Note: while this is not a recap of the events of the first season of FX’s FARGO, spoilers will be, in spite of my best efforts, inevitable.
Three words spring to mind when a translation of a film to a television series or vice versa is announced. The first is “ballsy”: can the producers really expect to bring something that the other didn’t? The second and third are “cash grab”: because let’s be honest, in most cases of adaptation and/or translation, the almighty dollar is a skilled and convincing orator. And, when the starting point for translation is an absolute masterpiece like the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, FARGO, cynicism is not only warranted, but unavoidable.
In the case of FARGO, that cynicism was completely unwarranted.
From the first scene to the last, the first season of Noah Hawley’s serialized exploration of the Coen Brothers’ snow-blanketed, “oh yah,” hunting-hat adorned and wood-chippered world, rises above mere imitation to become, like its precursor, as masterwork of its chosen medium, hurling the viewer into a world that is both as close as the backyard barbeque and as foreign as the surface of Bradbury’s Mars and populated by some of the most distinctive, flawed, and charming characters to come to televised life in recent memory.
Billy Bob Thornton gives the performance of his career–a career filled with performances of his career–as Lorne Malvo, a hitman with a penchant for twisting and manipulating the lives of all who dare enter his orbit, making death seem the easy way out, from mindfucking a lowly hotel kid to piss in the owner’s gas tank, to manipulating Martin Freeman’s Lester into “being a man,” to making Oliver Platt’s supermarket king Stavros Milos, in the most overt connection to the Coen Brothers’ film, believe that the travails and blackmail that befall him are God’s vengeance for his becoming an insufferable ass on his way to lording over a supermarket empire where it’s always “July in January.”
Thornton’s Malvo is, like the best fictional villains, a force of nature, a chameleonic alpha predator (his “why do we see the most shades of green” exchange with Colin Hanks’s Gus will send chills down your spine) who toys with his prey before ending them in the tradition of the best of the best: of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; of Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER; of Heath Ledger’s Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT; of Christopher Lee’s first performance as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA; of Anthony Hopkins’s first performance of Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS; and of Darth Vader in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
The lynchpins of FARGO, and the shots that set off the devasting events of the series are the insecurities and the perception of a demolished masculinity of Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygard, who goes from slippery little shit to more of a monster than Malvo in his quest for an awakened, bastardized form of masculinity and self-preservation. Lester is the kid who was picked on at school and who never got over it, always running on the thin ice of perception and paranoia, desperately trying to put one foot in front of the other; he’s the guy who, in a burning building, would cry out “women and children first” but flee the inferno before anyone else, then set his shirt on fire for the third-degree burns so he can say that he tried to save everyone, all the while saying “oh, geez.”
In Alison Tolman’s Molly Solverson, as with her spiritual precursor, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, we are given one of the great female protagonists of television: no-nonsense, relentless (though there was one scene which stood out as untrue to her character; you will probably be able to spot it), and driven to solve the tangled web of the murder of her mentor, Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle, who, though appearing in less than 1/10th of the series, manages to stay with the viewer for the entire series, much akin to Linus Roache’s exemplary and underrated performance as Thomas Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS). Tolman brings rationality, doggedness and a willingness to see beyond the mirage of peace and tranquility wrought by lifelong connections and small-town neighborliness (given voice by Thurman’s successor, Chief Bill Oswalt, portrayed by Bob Odenkirk in a post-BREAKING BAD, pre-BETTER CALL SAUL foray into brilliance). Through Molly’s eyes, we see the pendulum of horrific and heartbreaking swing back and forth as FARGO makes its way towards its inevitable and endlessly satisfying conclusion.
The ultimate success of FARGO lies in its willingness to veer wildly through a slalom course of tone and character: within a single scene, FARGO can be laugh-out-loud funny and, seconds later, shatter the viewer with heartbreak and violence. In the hands of less capable storytellers, these tonal permutations would feel half-baked and representative of indecision; in FARGO, these permutations are essential elements of both the world and themes that hurl the viewer through an addictive and visceral television experience, one that can only be described as “aces,” with a Billy Bob Thornton smile and finger-gun.