Season 5, Episode 2: ‘Trials and Tribulations’
In its persistent engagement with the Coenverse so far, “Fargo” has done best when it tweaks our expectations rather than simply reward fans with references to different movies. The premiere’s restaging of the Jean Lundegaard kidnapping from the movie “Fargo,” for example, was a dynamic way to establish Dot as someone who is surprisingly capable of dealing with a violent disruption to her morning routine.
In this episode, Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm) gets an introduction that initially posits him as an upstanding rural lawman in the mold of Tommy Lee Jones in the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men.” It quickly becomes apparent, however, that he is a more unsavory man of justice.
The opening monologue nods to Jones’s character, a third-generation sheriff who finds himself overwhelmed by contemporary evils. But Tillman is the type to perpetrate those evils himself under the guise of godly righteousness.
His monologue is not delivered to us, in fact, but to a married couple in which the husband has violently assaulted his wife. Tillman is not enforcing the law but rather a patriarchal order that the man has disrupted by hitting his wife for the wrong reasons. In Tillman’s view, a man “only raises his hand when she forgets her place” — rather than book the husband, he has him choked as a “lesson.” The wife is then advised to, among other things, cater to her husband’s carnal needs “in order to sow harmony.”
Tillman’s status as an elected official is underlined heavily for political effect here. He is a conservative North Dakotan, to put it mildly — “Jesus was a man, not some bearded lady” — and the laws of God, as he interprets them, supersede those passed by legislators.
When two F.B.I. agents disrupt his hot-tub time to ask why he is not enforcing any laws, Tillman remains defiant and unabashed. But at this point, we know that Dot is his runaway wife and that Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), her one surviving abductor, had been working for him in an extremely unofficial capacity. Tillman has enough arrogance to shoo the agents away, but Ole Munch and Dot herself are still in the wind, which makes him a target, too.
In another clever reversal of Coen expectations, Lorraine Lyon strongly suspects that Dot was in cahoots with the kidnappers in a ransom scheme but wound up getting cold feet. In the movie, it was Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who was working with his wife’s kidnappers to pry money away from his father-in-law.
But Dot has no interest in Lorraine’s money. Unless Noah Hawley has another card to play, we can believe that Dot wants nothing more than to continue her life with Wayne and Scotty, and that she probably feels like her mother-in-law’s wealth and status is more hindrance than advantage. Wayne’s job as a salesman at a Kia dealership seems like enough to keep their suburban life afloat, as it presumably has for the decade they’ve been married.
One obvious problem with maintaining the status quo, however, is that Dot’s story is ridiculous on its face. She has Wayne in her corner, because he is supportive and deferential to his wife in a way that would repulse Tillman. But Deputy Olmstead isn’t buying her story about the two types of blood, neither of them Dot’s, found in her home, and Lorraine is even more suspicious of her motives.
Still, despite her wish to return to her role as suburban wife and mother, Dot prepares for the next siege like Dustin Hoffman in “Straw Dogs” or Nick Nolte in “Cape Fear.” In lieu of a modern security system, she enlists Scotty’s help in stripping electrical wire, shattering light bulbs into bits of glass and pounding nails into a makeshift wooden club.
“Why is there is sledgehammer in the vestibule?” Wayne asks later. A reasonable question, and a funny one, too. The show’s back-to-basics approach to the fifth season, with its return to the modern-day Upper Midwest milieu of the movie, also includes a greater emphasis on comedy. That doesn’t mean it is wholly successful, as when Hawley leans too heavily on colorful words — “commode” and “hoosegow” in the last episode, “vestibule” and “boudoir” in this one. But the lighter tone and brisker pace is giving “Fargo” an energy boost so far this season. The pace has been nice and snappy.
There is also much to anticipate. Multiple parties are coming at Dot from different directions now, with Tillman (and everyone else) knowing exactly where she is and Lorraine poking around Dot’s personal history, which had seemed conspicuously blank upon initial vetting. In addition to having a freshly mangled ear, Ole Munch still hasn’t received full payment from Tillman for a job that wasn’t as easy as he was led to believe.
Add to that Olmstead, the F.B.I. agents and a wounded highway patrolman who is curious about the skinny woman who saved his life, and the next peaceful pancake breakfast seems like a ways off.