Around the Water Cooler: “Fargo” – The Season 1 Review/Recap (MAJOR SPOILERS)

Who:  “Fargo,” airs on cable TV, specifically on FX, and is currently on hiatus.

What: “Fargo,” a black comedy/dramedy drawing inspiration from the film of the same name, which was penned and directed by the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel).

SYNOPSIS

Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, The Hobbit; Sherlock) is a mild-mannered insurance salesman, living in small town Minnesota, who can’t seem to catch a break.  He’s beleaguered by his critical wife, who tells him what to do and how to do everything, and is still bullied by those who roughed him up in high school.  When Sam Hess, the biggest of those bullies, and his two sons encounter Lester in the street, his meekness actually causes him to break his nose by running into a window.  While in the hospital, waiting for the nurses, he meets Lorne (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade; Bad Santa), who, in the opening sequence of the pilot, drives into the Minnesotan winter wilderness, runs off the road, and gets into an accident; from Lorne’s battered trunk leaps a man without clothes (except his boxers), who runs into the night, only to freeze to death by morning.  Lorne tries to convince Lester in the hospital that Mr. Hess deserves to die for his many bullying behaviors, and Lorne offers his help in providing the service of murder at Lester’s word, which causes Lester to stutter away into the recesses of the hospital, freaked out by the thought that Lorne might be serious.  Lorne takes the lack of a “no” from Lester as more of a “yes” and does the deed, an action that both frightens and empowers Lester, who takes matters of his life and home into his own hands. Meanwhile, female police officer Molly Solverson impresses her chief by investigating the abandoned vehicle left by Lorne and the corpse of the man found frozen in the wilderness, reasoning that the man was not killed by the accident itself. Her search also, eventually, causes her to cross paths with Lester, as she attempts to suss out the circumstances behind what appears to be an escalation of murders in her small town.

When: The series premiered on FX, Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 10:00 PM.  The season one finale aired June 17, 2014.

Where: The action is set in and around northern Minnesota and, once or twice, in Fargo, North Dakota.

Why: Fargo was recommended by a friend and theatrical colleague, who appreciates good large and small screen fare (he was/is a professional actor himself).  He thought I might like it; little did he know (at first) that I also enjoy the film.  Of the Coen brothers films I’ve seen, Fargo and Barton Fink are my favorites…also, I was very curious to see how a big screen, quirky, somewhat violent tale of carnage in small town northern Minnesota might fare in the extended storytelling arena of television.

How – as in How’s It Going?  (THOUGHTS…at present)

Though it was over a year ago, I reviewed the pilot.  I rated that initial episode 3.5 stars, meaning there were things I liked and things I didn’t like, but the first episode was just intriguing enough that I decided to watch the whole season.

The truth of it is, much of what this viewer observed about the first episode never really changed throughout the ten episodes produced, which is what partially resulted in such a long delay between the two reviews – it took me a year to watch the whole season. Fargo presented an interesting noir infused mystery, borrowing liberally from the film that inspired the program.  The result was good, even satisfying to a degree, though patience and an appreciation for dark irony are necessities when taking in this particular story, whether film or television.

Fargo was slow.  Just like the film, the mystery simmered and stewed, underscoring the hi-jinks of quirky characters with distinctive accents, but the story unfolded at a plodding pace. Each episode was something of a drawn out mini-film, adding texture to a larger picture painted by the whole season. Again, this texture proved to be ultimately satisfying, but I did not find myself in any excited or enthusiastic state prior to any given episode that would motivate me to binge watch this particular show. Nothing moves fast in northern Minnesota, apparently, including a web of homicide and the ensuing investigation by local law enforcement.

