“Fargo”: Wonder, Chilled

Tolman

After nine increasingly brilliant episodes, the first season of Fargo concludes tonight at 10pm on FX. When this show was first announced, it was quickly derided as an ill-conceived attempt to capitalize on a cult favorite film that could not possibly be improved or enriched by a ten-hour adaptation. The first episode assuaged those concerns to an extent, with instantly arresting performances and a visual style that recalls the Coen Brothers without imitating them, but the show truly distinguished itself approximately halfway through its run, when it diverged almost entirely from the thematic arc of its source material while tying itself more overtly than ever to the film’s chronology. With just the finale to go, Fargo stands as one of my favorite television experiences of 2014. Here are five things I’ll miss after tonight’s much-hyped finale:

Harvard

1. An outstanding ensemble with depth and breadth

Billy Bob Thornton is the biggest name in the cast, and his character is the most outsized, but the performance is as hilarious as it is menacing. Lorne Malvo’s peculiar Southern charm and his weapon-wielding skills are just incongruous enough to reveal the depths of the character’s depraved morality. Everything from Malvo’s disgusting haircut to his circular manner of speaking is filtered through Thornton’s cool, calm, collected demeanor. The character is a wild card on the level of the Coens’ own Anton Chigurh, but in a way, he’s more terrifying, because he can adapt to social cues in order to get what he wants – which is usually to see people die.

As the extraordinarily wise Molly Solverson (yes, she’s a detective, and yes, it’s supposed to be on-the-nose), Alison Tolman has been an expressive relation, capturing the character’s inherent decency while rarely dialing the dramatics above Molly’s reserved cool. She projects a constantly whirring intellect that never feels the need to show off or prove itself. Time will tell if cooler heads will prevail, but in terms of audience sympathies, Molly is winning the battle by a mile.

Though I initially found Martin Freeman’s performance as Lester Nygaard too cartoonish in comparison to the rest of the characters, Dr. Watson managed to win me over by season’s end, especially with Lester’s time-jump-induced transformation into a cocky sleazeball with slick hair and a penchant for nightcaps. The character goes from being a useless lump to a terrifying facade in a very short time, and Freeman wears that transition well.

And unlike HBO’s True Detective (which has plenty of its own merits), this show didn’t struggle in the slightest with filling out the world beyond the complex leads. From the bumbling hijinks of FBI Agents Budge and Pepper (Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, as delightful as you would expect) to the unusual chemistry of Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and his deaf colleague Wrench (Russell Harvard) and the spiky melodramatics of Mrs. Hess (Kate Walsh) and Chaz Nygaard (Joshua Close), creator and writer Noah Hawley stuffed every corner of this ten-episode story with memorable supporting characters. Special mention ought to go to Keith Carradine as the kindly father figure Lou Solverson, Bob Odenkirk as the perpetually two-steps-behind Bill Oswalt and Glenn Howerton as the late, lamented Don Chumph.

Tolman

2. A female lead with as much complexity as the male leads – and more likable, too

As mentioned, Molly is one of the smartest characters on television right now, and the show lets her be smart without constantly calling attention to the subversive idea that women in law enforcement might be more logical and shrewd than their male counterparts. Her romance with Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, also wonderful), while warm and sweet, never threatens to overwhelm the character’s individual agency and identity, even as it suggests that the partnership is mutually beneficial and satisfying.

Better yet, Molly serves as a pointed contrast to the men falling apart around her, from the seething husband with a vengeful streak to the psychopath with the loaded weapon who will stop at nothing to see blood spill. That the character is a voice of reason without being a nag or a worrywart is an encouraging and unusual development, especially for a series with an overwhelmingly male cast. (Some critics have pointed out that the other female characters are far more one-dimensional. They’re right to an extent, but the show has portrayed Lester and Sam Hess in such a negative light that it would be foolish to believe that anyone expects us to be sympathetic to them at the expense of their spouses.)

Fargo

3. A singular visual style coupled with a specific, unusual, varied tone

The time-jump in the eighth episode was yet another example of the show deploying confident storytelling moves and executing them at a high level of visual sophistication. The slow pan away from Gus in the mail truck after he catches a glimpse of Lorne went on so long that the only possible outcome appeared to be his death or injury. The decision to shoot Lorne’s office raid in the seventh episode only from outside the building with the curtains dran was undoubtedly motivated in part by budgetary constraints, and it’s a dazzling bit of filmmaking from a technical perspective, but what makes it truly special is the way in which it highlights the essential thesis of Lorne Malvo: a killing machine whose crimes happen offscreen, with noises that suggest the execution of a routine rather than the commitment of a heinous crime.

Tonally, this show also offered a more varied approach than the uniform melancholy of True Detective. It could be wildly funny and disturbing simultaneously, as with Lester’s escape from the hospital and Lorne’s dispatching of the dentist family. It took a moment of pure comedy like Budge and Pepper’s pseudo-philosophical musings and turned it into a valuable plot point with relevance to the theme of the ever-persuasive Molly convincing skeptical men that the Bemidji case was worth investigating. Best of all, the show’s worldview varies depending on the character, suggesting that the character of an entire town and region can’t be defined by a single mission statement.

Oliver

4. Tangential, thematically interesting connection to the source material

Instead of sticking with the narrative that this show was inspired only by the tone of the original movie, Hawley constructed the season as a series of reactions and conversations with the original film, none more overt than grocery store owner Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) finding the bag of money that was buried in the snow at the end of the film. This bag of money served as inspiration for Milos’ grocery empire, but it also represented the beginning of the character’s moral downfall. The idea that this bag of money might nudge the story along in future seasons is a clever use of the movie’s mythology that doesn’t rely on big, obvious references like the Molly speech partially lifted directly from Frances McDormand’s dialogue in the film.

Freeman

5. Resolution, followed by reinvention

This show follows the anthology series model popularized by American Horror Story and True Detective in recent memory. Tonight will represent the end of our time with Freeman, Tolman, Thornton and the rest of this endlessly delightful cast, and next season will begin a new story with new characters in a setting similarly inspired by the events and themes of the movie. This approach is a win-win in terms of the show’s creative legacy. If the show maintains the quality of this season, next time around, it will be a welcome miracle. If not, this season stands on its own as a superb achievement. Fargo is rich enough that I’d consider rewatching these first ten episodes just to immerse myself in the specificity of its worldview once more. That’s television at its best.

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