Fargo Season One

The first half of this review is spoiler-free. After a big, bold heading and an adorable spoiler kitten, I refer to the climax and denouement. If you haven’t seen this show, I recommend that you watch it before reading past the kitten.

“Oh, jeez.”

With only dim recollections of the 1996 Coen brothers film, and a moderate dislike of the Minnesôta accent, I was hesitant to watch the TV spin-off of Fargo. Despite prompting from friends both virtual and real, I waited. And even after a few episodes, I wasn’t quite sure if I liked it. But by episode five, I was hooked. And by episode ten—the last of this first season—I was officially a fan. (Are we called Fangos?)

I expected Fargo to be a black—or even bleak—comedy. It’s not. Noah Hawley’s creation, which traces the deadly impact a hitman has on a small community, exists in the same universe as the film. But this is a serious show, in which serious things happen, and people take them seriously. It is a show about crime, about criminals, about law, and about those who struggle to uphold the law in a nonsensical world. But Fargo isn’t bleak, either: some characters expect good things from the world, and are themselves good.

Others are not. Billy Bob Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, an agent of chaos who, we gradually learn, is a hitman and bounty hunter with complicated loyalties. His actions, although violent, are utterly confusing for the first three episodes; Hawley—and Thornton—give us no clue as to his motivations other than chaos and death. Those actions gradually create complicated ripples across the northern Midwest as Malvo draws others, intentionally or not, into his wake.

That’s what turned me off at first: Malvo felt like a walking, murdering plot device with a silly name and a sillier haircut: a snowier version of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. But although Fargo rarely loses its affection for Malvo, it does allow other characters to share the spotlight, including Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who commits some vile actions that may or may not be in character, and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a doofus who wants to be a better man. My hands-down favorite character is Deputy Molly Solverson (played by the lovely Allison Tolman).

Fargo apparently received some blowback for being yet another show focused on a white male antihero. As I didn’t bother to read any reviews while I was watching the season (too busy with the actual viewing!), I found that surprising: for me, this is a show about Molly, her quest for justice, her relationship with her father (played by Keith Carradine), and her burgeoning relationship with Gus Grimly and his daughter. Everyone else is secondary.

And Molly is worth it. She is an intelligent woman whose intelligence goes unappreciated, and a good woman whose goodness is only understood by those closest to her. As she unravels the various crimes committed, and struggles to understand the world’s bleakness, she becomes a rosy-colored window through which we can view darkness.

Darkness in snow country, that is. Let’s call it the nihilistic version of Midwestern Nice. When the bodies pile up, and complicity infects not just Bemidji (the main town) but also Duluth and even Fargo, ND itself (headquarters of the notorious Fargo crime syndicate), we get the sense that the world can be a cruel, bleak, snow-filled and inhospitable place; it’s only people like Molly who keep it bearable.

That sounds almost saccharine, but it’s not. Fargo is a lovely show to watch. A shootout in whiteout snow conditions in the sixth episode is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen on-screen; to the best of my knowledge, it’s quite original, too. An even bigger shootout later in the season is almost comical in terms of carnage, none of which we actually see. The acting, of course, is stellar, although I don’t know how I’m ever going to like Martin Freeman again. Jeez.

Spoilers below the kitten! Spoilers ahoy!

There’s so much to talk about with the first season of Fargo: I’ll bet even those writers who dealt with it on a week-by-week basis were overwhelmed. So I thought I’d use this post-kitten space to discuss some of the secondary characters, and the ending itself.

Oliver Platt’s grocery king Stavros was really interesting, and I expected him to play a role in the finale. His journey from doubt to faith to doubt to faith to a Job-like hatred of the world (after his son was killed in a freak fish storm, which I assume is a thing in this neck of the woods) was fascinating. That the money he found was buried by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers film made him rather a key character, too: the guy who started it all by bringing Malvo to town. But we got nothing else from him, and that made me sad.

Ditto the character known as, but never actually called, Mr. Wrench—the “deaf fella” (Russell Harvard). His relationship with Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) was such a great buddy-hitman story, and I fully expected Mr. Wrench to emerge from the woods in the finale and shoot Malvo deader than dead as payback for the loss of his friend (boyfriend?).

Instead, we got the sudden emphasis on the two FBI agents. It was odd, being introduced to crucial characters so late in the ten-episode season, but Key and Peele played them perfectly: the scene of them on the floor of the FBI records room had me laughing. Possibly in a wildly inappropriate manner.

That’s not to say, however, that the ending was unsatisfying. The stories of our four main characters was adequately wrapped up, and I’m very glad that Lester Nygaard got his comeuppance in a manner most befitting the iciness of his wife-killing spree. Gus Grimly killing Malvo was nicely done, too: I think Gus needed that, in a way—and he certainly needed it more than Molly.

My favorite part, though, was the shot of Molly, Greta, and Gus watching Deal or No Deal on the couch together. Molly’s relationship with her father was close, but we can see how much she values the maternal role; she clearly married Gus and Greta together. One big happy family, grandpa Solverson included.

You betcha.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


Heather said...

As ever I'm impressed with how you can speak so concisely about a show this full of detail, ruminations and philosophical possibilities. I'm also extremely impressed that it was only a week ago you decided to watch this show. Brava.
Favorite line in all of TV last year: "How can the human eye see more shades of green than any other color? 'Cause of predators."

Josie Kafka said...

Heather, I really debated whether or not to use that quote at the top of the review.

FlopHairedWuss said...

Absolutely love Fargo. I'm still on the fence about which season is better, but season one definitely has the best character in Molly. Also as fantastic as it was, I think I was less emotionally invested in the second season than I was in the first.


I think some people were disappointed that Molly didn't end up catching Malvo. But like you said it made more sense for it to be Gus considering his arc throughout the season and also that it was him, not Molly who had any interaction with Malvo. She became the Sheriff and her capabilities were finally recognised, which is all I ever wanted.

I also loved what they did with Bob Odenkirk's character, Bill. The character that initially seemed was only there to restrict Molly in her investigations and delay Lester's capture, turned out to have such a heartbreaking reason for doing so.

I don't think I'd call Lester an anti-hero, he's pretty much an out and out villain and one of most despicable characters every conceived.

Great review.