As I noted in my review of the pilot, Fargo borrows, liberally, the opening titles, tone, mood, pacing, and funny regional accents of its source film to create a mystery that feels like the film without actually being the film.   The characters, at least Lester and Deputy Sheriff Molly Solverson (Alison Tolman), and at least at the start, are slightly tweaked versions of the film’s characters played by William H. Macy and Frances McDormand, though the story veers into different avenues. The best, most interesting character was Lester. Lester Nygaard is complicit with the murder of a long time harasser and bully who sells used cars and then offs his own wife, both acts prompted by the machinations of ubiquitous hit man Lorne Malvo. Lester, as it turns out, is simply tired of being the victim, bullied by people less prone to backing down than he, and Lorne, manipulation his most important weapon, offers critical encouragement in their fateful first meeting at the hospital, following Lester’s run-in with Sam Hess, to open the door for Lester to act on his darkest impulses.

What the story fails to spell out is why: why Lorne and why Lester.  The story follows Lorne for a time; it depicts and somewhat alludes to his connection to a mafia-like organization back in Fargo and has him targeting the head of a grocery store chain (Oliver Platt) who fails to provide whatever he is tasked with providing that organization (money, mostly).  It never explains why Lorne zeroes in on hapless, helpless Lester particularly.  Was he meant to be something of a dark angel? A temptation from the bowels of hell to draw Lester to the dark side?  Or, was he a lost and lonely cat, bored by his chosen profession and the inane task of offing the grocery store guy? Did he need a mouse to bat around, simply to give his empty, murder-filled life meaning, or to add accent and interest for him to this sleepy neck of the woods in which he finds himself plying his trade? He helps Lester clean up what remains of Lester’s wife, and, in the end, after Lorne meets his grisly maker at the smoking end of cop-turned-mailman Gus’ (Colin Hanks) pistol, Molly and Gus discover cassette tapes, including one of Lester’s desperate phone call to Lorne, pleading for Lorne’s help in covering up the homicide of Lester’s wife.  So, Lorne was in the blackmail business, apparently.  What was he planning to blackmail Lester for in the end?  Did we ever see Lorne try to extort something from Lester? Granted, it took me a year to watch the season, but I only ever remember Lorne playing with Lester cat-and-mouse style.  What did Lester have that Lorne felt was necessary to blackmail him for, except to keep Lester quiet?

Lorne is an intriguing character, and I’m not surprised that someone like Thornton agreed to play him, with his filmography of quirky roles in tow.  He was full of nuance and complexity but also mystery.  At times, this Lorne person genuinely seemed to take pleasure in his chosen line of work.  At other times, this character appeared beleaguered by ennui and malaise, as if his heart was not in it.  Yet, his motivations never really came to the forefront.  The only takeaway this viewer gleaned in the end about the character of Lorne Malvo is that he is (mostly) a survivor who seemed to accept his chosen lot in life without doing much to change it. At times, it was as if we were meant to feel some level of sympathy for him, but at other times, his ruthlessness dominated, and he was disarming in that way.  What was this character in the end?  An embodiment of pure evil?  Or, a man weighed down by a series of really bad choices from whence he could never turn back? His character had nuance but lacked depth; in a dark comedy like Fargo, such lack of depth might be forgiven but for the fact that the story played out over ten hours and not two.  One of this viewer’s biggest questions in the end was who was Lorne Malvo, really?  And the fact that I’m still asking this question leaves me feeling that this story was somewhat underwhelming/disappointing in the end.

After all, now, we’ll never know.  Do we need to know?  I need to know.  Lorne was too omnipresent in the story to be merely a device; the story was wrapped up neatly, given that Fargo is being produced along the lines of American Horror Story, where each season features a different mystery or story that may or may not feature common characters.  Lorne was like the Island in Lost.  The writers failed to provide an explanation for the Island, except as an afterthought in the sixth season DVD set, which was a critical error, at least from the perspective of audience connection and reaction, because the Island was treated like a separate character.  It had a soul, a life force, the extension of which was the Man in Black/Smoke Monster.  The Island was more than a device to test the myriad of characters on that show just as Lorne was more than another Man in Black, testing Lester, Molly, Gus, and everyone else with which he came into contact. He was the thematic fulcrum for the Fargo story; the human form of the soul force of the tale; the two-legged representation of the dark, seedy underbelly of human nature that blossoms in the unlikely, seemingly pure, even chaste, snowy wilds of northern Minnesota.

