Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season One – *****
Part One: That Film That Doesn’t Even Really Take Place in North Dakota
I’ve never fully known what to think about the Coen brothers. They’re easily among the most competent and innovative filmmakers of the past few decades, and their work rarely fails to provide something of interest. They have a distinct style, but their filmography ranges so much that I tend to think of the individual styles of films like The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Fargo when trying to define it, rather than consider similarities between them. I think other people tend to do the same. While The Big Lebowski is probably their most popular film, No Country for Old Men their most respected, and O Brother, Where Art Thou the one I’ve seen most (about five times in school — because it’s The Odyssey, I guess?), the one that I think defines their style more than any other has to be Fargo.
I don’t love Fargo. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it all the way through, and like with many Tarantino films, I tend to prefer scenes and moments in it to the overall piece as a whole. It’s well-done and I might even go so far as to call it an excellent film, one that anyone interested in film should watch. It has so many familiar elements, like a bleak setting, small town innocence, and charismatic criminals, yet there’s no other film quite like it. Fargo has a character all its own.
I think I underappreciate it for what it does well, because even though I recognize the film’s merits and I remember it fondly, I have a hard time describing its plot. It’s not quite the style of filmmaking that catches my eye and locks me in. The visuals are nice, but the setting is all about space, which plays into the themes of the narrative. The pacing is fairly slow, there aren’t many characters, and the plot is simple almost to a fault. It’s an engaging film, but the engagement is mainly found in the atmosphere and the small details of character interactions. It’s meant to be somewhat vacant and bleak, but in a casual way, so the audience has time to reflect and soak in the film’s personality. I understand why some people absolutely love it, because it is quite good. It’s just not my cup of tea.
This review is supposed to be about the 2014 show Fargo, which while inspired by and loosely associated with the film of the same name, has a different plot and characters. The Coen brothers were executive producers for the series, among others, but they neither directed nor wrote any of the episodes. The show is largely Noah Hawley’s brainchild, so what’s the point of talking about the Coens at all here? Well, to be honest, I wanted to provide some context, because as much as I appreciate Fargo the film, I kind of love the first season of the show more. It feels like a work dedicated to the Coens by a fan who adores their style and wants to commemorate it. The series goes to great lengths to present features that feel reminiscent of a Coen brothers film, which oddly enough makes it feel like a fuller summary of their style than any of their actual films would alone. It’s good on its own merit, but it gains further context with reflection on its origins.
And, as I’m always keen to point out, it’s an excellent example of adaptation done well.
Part Two: That Small Midwestern Ice Box Corruption
The show opens following three characters: Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard, and Molly Solverson. Malvo is something of a callback to Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men as a casually violent assassin with no qualms about collateral damage. Molly is a facsimile for Marge in the original film, a police detective in over her head investigating a slew of murders that grow increasingly more disturbing and inexplicable as she learns more about them. Lester is the main original contribution to the narrative of the show, a bystander caught up in the counterplay between the cops and criminals, and the instigator of the plot by way of murder.
The first episode sets the stage for the series, presenting a small Minnesota town unfamiliar with the organized crime of the city and thus unprepared for the arrival of Lorne Malvo. Lester, a local insurance agent unsatisfied with his lot in life, runs into Malvo by chance and unwittingly recruits him to kill an old bully from school who’s recently sent him to the hospital. Malvo sews the seeds of dissent in Lester, essentially granting him permission to act outside the law. Lester later gets in an argument with his wife and in the midst of it, he hits her with a hammer, killing her. The police begin to investigate the murder of the high school bully, eventually leading them to Lester, who plays victim in his wife’s own murder. Molly doesn’t come into the story much until the end of the episode, suggesting the chief of police talk to Lester and then feeling responsible for the chief’s death when Malvo kills him.
What follows over the course of the rest of the series is a winding knot of characters chasing after one another and clawing to stay one step ahead of the others in an ongoing mystery thriller. Molly pieces together enough to suspect Lester, but is held back by the new chief of police who knew Lester in high school. Malvo proves slippery and dangerous, unperturbed by the police and apt to cause plenty of chaos by pitting the police of this and other local towns against an organized crime syndicate from Fargo. He goes around assigned with specific tasks but he’s always willing to postpone whatever he’s in town to do if it means he gets to fuck with people’s heads. He toys with the police, Lester, and anyone else he runs across. Lester, meanwhile, lacks the competence and confidence of Malvo in covering up his crimes but quickly comes to see the same sort of enjoyment Malvo has in murder, systematically screwing over the people he feels have hindered his potential, eventually challenging Malvo at his own game.
