There Be Dragons in Minnesota: A Late Review of the Series “Fargo”

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The season finale of Fargo aired last night, and what better time to review it than when it’s off network television? Of course, you may find it on Hulu, on Amazon Prime, or any of the other online venues.  And you should. For the past ten weeks, it was one of the two best shows on television with dragons.  OK, no dragons really.  No vampires…no ghost hunters and no real housewives of Bimidji, Mn. (where the show takes place). Every episode begins with the caption “This is a True Story,” which it is not. Yet despite all these outward trappings of reality it remained strikingly imaginative and clever. The series featured a female lead, a deputy who was politely smarter than all the guys in the room, and, surprisingly, it became to an extent a show about how we define “manhood.” That is, with a capital M, complete with squinting, hiking up pants and spitting.

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If anything, it suffered from the perception it was a Coen Brothers knockoff.  All that Fargo snow, all those “Ya’s.”  (Is it snowing out?  Ya. ) It was not a knockoff, but it certainly was an homage.  While borrowing the setting of the 1999 movie Fargo, it told a completely different story, and it probably owed as much  to No Country for Old Men as Fargo.  For fans of the Coens, there were many references:

*          The caption “This is a True Story” came right from its eponymous film;

*          At one point, while bullets pierce a closed door of a dark room where a man is huddled with a gun, the light streaming through the bullet-holes recalls the final confrontation in Blood Simple;

*          Bob Odenkirk (who’s gone from sketch comic to impressive actor) delivers a version of the Tommy Lee Jones tapout speech in No Country for Old Men;

*          The villain is a malevolent force of nature, also from No Country;

*          Snow, those accents, the smart female deputy who becomes pregnant in the series–right out of Fargo;

*          Finally, in one episode, there’s a direct reference to Fargo as a character uncovers a buried treasure apparently marked by a snow-scraper, left by Steve Buscemi in the movie.

The story begins with meek insurance agent Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who bumps into his old high school bully and the man’s bullyish kids on the street, gets taunted, and ultimately gets his nose broken.  At the hospital, he runs into Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a hitman in town on other homicidal business, who calls him on his timidity (“You let a man beat you in front of his children?”) and suggests Lester should have killed the man, which he then offers to do.  Lester kind of agrees, and Malvo kills the the bully.  When the bully’s business associates send their own hitmen, and several others–including Lester’s wife–end up victims, police deputy Molly Solverson starts to look for Salvo, and questions whether Lester is really, as he claims, more sinned against than sinning.

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Lester is at first a clever little weasel, but he gains confidence throughout the series and becomes a clever, more swaggering weasel.  He ultimately kills someone himself, frames another man in a distinctively selfish manner, and by the end of the series, develops a strut, with a grin on his face, a new wife and a best salesman award.  He’s not done with Malvo, however.

Another man confronting his own cowardice is Duluth police officer Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks), who stops Malvo for a routine traffic violation and ends up chilled to his bones. During the encounter, Malvo learns Gus is the parent of a young girl, and he assures Gus that if he just drives away, one day Gus will look on the face of his child and know he is there seeing her only because he didn’t make a mistake on the road one dark night.  Gus asks why he should just let Malvo go, and Malvo says, “Because there’s some roads you shouldn’t go down.  Because maps used to say ‘There be dragons here.’ Now they don’t, but that doesn’t mean the dragons aren’t there.” Gus does let him drive away, but the encounter haunts him throughout the series.

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Gus runs into Malvo again, and knowing how cold and soulless Malvo is, asks him how he can continually walk away as if he is not a monster.  Malvo asks Gus,  “Did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color?  Why is that?”  Gus has no idea, but Molly tells him as soon as she hears the riddle: early humans needed to detect subtlety in shades of green to better detect predators stalking in the grass.

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Throughout the series, Gus is haunted by his insecurities and fears, and ultimately must face Malvo again, and again must face the person Malvo has exposed him to be.

The show collects a series of talented movie actors, none of whom mail it in for the smaller screen.  Billy Bob Thornton is funny and terrifying as the hitman. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock, so many other things) as the stuttering insurance agent; Keith Carradine as the wise ex-cop and owner of a diner; and Oliver Platt as a wealthy, arrogant supermarket owner, all deliver work that ranks with their best.  The other actors more than hold their own. Colin Hanks submitted his best work yet as Gus, and the word on unknown actress Alison Tolman, who plays Molly, is that she will not be unknown much longer. Finally, Odenkirk (see above) was miles away from Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, and his Tommy Lee Jones speech is heartbreaking.

One distinction between the series and the Coen’s early work (at least) is that the show runner, Noah Hawley, has a real affection for his characters.   During some of the early work, the Coen’s seemed to be making fun of their characters a bit, most notably in “Raising Arizona.”  Here, even the bad characters get some degree of sympathy.  Freeman, whose character is shocking in his instinct for self-preservation, starts off getting picked on by a bully and getting his nose broken.  There is a real humor and camaraderie between two other hit man hired to find Malvo, particularly emphasized by their use of sign language (one of them is deaf).

And of course, there’s Malvo.  He gets the best lines, delivered with a half smile that’s anything but warm.  He points out the insecurities and inconsistencies of each character he meet with a glint in his eye…and then kills them.

Next Tuesday, this show will be missed.  To those of you who haven’t watched it, go find it.  Will you enjoy it?  Ya.  (The ya’s aren’t so bad, by the way, and you get used to the accents.)

About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)
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