Yet, the story followed Lorne and his life for a time and gave him some dimension.  For me, it wasn’t enough, even if his inevitable death was ultimately satisfying, because it’s hard to argue that Lorne was the villain here.  He might have been an antagonist but not the antagonist, or not the sole one.  As it turns out, the true antagonist is the bumbling erstwhile hobbit/office worker/Dr. Watson, whose heart may have been darker and more saturated with bad impulses than Lorne Malvo, a hit-man by trade if not solely by identity.  The difference is: Lorne chose and accepted such impulses, while Lester was prodded into salacious acts by Lorne.  Lorne was temptation, and Lester was the tempted, but it didn’t take much to coax him over the edge.

The first half of the season follows Lester as he endeavors to cover up his role in crimes either perpetrated or accessorized by Lorne, while dutiful deputy Solverson follows a trail of bread crumbs that leads her first to Lorne and then to Lester.  The problem is, the sheriff, the new sheriff, doesn’t seem to take her seriously, whether because she is a woman or because he can’t believe that serious crime could really occur in their beloved town of Bemidji, Minnesota.  Thus, even though the viewing audience knows that Molly is right, she is frustrated by people meant to be allies, and Lester is able to wriggle free, even if the wriggling lacks a certain aspect of grace.  Lester frames his brother for the murder of his wife, clearing away another perceived bully, another under-estimator of Lester’s buried greatness, for in his mind, Lester’s foibles and troubles are of others’ doing, not of his own.  In this way, Lester is the every-man – after all, who among us has not deflected in the way Lester deflects?  Only Lester takes it to another level, and with each step, he becomes more attached, even addicted to this new-found solution.  Even though he doesn’t facilitate the murder of Sam Hess, he sleeps with his widow, played terribly by Kate Walsh – she had no northern accent, and it was difficult to believe her as a drunken bimbo type, given that her face radiates a sort of confidence that belies intelligence.  Lester murders his own wife and connects the crime to his unwitting brother.  The punchline is the worst of all, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The only person who truly believes Molly is Gus, formerly a Minneapolis policeman who encounters Lorne before connecting that he is wanted at large for questioning related to the crimes in Bemidji.  As it turns out, Gus isn’t much for police work. He’s too affected by the passing of his first wife and the rigors of being a single dad to his teenage daughter. He’s something of a joke on the force, particularly when he loses hold of Lorne after approaching his parked car on a dark night, which he tries to atone for by helping Molly track Lorne, only to accidentally shoot Molly while chasing two men attached to the crime syndicate to which Lorne also reported, which mortifies Gus enough into quitting the force and joining the postal service.  Fortunately, Molly is still willing to marry him, their obvious flirtation blossoming into a healing relationship for both of them.  His instincts are never as sharp as Molly’s but are more than what he gives himself credit for, which is what makes them a winning couple in the end.  It’s Gus who susses out Lorne’s whereabouts and waits for him in revenge, motivated by the need to remedy his mistakes as a cop, including the near-miss that landed a bullet into who would become his new wife.

Six or seven episodes in, Molly is in the hospital and is frustrated by a lack of support from the sheriff, who has told her that she is no longer permitted to continue the investigation into Lester and Lorne, particularly given the conviction of Lester’s brother for the murder of Lester’s wife.  Lester has skated for a time, and Lorne has skipped town; in fact, he made it back to Fargo long enough to see to the demise of the organization that employed him, under the incompetent, easily diverted eyes of FBI agents played by comedy team Key and Peele, adding some diversity to the northern Midwest.  The shootout is depicted by a barrage of gunfire as the camera pans over the outside of their headquarters, and Lorne drives away from the fracas, leading to the agents’ demotion to the file room. They are strangely an after-thought to all this; thirteenth-hour characters the viewer is asked to care about, insofar as they play a larger role in the second third of this festival of violence.  Unfortunately, their presence feels forced, even if their shared dialogue adds a whiff of comic relief (and a slightly faster tempo) in line with their real-life comedy personae.

