It was always pretty obvious to me that as far as 2014 was concerned, the television event of the year was going to be True Detective. Not only was it the sort of show that I loved, it was universally lauded by critics and viewers alike all of whom praised the performances of the two lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The fact that the show didn’t quite live up to the hype when I finally watched it didn’t change the fact that it was undeniably landmark TV and without question the best thing on the screen all year. Certainly it wasn’t going to be knocked off that pedestal by the likes of Fargo.
I should state up front at this point that I am not a Coen brothers fan. It’s not that I dislike them at all, merely that their work has always seemed to have a somewhat exclusive quality – their films are for those people who ‘get it’, and I’ve simply never felt that I have had the keycode to gain entry to their clubhouse despite the fact that much of their work has been firmly positioned within the sort of suspense, thriller, noir or gangster genres that normally would attract me like a bee to nectar. Only very recently, as their films have opened up and become more mainstream and accessible, have I finally got into watching No Country For Old Men and True Grit which I generally rated although not without some reservations. Even so, I’ve never felt the inclination to go back to their earlier works and so I’ve still not seen films which I know are acknowledged classics like Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There or indeed even 1996’s Fargo.
No surprise then that I was utterly indifferent to the prospect of a miniseries follow-up to the latter when it aired on More 4. Nor was I remotely inclined to pick up the DVD boxset of the season when it was released. That is, not until December when I noticed it was on heavy discount at HMV; together with another burst of praise in the press for Martin Freeman’s role in it as hapless, henpecked insurance salesman Lester Nygaard and there was a moment of weakness where I thought “Aww, heck, why not get it, it’s hardly a risk at that price.” Even so, when I sat down to give the first episode a try just before Christmas I can’t say that I expected to stick with it for more than an episode or two before my expectations were sure to be confirmed and I would decide that it just wasn’t for me.
You’ve doubtless guessed the rest. I was utterly enthralled and completely addicted to this strange, off-kilter work within 20 minutes. After 60, I was already sold on the idea that this was better than True Detective. And after all ten episodes I come out of it with two complete convictions: one is that this was the true high water television event of 2014, and the other that I’ll be rewatching it from the start pretty darn soon.
When I put the first disc in the player, I wasn’t sure whether this was a remake of the original motion picture, or a reboot, or a follow-up. It turns out that it’s none of the above but something entirely different. While the Coen brothers themselves weren’t even really involved in the television production – it’s actually entirely the brainchild of writer/showrunner Noah Hawley – the miniseries does initially appear to start from the same place as the movie and has on the surface several completely equivalent characters. Lester for example seems to be a direct counterpart to William H Macy’s role of Jerry Lundegaard in the movie, and once again there are two professional hitmen in town (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in the film, Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard in the miniseries), while Allison Tolman’s character of Molly Solverson very much appears to be based directly on that of Marge Gunderson, the part that won Frances McDormand the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role some 18 years ago.
Except none of that is any more true than the events that unfold (despite the film’s and the series’ entirely spurious on-screen note at the start proclaiming that it’s a true story.) It’s soon clear that these are very different characters and that their stories have totally altered trajectories. Molly, for example, is not the chief of police in her icebound home town of Bemidji, Minnesota but is instead a young and awkward deputy still at the start of her career. She has all the right instincts and abilities, but she’s held back by being subordinate to the new sheriff (Bob Odenkirk) who is a nice and amiable man but a terrible police officer whom we first meet losing his lunch at a bloody crime scene. Similarly Lester is not a desperate figure resorting to kidnapping and blackmail, but merely a depressed everyman suffering his bleak life in silence with no hope of anything changing. That is, until a fateful encounter with a mysterious stranger in the waiting room of the local emergency department sends his life spinning out of control.
As the show’s inciting incident made flesh, Billy Bob Thornton’s assassin character Lorne Malvo has no direct equivalent in Fargo but he’s a very Coen-eque character none the less. He is completely and irredeemably evil and represents the sort of remorseless approach of violence and death that Javier Bardem provided so memorably as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Any time he’s on screen there’s a good chance that someone is going to get hurt or die: it doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad, they’ll die simply because they’re in the way or because it provides some momentary amusement for Malvo, who gets his recreation by planting dark seeds in the minds of others just to see what will happen, what evil will flower from his playful interjections.
In turns out that pretty much everything that happens in Fargo stems from Lester’s inability to give a clear answer to a question that Malvo asks of him in that waiting room. We follow the ripples of the effect this has on the town as it changes many lives – some ironically for the good, but an awful lot for the worse. And by worse, I mean terminally. Later on, Malvo asks Lester the same question in a hotel elevator, and this time Lester answers it emphatically – but with catastrophically the wrong choice, and this time it is the beginning of the end of everything.
Malvo is a fascinating character: despite the lethal darkness, he’s also oddly softly spoken and polite, and his eyes sparkle with amusement at the chaos he generates around him. It’s easy to see why Thornton is getting all the attention and the awards nominations for the show-stealing role, but ironically as the agent of change he actually gets to develop very little himself over the course of the miniseries. By contrast, Lester is transformed by the events that ensue and ranges from broken failure to strutting success by way of a welter of dark deeds he previously couldn’t have imagined being capable of, making it a wonderful part to play. It’s no wonder that Martin Freeman couldn’t resist signing up for it despite existing commitments to Sherlock and The Hobbit. Even so the true heart of the story has to be Allison Tolman, a relative unknown actress who is wonderful and pitch-perfect as Molly, and whose budding romance with Duluth police officer and single dad Gus Grimley (played by Colin Hanks) provides the touching soft centre to the story that neatly contrasts and undercuts all the noir darkness and the grisly killings going on all around them.
