In 1996, Joel & Ethan Coen created what many feel is their masterwork film, the murder mystery, crime drama, sociological regional study we lovingly know as Fargo. Near the end of the film, the only remaining living suspect, Gaear Grimsrud, is found stuffing the foot of his former partner in crime into a wood chipper near a cabin on a pristine frozen lake in the dead of winter. When the true hero of the film, pregnant law enforcement officer Marge Gunderson, stumbles across the crime scene, she shoots the eerily vacant-eyed psychopath in the leg as he tries to escape across the lake. As she transports him back across that frozen white tundra, she tries to make sense of the inconceivable tragedy which has unfolded.
“So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there,” says Gunderson. “And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
It was an amazingly well-crafted moment and perfectly captured our feeling of revulsion and bewilderment. Why would anyone commit those horrific acts on another human being? What could happen in anyone’s life that would allow him or her to think that this was any way to behave? Fargo would go on to win two Academy Awards – one for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and one for the Coen brothers for Best Screenplay.
I’ll be the first to admit that when FX announced it was doing a television version of Fargo, I was very skeptical. I mean, how could FX top the movie? Without the Coen brothers?
Well, the third season of showrunner-extraordinaire Noah Hawley’s expansion of that world is now underway on the FX network. What began as a sparse, tightly written 98 minute film has now spawned two (going on three) seasons of gripping crime drama with a healthy dose of absurdist humor and a sprinkle of supernatural goings-on. So what’s the secret? How was Hawley and his team of writers able to so brilliantly capture the magic? Not since M*A*S*H has there been such a critically renowned film that’s been turned into an unforgettable television program.
So here, then, are the ingredients for what I think you need to create what I think is the most imaginative program on television.
Strong female lead characters
It is a tired old trope, but with very few exceptions, crime dramas generally tend to have far more testosterone. Fargo, I can happily report, is the exception to the rule. Following in the film’s footsteps, the lead female characters are strong-willed, capable women who can take care of themselves, thank you very much. Molly Solverson (played by Allison Tolman) in season one and Carrie Coon’s character Gloria Burgle in season three are both dedicated, heroic police officers who innately can sense when something is amiss. And Cristin Miliotti’s portrayal of Molly Solverson’s cancer inflicted mother Betsy in the time jump in season two is a testament to her acting ability and the level of writing on the show.
Even better, the women on the other side of the law are all well-drawn, motivated characters. Jean Smart’s portrayal of the Gerhardt family matriarch was Emmy-worthy in season 2, as was Kirsten Dunst’s performance as hairdresser turned criminal Peggy Blumquist. And my favorite femme fatale so far is season three’s stupendously-named Nikki Swango, wonderfully played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Every time Nikki Swango is on screen you can almost hear Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” playing in your mind. You know she’s in charge, and her manipulation of Ray Stussy so far has been wondrous to behold. The women in Fargo are every bit as heroic, villainous, dedicated and savage as the men, if not more so.
Quirky Secondary Characters
Maybe it’s the accents. Maybe it’s the names. Whatever it is, the secondary characters in Fargo are so cleverly created. Every character has a significant purpose in the plot and every character seems to have personality quirks which draw us in. Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan, the philosophizing hit man. Brad Garrett’s Joe Bulo, an almost bureaucratic mob boss. Nick Offerman’s hilarious portrayal of Karl Weathers, an alcoholic libertarian lawyer. Ted Danson’s gentle Sheriff Hank Larsson who is trying to create a new language to foster greater understanding between people. And my favorite, the always reliable Oliver Platt and his portrayal of supermarket king Stavros Milos, whose discovery of a certain briefcase full of cash on a lone, desolate highway connects the television Fargo with the movie.
The ever expanding list of top flight actors who appear in Fargo is truly mindboggling. The shorter shooting seasons which have now become the norm in television dramas has allowed an influx of a-team talent to lend the very capable writers a never ending parade of remarkable performances. When your program can list the names above as well as Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Stephen Root, Adam Goldberg, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons, Adam Arkin and David Thewlis, you’re doing something right.
