“Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t. We used to be gorillas. All we had was what we could take and defend.”—Lorne Malvo
The first episode of this limited series version of Fargo plays in many places like a Coen brothers remix, taking elements from both the film it shares a name with and many of the directors’ other works and considering them in new contexts and places. The first time I watched it, I was a bit confused by its existence. It was clear that writer Noah Hawley and director Adam Bernstein had captured the Coens’ flair for uneasy tonal mixtures and unexpected morality plays. I appreciated that the show wasn’t a one-for-one match with the film, having changed around just enough of its elements to stand as its own thing—mostly.
But it also kept reminding me of how impeccably balanced a film Fargo is, how it pushes you right to the limit of what how much you’re willing to watch awful people being awful right before bringing in Marge Gunderson to remind you that people are capable of more than just petty venality. This first episode, on the other hand, messes with that balance in such a way that it calls attention to how easy it is to screw it all up. Without Marge around to leaven out the overbearing wives, things can start to seem skewed toward the show’s women being awful caricatures of shrieking harridans, not anything like real people. Pearl Nygaard is a woman I’ve met way too many times in my real life, but when she seems like the series’ representation of half of the species, it could be a problem. Molly (Allison Tolman) being a deputy to the sheriff felt like a mistake, too, and I was ready to write this off as an intriguing misfire.
And then Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) spoke the above words, Lester killed his wife, and everything started to snap into place. In the best Coens’ fashion, Hawley and Bernstein weren’t crafting a paean to the awesomeness of unchecked masculinity; they were critiquing the many other paeans that existed around them, telling a story about what happens when you reduce the idea of “being a man” to just taking lots of stuff and destroying anybody who gets in your way. Malvo is undoubtedly a fun figure to follow. He’s the devil on everybody’s shoulder, causing mischief just because he can. But he’s also smart enough to know when he bumps into someone who might not be susceptible to such toying, like a lonely cop in the middle of nowhere, getting updates on the Vikings score from his daughter.
To me, the most shocking and best moment of this first episode is the death of Sheriff Vern Thurman, who arrives at the Nygaard household at exactly the wrong moment, right after Lester has killed his wife with a hammer when she dares to suggest she was wrong to marry him. Hawley’s script is structured so brilliantly right here. Molly discovers the connection between Malvo and Lester, so she tells Vern. Vern volunteers to go over to the Nygard house to talk to Lester. And then so much other stuff happens—namely the death of Lester’s wife—that you only half remember Vern’s going to be dropping by until his face is at Lester’s door. (By then, you’re wondering if Lester’s possibly going to have what it takes to kill Malvo or if the professional criminal will get the better of him.) And then, Hawley distracts you from the ultimate arrival of Malvo by having Vern discover Pearl’s body and order Lester to get down on the floor while he calls for backup—only to be cut through the midsection by a blast from Lester’s shotgun, wielded by Malvo. It’s a great, twisty sequence, and it propels the series to another level, setting up a conflict—female police officer versus regular guy criminal who thinks he’s gotten away with it—familiar to fans of the movie, while also working in characters like embodiment-of-evil Malvo and good cop Gus Grimly who look to fill out the rest of the story.
What I’m most impressed by, though, is how this episode gets you to identify so thoroughly with Lester—then immediately removes that identification once he kills his wife because she dared insult him. It’s a tough trick to play, and I’m not precisely sure how Hawley and Bernstein manage it (short of the fact that, y’know, killing your wife because she’s mean to you is the wrong choice in most circumstances). Here’s my best stab at it: When Lester impulsively conks Pearl on the head with the hammer, we immediately cut to a point-of-view shot of her face, frozen in horror, then watch as blood starts to trickle down it. Bernstein is suggesting, subtly, that we, who have been invited to identify with Lester because we’ve all felt picked on by the Sam Hesses of the world, or felt diminished by those we’ve loved, are the ones who’ve perpetrated this crime in some way—perhaps by wishing it would happen within this fictional context. Then, just as quickly, we’re outside of that point-of-view, watching Lester’s hammer swing through the air to connect with his wife over and over, and then we’re just watching him—not even his face—hunch over Pearl as he hits her again and again. We go from being Lester, to seeing the true horror of his actions from an angle that has him swinging toward the camera (and, by extension, us), to an angle that cuts out his face and dehumanizes him. The sequence asks us if we, ourselves, would be capable of something like this, answers “yes” in no uncertain terms, then removes us from Lester to see if we can recognize the gravity of what he’s done. It’s crafty stuff.
