Spring 2014 Review: Fargo

16 Apr

Freeman and Thornton

There’s an old quote, most often credited to Tolstoy, but I’m not quite confident in , that there are two kinds of stories. “A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”

FX’s Fargo is certainly of the stranger comes to town variety.

Fargo does not borrow characters or the exact story from the 1996 Coen brothers masterpiece. Rather, it takes place in a similar world to the film with an attempt at to mimic the film’s tone, and with a story that is along the lines of Fargo’s story with a couple of character analogues.

Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, basically the William H. Mason character, Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson is basically the Francis McDormand character, and Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is some combination of the two thugs Macy hires. Beyond that, the plot involves a loser-ish guy working with a devious criminal or criminals, and bringing those criminal or criminals involved with the murder of his wife. And that’s about it, plotwise.

Poor Lester Nygaard is about as low in Fargo’s pilot as any of American culture’s great losers. Some of this is brought upon himself, but no man deserves the sort of torment he takes. He’s terrible at his job selling insurance, and maybe that’s on him.  Next, though, he’s harried by an old high school bully on the street, who, along with his two dingbat sons, threatens him, as if they were 16 and not 40. This bully also shares with Lester that fact that he received a hand job from Lester’s wife way back when. Lester’s younger brother tells him later that same day that Lester embarrasses him so much that he tells people that Lester is dead. Lester’s wife, after Lester breaks the laundry machine while trying to fix it and reclaim his manhood after the slight from his brother, tells him she made a mistake marrying him and he was no man at all. It’d almost be hard to go all Falling Down after a day like that.

At this point, something important happens, but let’s get back to that stranger. Lester could never act on his own without prompting. He’s powerless; in fact, that’s part of his problem. He can’t stand up to his bully, he can’t stand up to his brother, he can’t stand up to his wife.  He breaks his nose, not by slipping and falling, not be being beaten up by the bully, but rather because he slammed it into a window after merely being startled by the bully. The guy can not catch a break. In the hospital, he meets Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne, who chats with Lester about his bully situation and offers, out of either the goodness of his heart, or the simple enjoyment of playing with others’ fates, or some primal sense of justice, to kill the bully. When Lester doesn’t say yes, but doesn’t say no, Lorne (who I don’t remember actually introducing himself) considers it a yes.

Lorne is everything Lester isn’t. Confident, suave, intimidating. Fight Club comes to mind; Lorne is Lester;s Tyler Durden; taking control. If there was an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you’d assume they were the same character. Thankfully, they’re not, but the point stands and Lorne has given Lester the most minimal amount of courage to snap out of his powerlessness for just a second, and that break leads to the event which really sets the show in motion.

Lester knows that Lorne’s killed his local bully. He doesn’t know what to do; he’s glad and infuriated at the same time. It’s out of his power. He goes home, attempting to man up and fix the washing machine, as previously mentioned, and his wife delivers those devastating words about his manhood and the mistake of marrying him.  His wife goads him, asking him, what is he going to do, when Lester protests her comments. “Are you going to hit me?,” she says knowing that this is sad, old, pathetic Lester Nygaard, and hitting someone, anyone, is not in his playbook. But she (probably nor he) doesn’t know about the power of Lorne’s influence even in their short encounter, egging him on, telling him he can be someone in control of his life, and in this one, tragic break, Lester snaps, hits his wife  on the head with a wrench and she’s dead.

Events follow which involve Lorne killing the sheriff; think. Lester, back from his temporary moment of power and control, takes a way out that fits far more with his personality; he runs into the wall, and pretends that he was a victim right aside the sheriff and his wife.

The tone is just right. It hits that Coen tone that Fargo the movie does so well, melding screwball comedy with violent thriller.

Where the plot goes from here, I have no idea. There are a couple more twists and turns that go on that I’ve left out, and it seems like notable actors and actresses appear every couple of minutes (Kate Walsh, Keith Carradine, Colin Hanks, just to name a few in the first episode, with many more appearing in future episodes). Some shows, generally those big epic sci-fi/supernatural serial shows, try to sell viewers with a big plot hook and mystery in the pilot. Fargo sells itself on tone. The show simply reeks of quality, and I’m excited to see where the full season leads.

 

Will I watch it again? Yes. This is good, strong, interesting television, one of the best debuts this year. I’d say starting from the same territory one of the great movies of the last 20 years is cheating, but within the first episode, the show distinguished itself on its own.

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