'Fargo' season review: Why it's one of the year's best dramas
One of the many, many reasons I absolutely loved Fargo — the FX drama that builds upon the 1996 Coen Brothers movie of the same name — is that it’s filled with allegories and digressions and asides that may or may not mean something, but they always make you think. (More on that later.) So in the spirit of the show, let’s start with one of my own — or rather, one that, like this show, builds upon somebody else’s.
In the 1961 novel The Moviegoer, Walter Percy coins the phrase “certification” to talk about how your perspective on your hometown changes when it appears in a movie. This happens to the novel’s hero, who realizes that he’s watching a movie in the same neighborhood where that movie is set. Percy writes:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
Rex Sorgatz, a native North Dakotan, brought up this scene from Percy’s book in a great piece about how the movie Fargo “made North Dakota feel like somewhere, not anywhere. It made Fargo feel like Fargo.” I’d argue that great art also does the opposite: It makes Fargo feel like Fargo. In other words, it records over your original experience of a place and replaces it with a movie, as if you’re just a character in somebody else’s film. You start to view scenes from your life as if the Coen brothers wrote them.
This is what has happened to me while watching Fargo, the television show. Despite what its title says, the drama actually takes place in Minnesota, where I lived for five years. When I think about the days when I walked home in the sub-zero weather, the liquid in my eyeballs starting to freeze, I remember looking up and watching the snow fall: white flakes floating down from a white sky. But when I try to conjure that memory now, all I can see is that gorgeously shot chase scene from Fargo, where Molly (the phenomenal Allison Tollman, who deserves an Emmy nod for her facial expressions alone) goes crunching through the snow, looking for two hit men in the middle of a storm flurry. (Warning: spoilers from here on.) When the camera points at the sky, it’s the first time I’m back in Minnesota, with that uneasy view of never-ending nothingness, white falling from white.
If Fargo‘s showrunner, Noah Hawley, has a superpower, it’s this: recording over people’s memories. And he has a particularly challenging one to tape over. The Coen brothers’ film topped many critics’ best of the year lists back in 1996, and some fans weren’t crazy about the idea of anyone reworking their favorite dark comedy. So Hawley did something smart. He acknowledged the brilliance of the original by casting his project as a mirror reflection, albeit one that’s through-the-looking-glass. Like the film, the TV show focuses on a weak-willed Midwesterner (Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard) who kills his wife. A female cop (Tollman) is working the case, and two goofball hit men (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) get wrapped up in the murder. (The film doesn’t have an equivalent to the best character here, the frighteningly cool-tempered psychopath Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who helps Lester dispose of his wife’s body.) But since there are two versions of Fargo, Hawley doubles everything else. There are two cops: Molly and a Mr. Nice Guy named Gus (Colin Hanks). There’s a set of goofball FBI agents (the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are perfectly cast) to counter-balance the set of goofball criminals. Lester bludgeons his wife to death, then he remarries, and his second wife gets killed.
Characters repeat or echo phrases from the movie: “And for what?” “Go Bears!” “We’re doing pretty good.” (For analysis of these and other Easter eggs, check out EW’s exhaustive master list here.) Sometimes, they even nod to other Coen brothers movies — say, by ordering a white Russian, the Big Lebowski’s favorite drink, or by listening to a parable from a rabbi, which recalls a speech from A Serious Man. Hawley makes inside jokes of minutia from the original Fargo, as if to reward the very superfans who might’ve turned against him. In the original, one character angrily calls another a mute; in the TV series, one of the hit men is literally mute. The film shows the female cop’s husband cooking eggs for her breakfast. The TV show finds the police chief Bill (Bob Odenkirk) insisting that he needs to eat the omelet his wife made before he can discuss the crime. (Odenkirk is both hilarious and a little heartbreaking as Bill, an official who’s not the sharpest blade in the woodchipper.) And that big suitcase full of money that was left in the snow? A supermarket chain owner named Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) finds it. (The TV series takes place 19 years after the film.)
But this isn’t just an easy game of spot-the-reference. Some scenes feel even more Coen brothers-y than anything the Coen brothers have directed themselves. I laughed out loud at one particularly weird, funny, Coen-y conversation between the two hit men:
“Nobody likes being watched while they eat.”
“Some people do.”
“Oh yeah? Who?”
The scene sent me Googling the words “Mormon” and “Coen Brothers,” until I realized that this joke was pure Hawley. Coen brothers fans might love Hawley’s aesthetic, but his Fargo is original enough to stand as its own creation. The show is a pretty good example of what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard called a simulacrum: a copy that portrays things that no longer have an original. (Think of the throwback American diner that makes up so many restaurant chains. Diners never actually looked like that during the 1950s. Johnny Rockets and others invented it.) As I fall in love with Hawley’s vision, I find that I compare it to the Coen brothers’ own masterpiece less and less.