Each season seems to focus, at least partially, on a rivalry between family members. Whether it’s desperate bad guy wannabe Lester Nygaard (played by Martin Freeman ditching his British accent) sneaking out of the hospital in the middle of the night to plant evidence to frame his brother Chazz for murder, or the season long war between the crime family Gerhardt brothers in season two, Fargo excels at capturing the out and out animosity that can (and frequently does) exist between siblings. Season three’s stunt casting of Ewan MacGregor playing both Ray and Emmit Stussy, brothers in conflict over a rare stamp and a decrepit Corvette Stingray, continues the almost biblical family battles we have seen to date.
Unfathomable Pinhead-ery and the Inevitability of Fate
When Nikki describes the official cause of death of drug addict Maurice LeFay, a parolee who was crushed by a two-hundred pound air conditioner pushed out of a window by Swango and her lover Ray Stussy after accidentally killing the wrong victim at the wrong address, as “unfathomable pinhead-ery,” you know you’ve struck gold. Many of the plot complications on Fargo are not the result of a master criminal carrying out a complicated, Ocean’s Eleven-type scheme. Inevitably, the crimes committed in Fargo are of the purely accidental variety and are the worst possible idea anyone could ever have in their short, strange lives. The ideas never work, but the randomness of the crimes lead to a far greater ripple effect of violence and bloodshed. Those ripples always begin as diminutive pebbles thrown into the frozen waters in this series. But those ripples always grow exponentially into destructive waves.
The fact that we know almost certainly that certain characters will meet their end is something we always see coming from the beginning. But what is remarkable is how the characters meet their ends. After Lester spends the better part of ten episodes wiggling out of one jam after another following the mutually agreed upon murder of his wife by supernova of evil Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), Lester finally dies by falling into a hole in the ice trying to evade the police, echoing the previous accidental death of a man mistaken for Lorne Malvo. Whether the death is by a plummeting air conditioner, the sudden random savagery of murdering twenty-two people in an office building, being hit by a car after murdering everyone in a diner or a car accident caused by a mysterious rainstorm of fish, the inevitable fate met by Fargo’s characters is probably one of the most satisfying and inventive aspects of Fargo.
Beautiful and Inventive Cinematography
I could spend pages just writing about the camera work done on this series. So many moments of stark beauty, creative storytelling and flat out kick ass cinematography. Case in point. The P.O.V. camera on the air conditioner falling in free flight. Or how about the final shot of the season opening pre-title sequence in East Berlin that slow zooms into a picture on the wall of what will become the Stussy backyard looking at rows of frosted trees in what is now the traditional Fargo title sequence. Gorgeous and forlorn horizontal lines of tundra and snow. The camera work on Fargo challenges the standard bearer Breaking Bad on creative placement and use of cameras.
Unspeakably evil characters with little to no compunction of any sense of morality
Morally ambivalent characters who find themselves tempted to commit crimes either by accident or the temptation of a better life
In Fargo, these two categories go hand in hand. The absolute evil of Lorne Malvo and his ingenious yet devious means of eliminating his targets is an example of the first category from season one. As is the hilarious savagery of David Thewlis as the mobster/money launderer V. M. Varga in season three. The truly evil characters in Fargo don’t care a whit about life or the morality of protecting it. Inevitably, there is a huge chemical reaction when the truly evil meet the morally ambivalent. (spoiler alert – evil always wins due to a failure to recognize that evil doesn’t care about a “no rough stuff type of deal.”) The moments where the morally ambivalent see the true depths of depravity that humans are capable of recalls what Marge Gunderson was commenting on in that police cruiser.
What’s most remarkable about both the film and the television show is that writing never stoops to condescension; the plots and characters in Fargo are not being written in a fashion seeking to humiliate the people who live in the northern Midwest “flyover states.” Instead, the world Fargo inhabits is simply the setting of a grand drama, like Elsinore, Verona or Athens. The characters may have funny accents we’re not used to hearing, but they are fully developed three dimensional characters who only enliven and enrich what is arguably the best program on television.