The last three or four episodes of the ten traverse a time jump and show the after-effects of all of this maneuvering, like chess shortly before the winning/checkmate move.  Lester is winning salesman awards and is married to the pretty but demure co-worker who long nursed a crush on him.  Molly and Gus are married; Molly is pregnant, and Gus is a postman.  Lorne has changed his hair color (or stopped dyeing). In fact, Lester encounters Lorne in Las Vegas as he’s enjoying a drink in the bar of his hotel, and though Lorne looks different, Lester recognizes him and is not content to live and let live for all the wrong he caused him, even though, ironically, the wrongs led to Lester’s life being on the track of which he always dreamed.  He confronts Lorne in the elevator, which apparently annoys Lorne enough to suddenly shoot his latest targets in front of Lester, out of the blue, and then force Lester to help him dispose of the bodies. Lester runs, but he’s provoked Lorne, and Lorne is not content to let squirmy Lester wriggle free this time.  The last few episodes focus on how Lester tries to convince his new wife to run away with him to Mexico, while Lorne follows Lester once more to Bemidji with assassination on the brain.  Yet, details of the Vegas crime become available to the Bemidji sheriff department, and Molly’s spidey sense starts tingling once more.

Here, Lester’s true nature is revealed, as the coward he is, not to us but to himself, whether he’s able to finally appreciate it or not.  Knowing Lorne is on his tail, he and his new wife drive into town to stop by Lester’s newly souped up offices, as his success following his crime spree of before has left him very well off.  They want to pick up items for their flight to Mexico, but Lester senses something is amiss.  Rather than face the inevitable, he knowingly sends his wife into the fray wearing his orange coat and then gasps when the spark of a firing gun sends her crumpling to the floor with a fatal wound to her skull.  He watches from the shadows as Lorne stridently walks into the night and then feigns heartbreak (well, most of it) when Molly and the sheriff come to investigate.

Lorne suffers no fools, though, and that much is clear.  While Lester tries to hide, first at Molly’s dad’s diner and then at his own house, under watchful eye of the useless FBI agents, Lorne scouts out Lester’s new, fancier digs.  Lester tries to literally ensnare him with a random bear trap (because Lester is apparently a hunter at times) as Lorne cold cocks him and then tries to shoot him.  After all, Key and Peele were unequipped to stop the menacing Lorne, the devoted hit-man who does what he does because he knows nothing else, and met their untimely demise.  Lorne is very good at his profession.

Lorne runs and tries to regroup, but Gus earlier sighted Lorne and recognized the man who got away and who caused him to inadvertently shoot the woman who would become his wife (in his mind).  He takes it upon himself to stretch the jurisdiction of the US Postal Service by staking out Lorne’s hideout.  Lorne takes refuge there to nurse the broken bones caused by the animal trap in Lester’s house; Gus sneaks up on him.  He answers the riddle Lorne posed to him from his vehicle way back in episode two, but Lorne barely remembers the ignominious Gus.  And here we see that, in a way, Gus is Lester, if Lester had made better decisions in his life and showed some pluck in the end.  Gus shoots Lorne point blank and calls in Molly, who finds that all of her instincts were right.  They discover the cassette tapes revealing Lester’s guilt, and the Sheriff resigns, noting that Molly has more of the stomach and the brain to deal with actual crime than him.  She no doubt takes after her stalwart father, a retired state trooper.

The series ends with a glorious shot in which Lester is chased by cops and agents on snowmobiles.  He unwisely runs out onto a frozen lake, only to find the ice very thin.  It chillingly cracks, and from a distance, we see Lester sink, his cowardice forever memorialized by the forbidding Minnesotan winter.