Okay, wait, one last comparison: You can argue about whether the Coen brothers were making fun of North Dakotans, but Hawley definitely takes Midwesterners seriously. Sure, his Midwesterners still talk funny (“Ah, jeez” “Yah, sure”), and they can be overly pious. At one point, Lorne unleashes locusts in Stavros’ supermarket and arranges for blood to pour from his shower head, and Stavros believes he’s witnessing Biblical plagues. And yet, this is also a deeply spiritual show, one that wrestles, unironically, with the Big Questions that the God-fearing folks of the Midwest hold dear — and many of the rest of us too. When Gus wonders how he can be a good person in an immoral world, it’s genuinely affecting. (“Only a fool thinks he can solve the world’s problems,” his rabbi neighbor tells him, to which he replies, “Yeah, but you gotta try, doncha?”) When Bill worries that the sense of community is disappearing, he’s not making fun of people in small towns; he’s speaking directly to them. (“Whatever happened to saying good morning to your neighbors and shoveling their walk and bringin’ in each other’s Toters?” he asks. Anyone who knows what Toters are will understand what he’s talking about.) Even the hit men seem to live by a moral code, one that places their friendship above the job. Come to think of it, the hit man’s riddle might imply that they’re spiritual too: Mormons like being watched while they eat, but only if God is the one watching.
Of course, Hawley is watching them too. And he’s pretty good at playing God. In this recap-crazy era when everyone’s Googling and analyzing the same references, it feels like he’s messing with critics’ minds. Each episode of Fargo is named for a philosophical problem — “Morton’s Fork,” “A Fox, A Rabbit, and A Cabbage,” “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” — and the characters often speak in puzzles that beg to be decoded. Some of them are rich with meaning. In one scene, Lorne tells Gus a riddle about how the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color. “Why?” he asks. Later, Molly explains the reason: Humans have evolved to see predators through the trees and the grass. After hearing that, I suddenly realized that many scenes in Fargo are filmed in different shades of green. Clearly, this is a challenge to viewers: When you’re gazing across a town where everyone looks pretty much the same, can you really distinguish the predator from the prey?
Other times, the answer to Lorne’s riddles isn’t so obvious. When Lorne decides to blackmail Stavros, he tries to scare him with a fable. It’s about a boy who’s raised in the woods and the wolves that start circling that boy. Is Stavros the boy and Lorne the wolf? Maybe! Or is the boy Stavros’ son? Also possible! Does it mean anything that wolves keep appearing on this show, right before someone’s about to die? Perhaps! You could over-analyze it, but I wonder if there’s something else going on here. The Midwest is famous for its colloquialisms and folk wisdom. Some of those stories mean something. Many of them involve animals and don’t make much sense. (My husband, who’s from North Dakota, has a favorite: “If it’s a horse apiece, who gives a damn?”) Much like that suitcase full of money in the snow, some of these allegories feel like MacGuffins. In a TV-watching climate where everything has to be a metaphor — why recap otherwise? — even the most important-sounding tales can be random and meaningless.
Life can feel random and meaningless too. That’s another point that Fargo sends home. The original film famously insisted that it was “based on a true story,” though Ethan Coen later revealed in the introduction to the published screenplay that “[the film] aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true.” The fact that Hawley’s show is a retelling of a retelling of a not-so-true “true story” makes Fargo feel like a particularly smart take on Midwestern storytelling, like the gossip that spreads through small towns. But it also calls into question the idea that a film — even one that’s based on real life — can ever capture the truth. “Real life doesn’t unfold like a story,” Hawley recently told NPR. “Things happen that don’t fit neatly into a box.” So it makes perfect sense that, in a Midwestern noir series that always seems to be ramping up the suspense toward some grand climax, Lester meets his end in the most mundane way, by falling through the ice. Not everyone ends his story with a shoot-out. Sometimes, you just make a wrong turn, and you’re done.
There’s an ordinary, everyday quality to the horror on Fargo, which isn’t to say it normalizes violence. In the most epic death scenes, the violence is virtually invisible. When Lorne kills every mobster in Fargo, it’s brilliantly filmed from the outside of the mob’s headquarters. You can hear the screams as the camera follows Lorne around the building, but the one-way glass ensures you can’t see what’s happening inside. This isn’t your typical anti-hero drama, where evil is glamorized or good people do bad things for sympathetic reasons. Lester evolves from a henpecked wimp to an equally meek monster. He even dresses his second wife in his own jacket so that Lorne will kill her instead of him. This guy was never good. Only polite. And the banality of his evil only makes him scarier.
Maybe that’s why the very last scene of Fargo feels so satisfying. Bill promotes Molly to take over for him as chief of police. But Gus is the one who ultimately brings down Lorne, shooting him before he can even get up. We’re cheated of watching Molly, the show’s true hero, get justice for the case she worked so hard to solve. But she refuses to let anyone feel sorry for her. “This is your deal,” she tells Gus. “I get to be chief.” Her story will continue beyond that climactic showdown, because (as Hawley says) real life doesn’t unfold like a story. I’d like to imagine her ordering take-out with Gus one night and watching the Coen brothers’ movie. I’d like to imagine her living as a person who is Anywhere and not Somewhere. But I can’t. Not anymore. She can only be here.