The world of Fargo—both the 1996 Coen Brothers’ film and the FX series now in its second season—exists in an amorphous ether of tragedy and comedy. The film’s Jerry Lundegaard (Willliam H. Macy) is a stooge, capable of unspeakable awfulness hidden behind clumsy gallantry. In season one of FX’s Fargo (an anthology series, the first season takes place in the 21st century while season two is set in 1979), Lester Nygaard—the put-upon, doting husband who takes a turn for the compulsively homicidal—is the character who most closely resembles something from Joel and Ethan Coen’s hypothermic crime-scape. In season two, it’s a very different character who bridges the spiritual gap between the film and the show: Mike Milligan (played by Bokeem Woodbine, a character actor who has been kicking around Hollywood for two decades) is a criminal, through and through, who filters his threats through a stunning veneer of midwestern chivalry.
My biggest fear for FX’s Fargo was that show creator Noah Hawley wouldn’t be able to convey the pulpy fun of the Coen Brothers’ crime epic. Fargo is a ubiquitous and singular film, able to transition from comedy to horrific drama without ever losing sight of the film’s stakes or the character’s humanity (in varying states of decay). After season one’s first episode, it became clear that Hawley had made keeping the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities not just a focus for the television series but a jumping off point. And in season two, with the addition of Mike Milligan, Noah Hawley is expounding on the universe’s lineup of comedically vicious (or viciously comedic) baddies.
Though we’ve yet to see Mike Milligan physically hurt someone, Bokeem Woodbine is an actor who is completely attuned to Milligan’s propensity for violence. Milligan, working for the mysterious “Kansas City” crime syndicate, has willingly and all too gleefully strayed into the hostile cross fire of a Minnesota crime family and the local law, injecting himself into each of the show’s arcs that produce a near constant threat for every character. Milligan’s first confrontation with the law (Ted Danson’s Hank Larsson) is the show’s most tense sequence. Milligan gleefully toys with Larsson (“Now that is a truly odd question” Milligan says when Larsson begins to prod a little too deeply) sizing up Larsson’s backbone and the state of his resolve. He’s calculating. When Milligan terrorizes poor typewriter salesman Skip Sprang, there’s a calm in his threats that lets the viewer know this is a man who is capable of unspeakable depravity. He could be psychotic. Yet when Milligan goes barrel to barrel with state trooper Lou Solverson, he proves to be a man of equal charm. Someone your mother would gladly have over for dinner. Milligan is a strange combination of the 1996 film’s three main antagonists, incorporating Jerry Lundegaard’s (Macy) midwestern politeness, the sociopathic calm of Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), and the calculated stratagems of Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) into a single character who is as unpredictable as he is charismatic.
If there’s an overarching theme between the two seasons of Fargo it’s how chaos fares when pitted against virtue. In season one, chaos came in the form of Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo. In season two, it seems chaos is descending from several directions (let’s not lose sight of the ticking time bomb that is Dodd Gerhardt or the increasingly poor decisions made by Ed and Peggy Blomquist). But Mike Milligan is chaos at its most exciting. He’s likable, charming, handsome and, without a doubt, a maniac. Considering his penchant for near disastrous confrontations, Mike Milligan may not be long for the world of Fargo, so let’s be sure to recognize what we’ve got while we’ve still got it: Mike Milligan, TV’s best new character.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.