rediscovers the lean, stringy affect of the source material, which for all of Marge Gunderson's warmth inhabited the belly of the beast. Speaking with her Kansas City competitors, Floyd Gerhardt thus numbers tragedies that long predate any post-Vietnam "malaise": 61 years, six children, three miscarriages, two stillborn sons, and another killed in Korea. "The point is," she says simply, the camera holding on her stern, lined face, "don't assume just because I'm an old woman that my back is weak and my stomach's not strong."
Mistaking its weaknesses for strengths, "Fargo" mimics, though with far less disastrous consequences, certain aspects of this summer's "True Detective," unwilling to forsake its sense of ambition and creative freedom for the stringent demands of a narrative with so many moving parts. The key to the first season, and to the film that preceded it, was in fact to hide the black humor in the side pocket of the story, to leaven the violence with streaks of strangeness rather than frame them in close-up. As "Fargo" tautens its many threads, its return may well shake off the faint malaise of the first four episodes, but to this point it reminds me of an exchange from the third season of "Mad Men," set at the dawn of a materialistic era whose consequences the characters of "Fargo" are just now beginning to feel. "You have everything," an awestruck Peggy tells Don, cautioning that times of plenty are quick to pass in the process. "And so much of it."
The second season of "Fargo" premieres Monday, Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. on FX.