For the most part the show is played dead straight, so much so that even a sequence which cuts between a pregnant woman uneventfully driving a car through town and two middle aged men making small talk in a diner can hold you in a grip of dread because of what is potentially about to happen to some of your favourite characters should they actually meet. There are occasionally moments of dark comedy and surreal happenings that allow for some overlap with the likes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks but they are rarely overt, the only slightly misjudged element of the entire piece being the late additions of FBI agents Pepper and Budge (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) who are entirely one-note quirky comedy accents sadly undeveloped compared with the rest of the characters.
There is one sub-plot that feels strangely divorced from the rest, a B-story centring on supermarket chain owner Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) that seems entirely apart from the rest of the show, only there to pad out the running time and give Malvo something to do while he waits for the rest of the storylines on the boil to percolate. That said, it does provide some of the show’s most striking visuals as Malvo unleashes wave after wave of Biblical plagues on Milos in the name of a one million dollar blackmail plot. That’s not to say that this story’s separateness proves any particular problem to the enjoyment of the show overall, and indeed the entire cutaway would still work very nicely in its own right as a stand alone indie film if it weren’t set to the service of the wider Fargo universe. However, it wasn’t until I watched one of the making-of featurettes on the DVD that I realised this entire story is the most concrete and direct link back to the original Fargo motion picture, a reference I hadn’t picked up on since I’ve never seen the film. Likewise the miniseries is stuffed full of little in-jokes from across the entire Coen back catalogue to flavour the show and make it feel authentic to long-time fans, but equally none of it matters if you don’t ‘get’ them – it certainly didn’t affect my enjoyment of the show in its own right. Overall it’s all part of the multi-layered and textured construction wherein Hawley includes lots of extraneous and irrelevant details and happenings because, well, that’s how things are in real life. At one point Molly reconnects with an old schoolfriend who has a terrible tale to recount, and you wonder where this is going and how it’s going to be used later down the line; but it turns out that it isn’t – even though it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the entire show (or at least, one that doesn’t also involve lots of people being killed at the same time.)
While the characters are a major part of the appeal of the show, the location is almost as important. The striking snowbound, icy vistas are dazzling and produce a fascinating contrast with the very ordinary and utilitarian islands of huddled houses. The isolated communities seem entire worlds unto themselves with their own customs and mannerisms, with Lester a prime example of the sort of extreme passive-aggressiveness characteristic of those living in Bemidji. Freeman also perfects (to my ears at least) the unique and unmistakable sing-song accent apparently known as ‘Minnesota Nice’ and which leaves him uttering a mournful “Aww, heck” or “Aww, geez” as he’s compelled to carry out yet another dreadful, gory act in order to survive.
The whole thing combines to a rich and heady stew, one that could so easily have spun out of control and become very silly but which instead is kept in an iron grip that makes every beat, every scene and every major character both believable and compelling. It’s so much more ambitious, taking bigger risks and daring to be completely different compared with the likes of True Detective that actually played rather too safely by comparison. Whereas that HBO show had the mammoth shootout at the end of episode four that was a bravura moment of directorial chutzpah and technical logistics, Fargo more than has its own comparable creative highlights that include a firefight in a blinding blizzard, and a wry extended tracking shot which charts every step of a largely unseen but all-too-well-heard-and-understood office building massacre.
The only sad thing about Fargo is that having spent all this time investing in getting to know and like (or hate!) its characters, the end of the run means we have to say goodbye to them all. While there will be a season 2, Fargo is taking the same anthology approach as True Detective and American Horror Story in opting to move on to new characters, new locations and even a new time period when it returns. That’s probably for the best – season 2 of Homeland shows just what happens if you try and force a story to continue past its natural end. Just as with the film and season 1 there will still be some connective tissue between season 1 and season 2 and the groundwork has already been put in place: the character of Molly’s father Lou Solverson (played by Keith Carradine) dropped little anecdotes of a case he worked on as a policeman over in Sioux Falls in 1979 and it’s this that will be the focus, with Patrick Wilson taking over the role of a younger Lou in a cast that will also reportedly include Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jeffrey Donovan.
Will that be as successful as this first season? I’m not sure, but having been so spectacularly wrong in my presumptions of Fargo in the first place I’m hardly going to miss the opportunity to find out. Whatever happens, nothing will spoil what Hawley, Thornton, Freeman, Tolman et al have already achieved with these remarkable and highly recommended ten episodes.
On the disc: The DVD has a lovely detailed picture, sharp and vivid, that at no time left me wishing for a high definition version. The DVD also contains all the extras available on the Blu-ray: three audio commentaries from writer/creator Noah Hawley with actors Billy Bob Thornton and Allison Tolman; deleted scenes; a 28-minute making of documentary; and two further featurettes, one focussing on the nice characters and the other on the darker side.
Both the original film and the first season of the new television series of Fargo are out on DVD and Blu-ray.