Ben Watches Television : Fargo, Season One (2014)
Fargo is a 1996 Coen brothers movie set in the cold, desolate landscape of Minnesotan winter. It's a dark comedy about a car salesman organizing his wife's kidnapping in order to pay back a crippling debt. It's a fun movie and perhaps one of their top 5 best, yet it can't hold a candle to No Country for Old Men (perhaps my favorite movie ever made) or The Big Lebowski (perhaps the finest comedy ever filmed). I sure shit would've never thought it needed a television series to expand on its universe. How would that even work? I mean, what the fuck else could've happened to these characters, right? That shit was doomed to go horribly wrong.
I don't know who at FX is in charge of series acquisition, but someone give this guy his own network to run. Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Fargo, Atlanta, Louie, The Americans, the list goes on. It's a murderer's row of good television over there. I should've known better than to doubt the network's seemingly bizarre decision of rebooting a random Coen brothers movie an turning it into a television show. The first season of Fargo is the bomb and the person responsible for that is a novelist/screenwriter named Noah Hawley. And today I'm going to try and explain you why this show is so goddamn great.
What is Fargo about?
All three seasons of Fargo are only loosely connected. They are standalone storylines that can be enjoyed individually. The first season is the story of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) a perennial loser working for a local insurance company. He lives in a loveless marriage and takes shit from just about anybody on a daily basis. Lester's toxic existence is turned upside down when he runs into Sam Hess (Kevin O'Grady), his old high school bully who humiliates him in front of his two teenage sons, leading to Lester breaking his own nose. He meets a mysterious drifter (Billy Bob Thornton) who takes interest in him and offers his help. For the first time in his life, Lester has agency over his destiny and he doesn't know what to do. Fortunately (or not), the friendly stranger is into taking decisions for other people.
What Fargo says about the American middle class
The appeal of Minnesotan winter for setting is that it's both desolate and hopelessly normal. There shouldn't be anything extraordinary happening in this frozen landscape. Everyone in the first season of Fargo is either an insurance salesman, a trucker, a cop, a mailman, a small business owner, etc. And they're the good guys. The only disturbing element to its otherwise peaceful setting is Billy Bob Thornton's character, who seemingly is a freelance hitman with a fondness for raising hell wherever he goes just because he can. The stranger murders Sam Hess because it amused him to play God and exert revenge for someone incapable of standing up for himself. This is important.
What I liked best about Fargo was its subversion of conventional noir tropes. It's not Lester Nygaard's greed that is responsible for his downfall, but his weakness and victimization. When he discusses the mere potentiality of Hess' murder in the hospital's waiting room, the stranger opens a pandora's box in Lester's mind, suggesting he has agency over his own life. That he could suddenly undo a lifetime of victimhood. And *spoilers* he does at a certain point in the series. He gets away with murder(s). So, Noah Hawley used a trope that really is reserved to positive, life-affirming movies and used it to challenge the conventional greedy anonymous middle class American plot.
That is the beautiful thing. Lester Nygaard never steals anything. He never really has any other ambition than self-respect, which he achieves for an elusive half-episode. The American middle class isn't portrayed as a soul-rotting dead end in Fargo, but as the place where honest people end up living with each other. It's a weird pocket of idealism in an otherwise bleak and cutting show. And Hawley illustrates it for what it truly is, too. It's not necessarily a safe haven for the righteous. There are people like Lou and Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) who are smart, kind and courageous, but there are people like Bill Oswalt (masterfully played by Bob Odenkirk) who will sweep whatever they can under the rug in order to preserve the illusion of safety and control.
Does Fargo have anything to do with the movie?
Yes and no. The events of the movie are never openly discussed, but there are subtle allusions to it. It's not important to your enjoyment of the show at all, though. If you're familiar with the Coen brothers, the series have nice surprises for you. It's surprisingly adept at the unique and beautiful tongue-in-cheek humor of the iconic film directors. There a scene early in the series where Sam Hess' sons are being told his youngest (who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome) is inheriting the business and while a boring and seemingly mundane scene continues at the forefront, Hess' eldest bring his brother in the backyard and attempts to assassinate him with a hockey stick. Connections with the original material are made through jokes like these more than they are with the setting. Minnesota is depicted as a labyrinth of small, isolated towns in the show never quite settles in one.
The first season of Fargo is smart, low-key stylish and subversive. I hadn't had such a good time watching television since the end of Justified and True Detective, and while these two might've had better characters, Fargo is miles ahead in terms of engaging plot. Noah Hawley is the real deal, you guys. He reappropriated the universe of a freakin' Coen brothers movie and made it his own while constantly paying tribute to its origins, which has to be some kind of ultimate creative stunt. I will review Season Two at the end of the week, so keep an eye on it!
Fargo is the bomb.