In Season 5 of the FX anthology series “Fargo,” a small-town sheriff explains the concept of freedom: zero consequences for his actions. “You want freedom without any responsibilities,” a scary woman tells him, and there is only one person in the world who accepts this deal. “A baby. You’re fighting for your right to be a baby.”
Creator Noah Hawley’s TV adaptation of the 1996 Coen brothers crime comedy was a fortuitous event for my tastes. But at its best, it’s a cold spectacle and a deep dive into the violence, corruption, and resentment that burns beneath the neighboring “Minnesota is beautiful” façade.
This one is a gripping story on which the Temple of Juno is based (“Ted Lasso”) As a young wife and mother named Dot, her past comes back to haunt her as Jon Hamm’s aforementioned sheriff, the self-satisfied, Bible-thumping Marlboro Man from North Dakota.
He is a chauvinist who sees domestic violence as necessary for “education” and is offended when he learns that a husband is beating his wife for the “wrong” reasons. After judging the man harshly for this transgression, he sends the couple home and says to his wife: “Try to be respectful. Meet his needs as a man with a mouth to sow harmony.” That’s what this guy is; When there are no black market arms dealers.
The year is 2019. Ten years ago, Dot was married to the sheriff. But she escaped to Minnesota, changed her name, and started a new life with a nice, if slightly childish, man (David Rysdahl, a true Minnesota native!). They are the parents of a brave, pre-pubescent daughter. Life is uneventful and full of Bisquick pancakes for breakfast.
Until one day, two men working under the orders of the sheriff broke into his house.
They fail to anticipate Dot’s resourcefulness, which brings to mind MacGyver’s skills. Or how Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” devises an improvised home security system. This is a funny character detail.
But this season of “Fargo” also serves as an angry response to the question often asked after abuse is revealed: Why didn’t she leave?
Anyway, he left. And he still won’t let go.
Each season, Hawley creates an expanding world of supporting players, some more interesting than others. Dot’s current mother-in-law is a powerful businesswoman with a terrific performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Patrician on the surface, scummy at heart, and runs a massive debt collection company. She makes her policy known when she poses for Christmas card photos carrying an automatic weapon to her family.
Unlike the sheriff in North Dakota, he has a lot of power and makes his own rules, subjecting everyone to his will. In other cases, they may realize how much they have in common. But not this time. Even though he has little respect or warmth for Dot, he has no intention of imposing his will on his family.
The Sheriff has a son (Joe Keery from “Stranger Things”) who aims to emulate his father’s authority but is too terrible to succeed. There are also two regular cops (Richa Moorjani and Lamorne Morris) who worry about Dot and realize something is wrong, and these are references to the movie’s sweetheart, Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand.
The show’s Upper Midwest concept is offset by air quotes — eccentric and therefore original — but it rarely feels like it’s based on anything recognizable. Sometimes actors get lost in this stylized approach and come across as nothing more than names in bold, parachuting in with a vague sense of the place or its culture. Hamm in particular can’t come up with a completely believable performance. But maybe it will work for this character. Bullies can never fully mask their insecurities.
The man is essentially a fraud. He’s the kind of person whose ideas about himself and the world would likely be shattered if anyone with real power backed down hard enough.
“Fargo” Season 5 – 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Tuesdays at 9pm on FX (and streaming on Hulu)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.