The Fargo Series Has Proven Me Wrong About Prequels

By  · Published on December 1st, 2015

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One of our readers asked why we haven’t been recapping Fargo this season. Well, we didn’t know there was a demand, but as a site interested in catering to our readers rather than ad-dollar-chasing traffic, we’re happy to oblige. I wasn’t able to watch the latest episode in advance, though, and I didn’t take notes when I did watch it (I’m not sure I could have while chewing on my fingernails during most of it), so here are some thoughts on the season so far, at least inspired by last night’s installment:

I’m not one to say all prequels are bad. I think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a good movie set before the original installment it follows. And I’m probably one of the few people who enjoyed Prometheus. Television has also recently given us some great prequel series in the form of Bates Motel, Better Caul Saul and Hannibal. But I’ve had issues with most prequels intent on a certain purpose, and I’ve had personal rules for what I consider makes for a successful example, and for what makes for a failure. But the Fargo series has broken them all with its second season. It is a brilliant exception to everything I’ve hated about the concept.

One of the worst and most common kinds of prequels is the villain origin story that shows how the character went from good to bad (ahem, Star Wars). There’s not really any of that in Fargo, which in its second season goes back in time to 1979 for a sort of 10-episode flashback of one of the supporting “good guy” characters from the first season. Of course, there are two episodes left, and maybe we’ll suddenly see a brief moment of young Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton’s character in season one) just for shits and giggles before the whole thing is through. If so, I’m sure it will be handled perfectly. I’m actually ready to accept anything from this show now. I’m even ready to accept the death of a character linking the two seasons. Because in spite of the confusion it would present, wouldn’t that just blow everyone’s mind even more?

That is related to the first rule Fargo has broken for me. There have been a number of times this season where I’ve thought Patrick Wilson’s character, Lou Solverson, was going to be killed off. But of course that can’t happen, because he’s in the 2006-set first season, played by Keith Carradine. It’s a testament to how well this show is written and directed, how much suspense there is in nearly every moment, how unpredictable it is, that I keep forgetting Lou has to survive. So does young Molly Solverson (Raven Stewart), because she grows up to be Allison Tolman’s character in season one, but she’s not a big enough part of this back story to have me worried about her anyway. There’s also Ben Schmidt (Keir O’Donnell in ’79 and Peter Breitmayer in ‘06), who I might just like to see injured a few more times, at least.

Everyone else is a new character and could be expired at any time. Some have expired at quite surprising times. It’s always a good rule for prequels to have as many fresh faces as possible. One of the worst things a prequel can do is have you not be concerned about where any main characters are headed because you already know. Lou Solverson is a main character in the second season of Fargo, definitely more than he was in the first, but I wouldn’t say he’s the main character. There’s not really a central figure in this show ever, and while he’s probably the closest thing to a “hero” the season has, he’s not on the level where I’d say he’d survive just because he’s the good guy. That’s another reason I forget that we know where he winds up.

The other kind of prequel I hate is one where the premise is based around an event alluded to in the original movie or movies. It’s what I’m fearing with the upcoming Star Wars spinoffs, because one will show us how the Death Star plans were stolen, something we heretofore got to imagine, and another will surely show us everything that happened between Han Solo and Lando Calrissian’s in their early years, including the former’s acquisition of the Millennium Falcon from the latter, all of which was just fine as a mention in a scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Fargo season two shows us fully the story Lou vaguely tells Malvo in episode nine of season one about a Sioux Falls bloodbath he witnessed, and I have no problem with that.

It helps that Lou is so vague in that scene, as is older Schmidt when commenting another time that the case at hand is “Sioux Falls all over again.” We know there was a case, and we know there were a lot of bodies, but we don’t know what it leads to other than maybe Lou’s eventual retirement. We won’t have any final scenes touching the beginning scenes from the first season and setting that story up.The most detail we’re given with which to imagine anything by is that there were enough bodies to stack up to the second floor of a building, and that Lou came to the decision that Schmidt is a prick. The former could even have been an exaggeration, so it’s no help. The latter isn’t necessarily referring to something that happened so much as to the guy’s general character. And we’ve seen that Lou doesn’t think very highly of his colleague in their every pairing, and that’s enough.

Parts of the second season of Fargo seem to even address the ideas behind prequels in a meta kind of way. We get a flashback in episode four to the childhood of Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan) that quickly shows us the moment he lost his innocence and became a killer ‐ or maybe showing us that he always had it in him ‐ making no need for a lengthy villain origin story for the character. And the latest episode, “Loplop,” is itself another kind of total backtrack to show us things previously alluded to and imagined but not shown. Did we need to see where, why and how Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon) shot two cops during his search for Dodd and the Blumquists, as we had heard was done? No, but it happens in the midst of what is an essential sequence for our understanding of him as a character so it’s justified.

A lot of people say the main reason for a story to be told is that it’s something that has to be told, particularly when it comes to sequels, prequels, etc. But nothing about Fargo has been out of necessity. We never needed a Fargo TV series, especially one that didn’t seem connected to the movie. And then when that was good it didn’t need to connect but it did anyway just for fun. And then it didn’t need a backstory of any kind but it did anyway just for fun. It’s all just for entertainment, as a whole and in little bits. It never has to do this or that. Nothing ever has to be justified. You don’t need to have seen Fargo or any other Coen Brothers movies to appreciate the show, though there are some neat winks here and there if you have, and you don’t need to have seen season one to appreciate season two, though there are some neat winks here and there if you have.

That might seem like a given, that you don’t have to have seen the story that takes place after this story before seeing this story. But prequels aren’t usually just things that take place earlier, which is why we’re not meant to watch the Star Wars prequels before watching the original trilogy. Even the Hobbit movies make more sense watched after the Lord of the Rings movies, even though the former are adapted from a novel published before the latter’s source materials. Fargo isn’t exactly playing loose with its universe, but it doesn’t feel tied down. It doesn’t feel like it’s filling in holes or pandering to fans or over-explaining and over-showing anything. It could be much more like an anthology series but it’s aware of the appeal of being connected and so includes the barest of links. It’s a prequel that stands on its own and alone, exceptionally in every regard.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.