Fargo, loosely tied to the movie in which it draws it’s name, is set in the sleepy town of Bemidji, MN. The cops aren’t too sharp as they rarely deal too much in the ways of criminal activity. Well, that all changes when the unlikely paring of loser insurance man Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) meets up with hitman supreme Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and all hell breaks loose! The real action picks up whenever Lester has had enough of his overbearing wife and kills her with a hammer. Lorne shows up to save Lester but kills the local town police chief in the process. Lester then has to spin a web of lies so thick that it eventually…well, let’s save that for the end shall we?
Lester Nygaard is a bad man. Sure he appears to be a spineless, wuss of a half-man but he has an underlying darkness that rears it’s ugly head throughout the course of the show. Martin Freeman shows a much larger range of acting than I had previously expected of him as you see the progression of Lester slipping into criminal scumbag territory. Sure Freeman is a very good actor (The Hobbit, Sherlock, The World’s End…the list of his impressive accomplishments go on and on), but he typically plays the same person with the same range; even though he’s very good, he’s never really been in a role that has tested his abilities. Until now. Lester has “loser” written all over him: his wife belittles him every chance she gets, he’s a failure at his job, his high school bully still torments him and his younger brother is much more successful. Once he turns heel though, his true colors shine through. Not only does he break out of a police monitored hospital but he also sets his brother up to take the fall for his wife’s murder. When Malvo turns his murderous tendencies towards him though, Lester performs his most heinous act of all: intentionally sending his new wife in to certain death to protect his own skin. It’s truly a masterpiece of writing and acting and leaves the viewer both stunned and appalled.
The real villain here though is super hitman Lorne Malvo. Malvo is meticulous in his planning and one of the more intimidating characters in television in recent memory. Sure, he’s not physically imposing, but his look and demeanor mixes with some truly terrifying dialog to create a perfect monster. Billy Bob Thornton truly shines as the malevolent Malvo and does perhaps his best acting job of his career. And yes, that includes his Oscar nominated turn as Karl Childress in Sling Blade. It’s that good. Malvo uses anything and anyone to get what he wants including bumbling blackmailer Don Chumph (Glen Howerton) and super market mogul Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) and even Lester himself. Thornton’s best work on the show is a scene where he is being interrogated by the police. To avoid any suspicion, Malvo takes on the role of a visiting pastor…and he absolutely kills the scene. It’s a masterful performance and will get him, at the very worst, an Emmy nod. If nothing else, watch the show for this performance. You can thank me in the comments below.
The show itself is quite clever in it’s writing and directing as well as the standout acting. The scene that comes to mind immediately is the scene in which Don Chumph meets his end; Malvo sets things up so that the hapless, bronzed yoga instructor takes the fall for the Stavros blackmail. There is a choir singing a very haunting piece while a SWAT team blows away the duct taped patsy in slow motion. It’s breathtaking. Also, the scene where Wrench (Russell Harvard) and Numbers (Adam Goldberg), two hitmen sent from the titular Fargo to kill Malvo is worthy of mention, too. There is palpable suspense as the the three hitmen and the two police officers, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) and Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman…she is also amazing by the by) try to end each other in the middle of a killer snow storm…it’s pulse pounding for sure.
There are also several nods to the original movie that bring the backdrop to life as an extra character and ties some loose ends from the film. The biggest of these being the buried money that Carl Showalter (Steve Buschemi) ditches towards the end of the Oscar winning film. The aforementioned Milos Stavros is only rich because he stumbles across the dirty money on his way to live up north and makes him the target of said blackmailing. Also, each episode opens in the exact same manner as the film: “This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” This is totally bogus, but it brings the two universes together in a fun and interesting way.
There is one thing about the plot of this show that I didn’t necessarily care for, however. Even though the overall story involving Stavros and the blackmailing was very good, especially how Malvo played on Stavros’ Christian tendencies, it left me wanting more. Even though the story arch took place over several episodes, there wasn’t really a conclusion. I felt that someone at least should have gotten that money, but I suppose it’s poetic justice that it winds up back in the same place as where it was found. I also wanted some sort of conflict resolution between Malvo and Mr. Wrench; the way that it was left seemed like it was too open ended, especially for a show that seemed to revel in it’s conclusions.
Overall, the show was stellar. I loved it from beginning to end and I can’t recommend watching it enough. The dark comedic nature from the 1996 Coen Brothers film (who also produced this show…and it’s very apparent) carries over into the television show perfectly. I could go from laughter to dread in the blink of an eye almost every episode and it kept me glued to the tube every week. The acting in the entire cast is the kind of stuff that you see on the premium networks and will continue the awesome trend of big budget movie stars coming over to the small screen. I feel several awards coming their way and will actually be surprised if this show comes doesn’t come back for another dark comedy murder extravaganza. Yes, I know that I opened with the “event series” bit but it would be hard to imagine that a show that was this successful in both numbers and critic/viewer praise not to make a comeback. To be fair, they could treat this as a True Detective style setup and use different people in different locales that loosely tie back to the sleepy town of Fargo. I truly hope so.