Thus, though the Fargo story plodded along at an even slower pace, seemingly, than its source movie, it was neatly wrapped into a bow, giving our villains their just desserts and allowing our heroes to happily enjoy family time, having preserved the safety of Bemidji and Fargo once more.  Like the film, the show’s producers and director(s) painstakingly recreated the cinematography that was as much a character of the movie as any of the individual players, and the way each episode was shot was thrilling. This viewer could almost feel the expanse and bitter cold of these climes and the sense of foreboding frequently following the characters.

The character of Lorne still bothers me, though.  I almost wish he had not been killed, feeling that further layers of that particular onion could have been peeled away to reveal a more satisfying center. Perhaps, this feeling is owing to Thornton’s performance; perhaps, the character was somewhat one dimensional all along, and it was Billy Bob who infused him with something more. Either way, evil or no, I lament the demise of a great character.

Martin Freeman was marvelous as Lester.  He so easily made us care for someone who was kind of a monster in the end, and his execution of the range of emotions experienced by the sorry sod was great.  His performance allowed the viewer to empathize with and revile him at the same time, which is no small feat.  I think he deserves an Emmy for his work.

Alison Tolman as Molly lacked the earthier charms, including the quick wit and direct delivery, of McDormand’s Margie, but she worked well with Colin Hanks (that would be Tom Hanks’ oldest son) and played her role earnestly.  Molly gave the story heart and reminded the viewer that the world, and specifically this world, still had good people with good hearts.  Mr. Hanks also performed Gus well, though the limits of the character were not pushed until the latter half of the season; he shined most in the season finale, in his final showdown with Thornton’s Malvo.

Because the story of season one is self-contained, this viewer does not have many lingering questions, except those related to Lorne Malvo, which may never be answered, given that the character is no longer alive.  My only questions really center on what season two might look like.  Do some of our characters make the transition? I’m most intrigued by the idea of a season two that avoids similar plot patterns to the Fargo film.  It will be interesting to see what the writers and producers do to expand this universe and what other grisly stories of mayhem and murder might fictionally befall the chilly upper Midwest.

As for season one, this viewer enjoyed the story, particularly the interconnections of our characters as well as Lester Nygaard’s evolution – or, more rightly, devolution – through the various rings of hell, with Lorne Malvo acting as his own personal Dante.  I say again that Martin Freeman’s performance deserves an Emmy, as does the painstaking production values, particularly the way the show was shot.  My biggest complaint is that the story meandered somewhat in its slow fashion and spent too much time with little resolve for most characters outside of Lester.  If this season was regarded as solely the story of Lester Nygaard, I would call it, on the whole, excellent, but other characters were available and presented in a manner that was meant to matter to the viewer; these characters were, in some ways, given short shrift, which felt like a cop out and undercut some of the satisfaction of sticking with this methodical tale until its climactic conclusion. Still, Fargo was both ambitious and subtle in its aims, and those aims were largely met, for better or for worse, which is better than many shows can say that are currently on the air.  Hopefully, the second season will present more and new characters that are better or more fully flushed out; in any event, this viewer is excited for the possibilities and will tune in to watch.

PARTING SHOTS

Fargo was a fitting ode to the Coen brothers’ original film and a loving homage to their general body of work, containing the heady balance of cleverness and dark themes that leave the viewer questioning whether or not one should be laughing or cringing at what one is watching.  Perhaps, others were not as bothered by the lack of depth behind some of the characters.  Martin Freeman’s performance, and the well rounded quality of how this character was written – allowing the audience to experience sympathy and revulsion toward him in such definitive ways over the course of ten hours – is worth the trip to Fargo alone.

LOOKING AHEAD:

Though initially produced as an event/limited series, FX renewed the show for a second season, tentatively slated to premiere in fall 2015, though no official date has been announced.  FX just replayed the first season, though, so perhaps an announcement is imminent.

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One comment

  1. kyliekeelee · May 24, 2015

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