Minor spoilers ahead.
Let's get the usual questions out of the way first. Yes, the second season of "Fargo" was very good. However, I didn't find it as strong or as satisfying a watch as the first season. I liked the period setting, pretty much the entire cast of characters, and the greater emphasis on dark humor. However, I found the references to the Coen brothers films, most prominently "No Country for Old Men" and "Miller's Crossing," much messier and less effective than the ones used in the first season. And while I appreciate the attempts to incorporate more ambitious themes, and challenging conceits, I found the execution pretty bumpy.
But when the show was great, it was great. Based on a brief anecdote from one of the characters in the first season, this year we go back to Fargo in 1979, where the Gerhardt crime family, led by matriarch Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) and her sons Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and Bear (Angus Sampson), anticipate a coming clash with the the agents of the encroaching Kansas City syndicate, specifically the ambitious Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) become involved when investigating a shooting that appears to be connected. Also key to the story are a hairdresser, Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemmons), a butcher, who blunder unwittingly into the volatile situation and get in way over their heads.
I love the whole cast. The season is stuffed full of such strong, memorable performances, including smaller turns from Brad Garrett, Kieran Culkin, Nick Offerman, Adam Arkin, and Bruce Campbell, who pops in briefly to play Ronald Reagan. However, I want to point out some MVPs: Rachel Keller as self-destructive Simone Gerhardt, whose teenage rebellion has terrible consequences, Cristin Milioti as Lou's cancer-afflicted, but endlessly brave wife Betsy, Zahn McClarnon as the Gerhardt's deeply damaged Native American enforcer Hanzee, Bokeem Woodbine as loquacious, conniving gangster Mike Milligan, and last but certainly not least, Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist, who turns an accident into a snowballing maelstrom of violence and horror in her bid to escape a boring life.
For the majority of this season of "Fargo," I was enthralled, willing to let the little flaws and weaker scenes go as the momentum kept building and building toward what I expected to be a terrific climax. The little character portraits were solid, and quickly moving events forced the large cast into some great combinations. The references to Albert Camus, Ronald Reagan, and UFOs added some fun thematic touches. And it was impossible to predict what was going to happen next, with so many moving parts and so many different agendas at play. Aside from the Solverson family, it was hard to know who to root for, as alliances and loyalties could change in the blink of an eye. There were some tremendous episodes in the middle of the season, culminating in "Loplop," where the Blumquists end up in the middle of an absurd and hysterical hostage situation.
Once again the production values are very high, full of great little period details and bleakly gorgeous cinematography. A recurring motif is the use of split-screens, putting as many as four different storylines in front of us at the same time to help give a sense of where everyone is in relation to each other, or splitting off Ed and Peggy into their own boxes despite them being literally right next to each other, to show that their viewpoints being divergent. I found the writing had its ups and downs, but I really admire Noah Hawley's ability to mine moments of greatness from smaller, intimate scenes that look so inconsequential at first glance. It really gives the quieter characters like Betsy and Hank their time to shine.
However, I found the last two episodes disappointing. I'm still trying to work out why, since they delivered on pretty much all of what the preceding ones promised. We had the big showdown and all the major characters met their appropriate fates. But is all seemed to go by so quickly, with so little time to react to big events. I was left wondering what happened to some of the minor characters, and whether maybe Hawley had decided to leave later events for a follow-up season. So much feels unresolved, uneasy, and anti-climactic, with a few odd bits of look-at-the-bigger-picture exposition tacked on at the end, to explain away dangling plot threads and to justify the looming portents of the approaching Reagan era.
Maybe that was the point, following along in the same vein as that famously sudden and unconventional ending from "No Country for Old Men," that refused to give the audience the closure it wanted. However, even if this is the case, the execution of the final episodes of "Fargo" still felt off. And I can't help thinking of all the other little scenes that didn't quite work, strewn throughout the season. I got a lot of enjoyment out of this year of "Fargo," and it certainly stands on its own separately from the first season, but this one had some substantial flaws that should be taken into account.