A strangely pensive yet strikingly verbose Bokeem Woodbine brings a slick 70’s blaxploitation vibe to the sophomore season of Fargo on FX. Set in 1979, Noah Hawley‘s tightly connected plot explores the end of an era in surprising ways. Perhaps the most surprising of these is Woodbine’s portrayal of Mike Milligan, an articulate gangster who wields a thesaurus to deadly effect.
The setting of Fargo takes us back to a turbulent time in American history. It is the dawning of the computer age, as evidenced by a debt-ridden typewriter salesman. It is the end of “family business” in the eyes of the Kansas City mob, who move to absorb the Gearhardt shipping operation with an aggressive corporate takeover, and global politics are set to take center stage, foreshadowed by a brief stint with the Reagan campaign. Above all, the trauma of the Vietnam War still haunts all of Fargo’s characters. Milligan navigates this desolate landscape with malignant restraint, emerging from the fray to carve a place in the new world order.
Milligan’s own distorted world view, when taken in context, somehow makes sense in the violent underworld of organized crime. He is essentially a sophisticated knight-errant, on a quest for riches, social advancement and self-acceptance. He sees his current alignment to the Kansas City mob as a means to an end.
Attended by his two men-at-arms, the Kitchen brothers, Milligan proves that the pen is indeed mightier. His words carry the weight of his veiled threats, and he manages to wreak havoc through language and sleight of hand, while the Kitchen boys provide the muscle. In one particularly menacing scene, Milligan quotes from “Jabberwocky” as he undertakes a bloody errand for his mob bosses. It is here that we see his sense of nobility and his romanticized view of the enforcer’s life. While some would drift into sadism, Milligan drifts toward chivalry. Instead of seeing himself as a knuckle-dragging head-buster, he equates his bloody exploits to the noble deeds of the Knights of the Round Table. His is a violent yet honorable profession.
In the end, Milligan’s expectation for risking life and limb on the field of battle is to be rewarded with a castle, feudal lands, and a fat allowance. He would have been content with just a slice of the Gerhardt empire which he helped to conquer. To his disappointment, however, he discovers that he has been tilting at windmills, and the expected benevolence of his liege lords in Kansas City is the stuff of bygone days. A cramped corner office with a barren desk, a rusty lamp, and a creaky wing-backed chair are the only spoils of war. We feel his utter disbelief, and the claustrophobic desperation of a man imprisoned deep within the corporate dungeon of bureaucracy.
The question of “what now?” lingers for Woodbine’s character. It is an unsettling end to the violent and quirky tale. Ironically, the boss comments on this, suggesting that he get a hair cut and join the 1980’s. Like the knights of old, Milligan finds that the feudal era has ended, and the world is now that much bleaker for the most eloquent of warriors.