Casting about for somebody new to get invested in, then, we probably seize on either Malvo (who at least will indulge our penchant for being awful without being all conflicted about it) or Vern, with an assist from Molly. Vern is a straightforward portrayal of good guy masculinity, the kind of guy who always does the right thing no matter the cost and is looking forward to the birth of his first child by indulging his wife in her indecision about what color to paint the baby’s room. (It’s a boy, but she doesn’t want to go with blue. Maybe green. Or something white.) Malvo, meanwhile, is the closest thing we have to a more traditional cable antihero, a guy who does awful things but nonetheless lives by some sort of code that apparently involves helping random nobodies he meets in hospital waiting rooms by killing the bullies who have tormented them since high school. (Lester insists their agreement about Sam wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. Malvo seems amused at the thought the courts would ever be involved in what he does.) But then Malvo kills Vern, and we’re left casting about for someone who isn’t either dead or revealed to be capable of immense evils with the right push. All of which leaves us with Molly and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), whom we only get a slight taste of in this episode.
This is not the most exciting first episode in the world. Hawley and Bernstein take their time, and the actors copy that deliberate pace exactly. The horror potential in this world unfolds only in glimmers and hints so far, and when things explode in the last 20 minutes, it’s after we’ve spent nearly an hour watching the writer and director set the stage for everything that’s to come. And what comes in that first 50 minutes is Hawley and Bernstein carefully reminding us that though they’re fond of portraying man at his worst, the Coens are among our most moral filmmakers, two directors who aren’t afraid of delving into the psychological and philosophical roots of evil—and who aren’t afraid of looking unflinchingly at its opposite as well. Another show might have made Lester Nygaard into our hero, the guy who gets in over his head but still gets to dabble in murder by bumping off a symbol of everything he hasn’t gotten in life, everything he believed he was owed. He could be that gorilla, beating on his chest and protecting his territory, even if it’s just the territory of his own easily bruised ego. Instead, Fargo suggests that Lester is just as evil as Malvo—and maybe even more so because at least Malvo knows who he is. And who’s the last person we see? Molly, who might be the only person who can unravel all of this. The stage has been set, the crime has been committed, and now the unraveling can begin.
- Welcome to our Fargo reviews, which I have taken on because I love the Coen brothers, have enjoyed Noah Hawley’s work in the past, and hail from the part of the country where this story is set. (Okay, I’m from South Dakota, but when it’s 30 below zero, it’s all close enough.) I might be doing some crosstalks on future reviews with Zack Handlen, if readership allows, so tell your friends, because Lord knows you guys don’t want to be stuck with me throughout.
- Right away, Hawley is nailing the passive-aggression with which so many in the upper Midwest conduct themselves. The Coens are often criticized for this aspect of their filmography, with critics believing that they’re somehow mocking the people they’re portraying. I would say it’s just an accurate inflation of a type that everyone who grew up in the Midwest or lives there will already know. Rather than honestly convey negative emotions, too many of us Midwesterners will wrap everything in what we believe sounds better, even if it’s just as vicious.
- I talked at length about Bernstein’s direction above, but it’s also worth pointing out how well this episode uses wintry exteriors. The show was shot up in Calgary, and I love the way it uses outdoor locations to gain so much of its power. Those endless snowfields are beautifully cinematic.
- Keith Carradine pops up as Molly’s dad, Lou, who owns the local diner. His argument for her joining him at Lou’s is that she’s a lot less likely to be shot and killed in the line of hostess duty than as a cop. But Molly has a calling, and that’s why we love her. (It’s also worth pointing out what an instantly arresting presence Tolman is. She’s a complete unknown, but I’m immediately interested in following her to the ends of the Earth. Good work, casting department.)
- That’s Joey King on the radio as Gus Grimly’s daughter. I am honor-bound to mention her because she was in Bent, and I have to work Bent into any piece I can possibly think of. (Now let’s have Amanda Peet turn up somewhere, and we might have something here.) Interestingly, I first watched this pilot back in January, and I think a different, younger actress’ voice was being used as the younger Grimly, but it was probably an easy enough swap to make once King was cast, though it’s going to make it a little odd to picture Colin Hanks having a daughter that old.
- I enjoyed when Lester’s brother pulled him aside to show him what we assumed to be Chekhov’s machine gun, only for Lester to drop it on the floor and break it. A great little indication of who this character is right there.
- Coen brothers film of the week: This week, let’s all go watch and discuss the original Fargo, for obvious reasons. For as much as I like this first episode, it will be hard for anything in this series to match my love of the film, which is perfection, if not my favorite Coens film. (Once you’re done watching and discussing here, check out some amazing thoughts on the film from all my friends over at The Dissolve.) And keep an eye out for the way this series uses hat tips toward other Coen films liberally!