This article previously appeared on Crossfader
It’s a setup you’ve seen a hundred times. Belittled, bullied, and beaten down—figuratively and literally—a sad sack nobody has finally had enough. So, the bumbling, ineffectual doofus, mustering what little resolve he has, takes it upon himself to improve his meager lot in life—making some bad decisions along the way, and setting off a chain of events that will inevitably lead to calamity. Hell, it’s a movie you’ve seen before. Tied to the 1996 film of the same name, FARGO is a crime/thriller/black comedy anthology series—whew—that, now into its third season, has masterfully woven a universe of intrigue and irony unparalleled by anything else on cable television. Is that hyperbole? Maybe! Should that concern you, considering all of the other phenomenal crime shows you could be watching instead? No! And you better get that idea out of your head before whatever forces govern the world of FARGO remove it for you!
From what was a small, self-contained vision of the Coen Brothers, creator (and writer and producer, and director . . . ), Noah Hawley has conjured a seemingly haphazard world of coincidence, maybe-providence, and straight up bad luck—a world navigable only by its own idiolect of riddles, non-sequiturs, and obtuse literary references (it doesn’t hurt to have a working knowledge of the Coen Brothers’ greater body of work either)—that is tighter, slicker, and more grounded than BREAKING BAD, both more intelligent AND less pretentious than TRUE DETECTIVE, and funnier than anything else out there. I know. I’m serious. This show is truly in a world of its own. That world, by the way, is a causal one—maybe not one of predestination, but certainly of fate—and one in which it is nevertheless impossible to be certain of what exactly is going to happen next. Do people get what they deserve? One could argue either way. Is this universe indifferent to the plight of its inhabitants? I don’t know. Is there a god looking out for the decent, everyday folk of Middle America, and is that deity doling out its own brand of justice to those who’ve been lead astray? I really don’t know. What I do know is that this show is a work of manifold brilliance and missing out on it is punishment enough for the crime of not watching it.
Another thing I do know: the worse the haircut, the worse the person
Picture North Dakota. Besides the whole pipeline thing and our government’s apparent inability to handle anything with tact or a steady hand, what do you see? Snow. Friendly, good-natured people. Goofy accents. Crime syndicates. Monsters so far removed from conventional morality and understanding that they seem to exist beyond reproach. Wait, what? Well, gosh darn it, looks like I got a little ahead of myself there. I was going to warm you up with a bit of the show’s hokey charm before getting into the heavy stuff, but I guess I slipped up. Well, then. For those who have managed to avoid both the TV series and the movie, FARGO is chiefly concerned with how comparatively minor crimes and blunders can snowball into uncontainable catastrophes. And oh, you betcha things get out of hand.
Operating on the rather dubious assertion that one of the most whitebread, milquetoast regions of The United States is a hub of organized crime, FARGO illustrates just how cruel Mistress Fate can be. What we have here is a serialized Greek Tragedy, a showcasing of Old Testament reckoning vis a vis Existentialism 101. When all is said and done, no one is left untouched by the transgressions of the few. Without giving any spoilers, season one explores Biblical themes following a chance encounter with a hitman who seems equally motivated by an unfathomable internal code a la Anton Chigurh as he is by good old fashioned trolling. Season two, on the other hand, examines the rise of corporate capitalism in America as set against the backdrop of a brewing gang war. Erstwhile, in season three (which premiered April 19th on FX), estranged brothers from very different walks of life come face-to-face over a stamp collection, of all things, in what is hinted to be a tale of mistaken identities.
I can see how one might confuse Ewan McGregor for Ewan McGregor
And yet, for as preoccupied as FARGO seems to be with ironic, even cruel, “justice,” that is not to suggest it is in any way a cynical show. Its gravity, immense as it is, is alleviated (and hilariously lampshaded) by a heavy dose of “Minnesota Nice”—a sort of overly polite diffidence unique to the area. So, while each season propels itself towards a grand comeuppance, there is little in the way of direct confrontation. Verbally, at least. These people just don’t interact that way. For every stand-off, there is a shrug-off, and it can be pretty damn funny. For example, when what might very well be Satan in the Flesh tells the walking doormat, Lester Nygaard, that he would have killed his highschool bully, Lester fires back with a staggering, “Well, now . . . Come on.” Damn. Got ‘em! This deadpan, wry wit doesn’t just serve to ease tension, but to underscore just how preposterous the situations FARGO’s characters find themselves in really are. In this way, FARGO becomes more Theatre of the Absurd than morality play. How else would you describe a mute assassin, a sudden downpour of fish, and Bruce Campbell playing Ronald Reagan if not absurd?
However, the real strength of FARGO lies not in its faithful recreations of time and place, its lyrical wit, nor in any of its slow-motion train wrecks. It’s in the characters. Staying true to its cult roots, FARGO is peopled by a host of quirky, offbeat characters who, rather than falling into the one-note void, bring life to the snowblown tedium of the Northern Midwest. Each season is made that much more entertaining by an ensemble cast of familiar faces in not-so-familiar roles, and while everyone (yes, everyone) delivers a great performance, there are a handful of real standout stars. Billy Bob Thornton turns in the role of a lifetime as Lorne Malvo, a “student of institutions” who isn’t just bad or even evil, but downright malevolent. Thornton absolutely kills it, with a performance that earned him a Golden Globe Award and a Critics’ Choice Television Award for good measure.
FARGO (the movie, that is) is famous for featuring a sharp, hypercompetent police officer who just so happens to be a woman. She wasn’t some ultimate badass killing machine like we’ve seen in a thousand sci-fi flicks, and she wasn’t sexualized or provocative in any way. She was just a smart, levelheaded person doing her job. FARGO (the series) continues that trend, and while the much larger and more ambitious season two has its own share of baddies and goofballs, the most captivating of all of them is a simple housewife. Cristin Milioti (who I was unfamiliar with until watching this show) stars as Betsy Solverson, mother to season one’s primary protagonist, Molly Solverson (another sharp, hypercompetent police officer played by the loveable Allison Tolman). Doomed by terminal cancer, if not by the rising tide of violence about her, Betsy remains an unshakeable pillar of goodness and never once considers throwing in the towel. As a sassy, yet unquestionably loving and supportive wife and mother, she is fantastic, and as a courageous human staring down her own mortality, she is absolutely moving. I can honestly say that in all of my inordinate amount of time in front of a TV screen I have never pulled so hard for a character. Writers looking to create a strong woman *cough* Joss Whedon *cough* should take note.
She also won’t hesitate to sit your ass down with a shotgun
Now look, I could go on and on about FARGO. I could exhaust myself (and you) over how great the writing is, the cinematography, how its music puts every other show to shame . . . I could write a whole discourse on how its recurring symbols and motifs come full circle to give additional meaning to an already profound show. But the bottom line is this is the best damn show I have watched in a long time—maybe ever. Ignoring all the praise one could rightfully heap on it for its technical prowess and star power and everything else it has going for it, there is just something about FARGO that commands attention. There is something at play here that makes you want to keep watching, and makes it so that it never feels like a slog or an obligation. It is compelling. I know we’re in the golden age of television and there is a lot of really good stuff to watch, but when every other show seems poised to adhere to the model of its more successful predecessors, and each seems more hellbent than the last on being grimmer, darker and deeper, why not watch something completely of its own design? Why sit through another dreary, by-the-numbers drama? Why not treat yourself to a cheeky, heartfelt, one-of-a-kind thrillride instead? Because—if FARGO has taught me anything—you never know when something might come right out of the sky to tell you your time is up.