[Spoilers abound. Do not read if you haven't seen the first episode]
“Some roads you shouldn’t go down. Because maps used to say ‘There be dragons here.’ Now they don’t… but that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.” – Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo
FX’s 10-episode limited series Fargo - inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film of the same name but eventually striking out in its own interesting directions – begins at dusk along a lonely road moving in a straight line through a flat, white, winter endlessness. First, there is an assurance that what we’re about to see really happened (I haven’t read any of the show’s press, but I assume this is as much a lie as the Coens’ similar claim before the original film), and then there is a single car. The driver is Lorne Malvo played by Billy Bob Thornton wearing a Mephistophelean beard and curiously boyish bangs like some kind of beatnik from hell. Disturbingly, the noises from the trunk seem to suggest there’s someone in there and they really want out. Then, before the exact meaning of all this can be parsed, there’s the flash of a deer in the road, and another, and a sickening crash, and then Thornton’s ’93 New Yorker flies off the side of the road into the snow. Up pops the trunk and out jumps a fleshy man in nothing but his boxers who proceeds to stumble off pathetically (and probably fatally) into the snowy dark.
The next morning we’re introduced to a defeated Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard and his emasculating, materialist shrew of a wife, Pearl. Lester’s an insurance salesman and, we learn in a moment reminiscent of the movie where Jerry Lundegaard tries to put undercoating over on a customer, not a very good one. Later that afternoon in the episode’s oddest, least-convincing scene (a moment where I thought “Uh oh. This just isn’t going to work), Lester is harassed by Sam Hess, his old high school bully who is now a successful trucking company operator with mob ties.
Lester gets his nose broken and winds up in the hospital waiting room next to Malvo who is in for treatment after the opening car accident. In retrospect, I’m not really sure how this works chronologically, but it doesn’t really matter.
Anyway, Thornton is terrific and the clear stand out of the first episode. Freeman is excellent too, but Thornton is clearly having a blast channeling his inner-Chigurh (hat tip @Spaceliontobi) mixed with a strange and kind of unsettling whimsicality that is at odds with the straight-faced No Country for Old Men character. His Malvo seems to enjoy messing with people and goading them into bad deeds just to see what will happen. Ominously, he appears to take Lester on as a special project and he manipulates him into thinking he’s somehow convinced Malvo to kill his enemy… which Malvo eventually does to Lester’s horror.
Meanwhile, Police Chief Vern Thurman and his eager young detective Molly Solverson are investigating the wrecked New Yorker and the man in the woods in his boxers frozen to death. Molly is sharp but green while Thurman is a smooth old pro. He’s instantly likable with his dry Midwestern humor and the patient, loving way he has with his pregnant wife.
At this point in the story, I’m thinking these four main characters – Lester, Malvo, Molly and Vern – are people I could easily spend time with week in and week out. For me, that’s the first hurdle of any good show. Give me four good characters and a rooting interest either for or against them and I don’t care where the show is set or what it’s about. I’m on board. On the other hand, with the flat winter landscapes, Jeff Russo’s Carter Burwell-evoking score and the deadpan dialogue larded with folksy heck’s and geez’s and dropped G’s at the ends of words, showrunner and writer Noah Hawley (Bones) is firmly attaching his story to the universe of the film and practically begging you to compare the two. That is mighty dangerous territory because I love the Coen Brothers and their Fargo is one of my all-time favorites.
But, just when I was starting to suspect this show was going to be a weak approximation of one of the best movies ever rather than a good show in its own right, everything went right to hell. As I settled into the idea that Lester was going to be a kind of TV Jerry Lundegaard – a gentle and well-intended but unfortunate antihero who is in over his head – Lester unexpectedly beats his wife to death with a hammer in a wincingly ugly scene. Panicked, he quickly hatches a plan to frame Malvo for the crime and invites him over under the guise of needing help. Alas, before Malvo arrives, Chief Thurman shows up to investigate a possible hospital connection detective Solverson discovered between Malvo, Lester, the dead Hess and the frozen corpse in the woods.
Along with Lester being Jerry, I had Thurman penciled in as the kind, deliberate, moral center of the show similar to the movie’s Marge Gunderson. But no. Just as Thurman discovers Lester’s wife in a bloody heap in the basement and calls for backup, Malvo appears behind him and murders him with a shotgun blast.
Message received: this is not going to be your father’s Fargo.
I have to admit this sharp left turn really started to turn me against the show. Sure, the Coens’ Fargo is dark as hell, but there’s a very distinct order of good and evil. On one end is Marge Gunderson (“Prowler needs a jump”) and on the other is Gaer Grimsrud (“I need unguent”) and to a lesser extent Carl Showalter (“Total silence”). Caught in the middle somewhere is poor Jerry (“It’s my deal, Wade”) who thinks he can do a small bad thing but for good reasons. As Jerry’s plan goes sour, innocent people die horribly, but it’s always at the hands of one of the bad characters. Importantly in the end, a kind of order is restored out of the violent chaos and Marge goes back to her quiet life. Though she is changed forever by the horrors she’s witnessed, if anything it draws her closer to the dull-but-loving husband she seemed for a while to be drifting away from. It’s a perfectly bittersweet American fable.
Meanwhile, In the alternate TV version of this universe, TV Jerry caves in his own wife’s skull (rather than causing her to be killed at the hands of other bad men as in the movie) and before anything can be done about it, TV Grimsrud murders poor TV Marge!
So yeah, I was kind of horrified at first, but the more I thought about it, the better this all seemed. As I said, I was actually getting a little irritated how much the show seemed to want to be the movie. There’s just no way anyone can emulate the Coen Brothers or re-forge their beloved black comedy so it was very important that Hawley strike out in his own direction. And he has. The results so far definitely call to mind the Devil Comes to the Heartland universe of the Coens, but rather forcefully take the idea in a much darker direction. I didn’t think you could make a darker Fargo, but Hawley’s done it.
I’m intrigued and entertained. I regret the loss of Vern and I’m now less entertained by Lester, but Malvo is still a spectacular TV character and I think I can get behind Detective Solverson (Allison Tolman) as a moral replacement for Vern. I just hope this doesn’t mean she’s doomed. With this show, I’m now not so sure. The end of the episode also introduced us to Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly, a cop and father in nearby Duluth who survives a run-in with our friend Malvo. Perhaps he’ll turn out to be the show’s hero… or maybe there won’t be any heroes. Either way, I can’t wait for next week episode. With a few lingering reservations, I’m fully on board for now.