TV Minus the TV: Bokeem Woodbine is Fargo’s Breakout Star
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
The Fargo universe is a cornucopia of the bizarre. It’s a place where wood chipper body disposals#, office building shootouts#, and close encounters of the third kind are essentially treated as common occurrences. In this world, shit like that just happens.
As the audience, we’re privy to this strange macrocosm via the eyes and actions of Fargo’s singularly eccentric characters. The second season was carried by an ensemble cast so talented that picking one show-stealing performer seems impossible. Was it Kirsten Dunst? Ted Danson? Patrick Wilson? Jean Smart? Nick Offerman?
All were stellar (Dunst in particular), but the breakout performance actually came from one of its least-heralded players…
In Mike Milligan, Bokeem Woodbine created one of the most intriguing characters seen on television in 2015, completely changing his career’s trajectory in the process.
Mike Milligan is a well-read gun dispatched by the Kansas City mob to encroach upon the dysfunctional Gerhardt crime family’s territory. However, Milligan isn’t your typical muscle; that role is occupied by the Kitchen brothers, his stoic Angels of Death. Instead, Milligan is the fly in the milk (and not just because he’s the lone black dude). Truly one of a kind, he is a goon who expertly walks the tightrope of menace and eloquence, occasionally in the same breath.
The first glimpse of these malefic acrobatics comes in the season’s second episode, “Before the Law,” after Milligan and the Kitchen brothers were stopped by Danson’s Sheriff Hank Larsson:
From the eerie silence to Hank’s fleeting eyes and nervous rock, the scene is incredibly unnerving. There’s the feeling that something could literally pop off at any second. Milligan’s remark about men being able to have a rational conversation “on a lonely road” is as threatening as it is insightful, and the way he rolls up that car window and tells Hank to “have a nice day” is a fantastic self-assured reversal of roles from the typical roadside meeting between cop and citizen.
What’s most frightening of all, however, is Milligan’s steely confidence throughout the scene, which show creator Noah Hawley detailed to Vulture:
It’s a very tense scene between them, and a lot of what’s tense about it is how unperturbed Bokeem’s character seems to be by the fact that a policeman has pulled them over and taken them out of the car.
This ability to remain calm, even in the face of certain death, makes Milligan’s baleful mystique disconcertedly unpredictable. In “Did You Do This? No, You Did It!” he receives the foreboding “you had one job, now you’re dead” call from his superiors after failing to wipe out the Gerhardts by their deadline. His demeanor appears to be that of someone who has accepted his fate, seemingly content to kneel out the clock on whatever gruesome end awaits. It makes the handshake he offers his would-be killer, The Undertaker, just disarming enough for Milligan and the surviving Kitchen brother to kill The Undertaker and his accomplices before they can so much as blink.
Previous scenes indicated that Milligan was capable of that degree of violence, but Woodbine’s tone and delivery always prevented him from seeming violent. When Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules delivers Ezekiel 25:17 before riddling Brett with bullets in Pulp Fiction#, he’s all fire and brimstone; his energy matches his actions. Milligan, on the other hand, serenely recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” off the top of his head while getting ready for war with the Gerhardts.
Credit that nuance to Woodbine — it’s something that no one expected.
This isn’t a case of Woodbine being a less-than-capable actor, it’s more that he’s never done this type of dark comedy before. He’s been in plenty of films, television shows, and music videos over the years; one of those character actors who’s better known for his appearances rather than performances. He played the unstable younger brother in Jason’s Lyric#, the preacher’s son-turned-sadistic Staff Sgt. in Dead Presidents#, and he was a member of Black Dynamite’s pimp panel discussion#.
But seriously — who knew that the star of a BET Sunday afternoon classic like Caught Up would one day dominate all of his scenes on a Golden Globe-winning show?
In Woodbine’s own words, not even he could see have foreseen this. Just after Fargo’s season finale, Woodbine told The Hollywood Reporter that, back in his Caught Up days, he lacked the seasoning to execute a role like Mike Milligan. “I would have approached it completely differently,” he admitted.
Author and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently penned an article for Vulture arguing that more actors should be cast against their type because it might allow them to show more range than they’ve been given credit for. Gary Oldman, one of cinema’s great chameleons, has played Sid Vicious, Dracula, a faux-Rastafarian pimp, and Commissioner Gordon. He’s incapable of being typecast. But he’s a perfect example of what Woodbine — who, in the past, has been cast in limited, one-note roles — can aspire to be. The role of Mike Milligan was originally written for an older white guy, but Woodbine thrived to the point that he should be offered a little more of a variety moving forward.
Until then, his revelation as Milligan has rewarded him with something other than praise:
It came along at a time where, to be honest with you, I needed something like this to happen so I could be reminded that this industry still holds surprises and great treasures and that there is a joy in participating in great projects like this… that that can still happen.
In his Hollywood Reporter interview, Woodbine compared his participation in Fargo to an athlete who’s gotten the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl:
I’ve gotten to play in the game. I’ve gotten play in the Super Bowl. I’ve gotten to run some interesting plays and make some good catches, but for the most part, I would be the guy who throws the block that allows the star running back to make the touchdown. Nobody really remembers the guy that throws the block.
Regardless of the format, Fargo always has one clear star. In the film, it was Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. Last season, it was Billy Bob Thornton’s unhinged Lorne Malvo. And while both Dunst and Wilson deserve their Golden Globe nominations, the performance that people will be discussing until Fargo’s third season is Bokeem Woodbine’s.
#CelebritiesOnlyBlackPeopleKnow blew up on Twitter last month, and prior to this season, Woodbine would’ve been a perfect fit. That ain’t the case anymore.
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