And so it goes with the fifth season of Hawley’s strange, fascinating reinvention of the Coen’s neo-noir impulses, one of the series’ most assured and entertaining yarns. It helps that the show moves back up to the Upper Midwest after spending some time down in Kansas City last season; we’re back to basics, with a tale that feels like a fractured mirror of the 1996 film’s plot beats. We’re back in Minnesota, but this time we’re in 2019—months before COVID, knee-deep in Trump’s second impeachment, with school boards raging and gun shops making bank off scared conservatives.
The skeleton of the story will be familiar to Coen fans: A prim, modest Minnesotan housewife named Dot Lyon (Juno Temple) finds herself being chased by two masked intruders in her home. But unlike Jean Lundegaard, Dot proves herself to be more resourceful than you’d think: she puts up a good fight, slashing fools with ice skates and making flamethrowers out of hairspray. Her kidnapping is decidedly temporary, though, as she escapes to a nearby gas station the first chance she gets—killing one of the goons and saving the life of Deputy Will Farr (Lamorne Morris). All this takes place in the show’s first thrilling hour, a magnum opus of tension and release that proves Hawley’s considerable chops as a director of thrillers.
But here’s where things take an even stranger turn: Once her escape is assured, she wanders right back home, starts making breakfast, and claims that she was never kidnapped at all—despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a brilliant hook that immediately opens up all manner of questions about Dot: Who is she? Where did she pick up all these skills? And why, oh why, is she committed to the pretense that everything is fine?
The answers to those mysteries might lie with Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), Fargo, North Dakota’s deeply popular patriarchal lawman—a domineering, libertarian fundamentalist whose idea of keeping the peace means encouraging abused wives to please their man and stay submissive. He has a curious history with Dot and is committed to getting her back—with the help of his gung-ho cop son Gator (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things”) and an unpredictable foreigner named Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), who has a few bizarre secrets of his own. Meanwhile, Dot’s domineering mother-in-law Lorraine (a suitably reptilian Jennifer Jason Leigh), the wealthy head of a debt collection conglomerate, smells something fishy in the recent behavior of her daughter-in-law she never thought twice about and sics her eyepatch-wearing fixer (Dave Foley) on the case.