As an adaptation, the first season Fargo hits all of the points I require. It takes features iconic to the original — namely the setting, atmosphere, and several stylistic cues — and formats them to fit its own medium, adopting a new story in the process. You can watch both the film and the show without feeling they’re repetitive, but still feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. The story features different characters, but it’s still about a cop investigating gruesome murders in a small remote town where this sort of phenomenon is unfamiliar. The larger cast, more complex plot, and character arcs allow the series to fill out several episodes, so it inevitably feels more lived-in than the film, which is characteristically sparse. To make up for this, the show emphasizes the coldness of the environment, using ice and winter gear to grim effect at several key points. In this iteration of the story, it’s not just that the town is small, it’s in a harsh environment. People get by, but the weather doesn’t permit much more than that. In order to succeed in this environment, a person must be merciless and animalistic, forgoing the safety of an underwhelming life for the risk of getting caught dragging down others in pursuit of a better one. In the end, taking that risk brings misfortune to everyone, and victory is inevitably brief in the wake of the cold of winter.
The show plays up the themes of the original, notably corruption, the shock of senseless violence, and perseverance. The ending is technically happy, with Molly marrying another officer from a different town involved in the investigation and both Malvo and Lester getting comeuppance for their crimes, but it’s a hollow victory. By the end of the story, even though the show still follows Lester and Malvo, the audience is rooting for Molly to catch them after everything she’s been through. Her friend and boss was killed and she feels responsible, the body count continues to rack up, and she herself has been pulled every which way by the investigation, deprived of resources and continually told to drop it despite being the only person who’s on the right track to solving the crimes. She’s proven right eventually; her husband kills Malvo, Lester falls through thin ice, and she gets promoted to chief of police. However, by that point, her worldview is tainted, and her place within it seems much smaller than it was before. Everything came about for the better, but at the cost of dozens of lives and a tremendous deal of grief. The story is tense throughout and it leaves the characters, as well as the audience, feeling exhausted.
The performances, particularly those of the three main characters, are stand-out, and the dialogue is a treat. Even minor characters often get engaging scenes that run the full gamut of emotions, and a lot of the dialogue and editing is surprisingly funny. The humor helps to balance and build up the tone, particularly where Malvo is involved. This ensures that despite the violence and unsavory characters in the story, the audience is captivated by the plot and able to follow even fairly convoluted developments.
I have few criticisms for the narrative — it’s not necessarily something everyone would love, but it’s well-structured. I do think, though, that it’s perhaps a few episodes too long. The last couple of episodes follow a time skip of about a year. Lester, having diffused tensions with the police, is remarried and doing well at his job. He runs into Malvo by chance, setting off another chain of murders as Lester flees from Malvo and the cops, which of course ends with Molly reopening the investigation and indirectly catching the other two main characters. The last episode is tightly written, but the few preceding it feel fairly repetitive. I understand some of the function to seeing Lester reap the benefits of his misdeeds before losing it all again, but I came away from those episodes feeling like they could have been more efficiently integrated into the rest of the story. They stick out, and there’s not really much reason for it.
Overall, though, the characters and story are captivating, and the style makes it a breeze to binge watch.
Part Three: That Fucking Snow, Tho
The real star of the show, as with the film, is the snow. This series looks gorgeous, capturing vast shots of the emptiness that dominates the midwest, especially in winter. It has this perpetual palate of gray and white that it uses in every possible way, keeping the shots vivid by way of their composition and small inclusions of a slightly colorful thing. Lester notably has this bright orange winter coat that stands in stark contrast to the ice, and provides a focal point for one of the series’ most visually striking sequences, him running onto the ice at the end of the last episode. This sequence is filmed among some small snow-capped mountains which, alongside an evergreen forest, create an imposing barrier against the vastness of the ice-covered lake. You know from the layout of the setting exactly what’s going to happen — Lester is being pursued over the empty terrain, surrounded on all sides, alone, and about to be swallowed up one way or the other. The “Warning: Thin Ice” sign is almost redundant.
The cinematography in general is hypercompetent; only occasionally, mainly in the outdoor scenes, does it flex its muscles to show what it’s capable of. There are scenes in this series that summarize the show better than any writing ever could. However, the cinematography is generally subdued most of the time, opting instead to supplement the dialogue and clarify character thought processes. Most of the shots are not trying to be grand or spectacular, they’re there for support. You could probably watch this entire series without any dialogue and still understand what’s going on. It takes a lot of skill to know how to light, block, and frame a scene to make it stand out, but I would argue that it takes even more skill to know when to hold back. The cinematography in the show is good overall, but because it refrains from being ostentatious, when it does get to let loose, the sheer beauty of the shot is breathtaking.
The music also deserves some attention, because it works in tandem with the cinematography to infuse the shot with the intensity of emotion the story deserves. The main theme of the series sets the tone of the show; it’s similar enough to the score of the film, yet very much its own thing (again, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I recall the melody being quite different). It has grandeur to compliment the beauty of the outdoor shots, especially in the opening theme, but the score can easily slip into something more tense, more somber, or more ominous, even occasionally light and cheerful, as the narrative requires. The music, perhaps more than anything else, cues into the pacing and mood of a scene. It’s not the defining part of any scene, and it wouldn’t work as well all on its own, but combined with the visuals and dialogue, the music does a lot of heavy lifting in setting audience expectations for a scene.