The sum total of my knowledge of Minnesota is mainly drawn from following the Vikings whenever I have one of their players in my NFL Fantasy Football team and from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. In the 1996 classic, the brothers paint the state as a place of eternal white winter, full of homely Midwesterners, who’re extremely passive aggressive with a real dislike for confrontation; Brainerd, MN seems like a whole other world, one that plays up its Scandinavian roots with the lyrical tics, plates of comfort food, and the everymen and women just trying to get through the day. I can think of no film before or since that is similar to Fargo, without being an obvious homage. Though it has those beats and themes that are synonymous with the Coen Brothers’ work (the idea that money can corrupt anyone, that the easy way out usually ends up with the person taking it in a pit of absurdity), it is extraordinarily unique. It’s a crime film unlike any you’ve ever really seen.
And that’s where my love for it comes; sitting by far and away top of my list of the Coens’ output. Each character is so uniquely crafted that you know just what they’re about. You instantly understand how the mild-mannered, but ultimately frustrated, Jerry Lundegaard (played phenomenally by William H Macy) managed to fall into this life of crime; driven by sheer desperation. You latch on to the talented, affable, but similarly frustrated Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning role) easily; a police chief in the small backwater town that knows she can do better (as her skills and intuition throughout the film show) but keeps trucking on because life is comfortable, particularly with a baby on the way. She might also be the most likeable character the Coen Brothers have ever created, a bright star in the usual wash of darkness and malice that pervades most of their films, which is unique in and of its self. Fargo is a film of chaos taking over a small, quiet town; one mainly populated by repressed folk with a penchant for coding everything, making it frustrating to discover anything. It’s also extremely funny, utilising that black-as-tar humour the brothers do so well. It’s endlessly quotable, second in Coen-canon perhaps only to The Big Lebowski.
It’s for those reasons why, when FX announced they were creating an adaptation of the film for TV there was plenty of hesitation, and rightly so. Fargo is so unique that it seemed to even attempt to adapt it would, at best, create something that felt like a poor pastiche of what the Coen Brothers had so delicately and intricately created almost two decades ago. However, this TV adaptation, helmed by Noah Hawley (who’s probably best known for his 2009 series The Unusuals), works, and works well, in spite of itself precisely because it’s not Fargo. It’s as though Hawley is working from a rough sketch rather than a blueprint; the idea is there but it isn’t quite fully formed so Hawley & Co are going to fill in the blanks themselves. There are echoes of the original Fargo here but this is its own unique beast and that is fundamentally the reason why it works.
The pilot spends the first two-thirds of its hour-plus running time playing up to your expectations; everything is the same, but different. It opens on a snowy panorama, much like how the film begins, and an ominous yet slightly chirpy theme kicks in. But it’s not quite Brainerd, and it’s not quite Carter Burwell’s iconic theme that plays throughout the film. It even begins with the same tongue-in-cheek “this is a true story” disclaimer, only now the purported events took place in 2006, as opposed to 1987. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard is now Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman sporting a pretty dodgy Midwest accent), another milquetoast salesman stuck in a state of constant frustration and depression, only this time he’s an insurance salesman and his main source of frustration is his wife Pearl who nags at him because he’s nowhere near as successful or fun as his younger brother. Marge is now split between Vern Thurman, the calm, collected police chief with a pregnant wife at home, and his plucky, intuitive deputy Molly Solverson (relative unknown Allison Tolman).
Everything here is set up to make this show seem familiar and, as a result, it can leave you feeling a little uneasy as though this really is just Fargo but with the names changed. The characters do all seem to fall into similar patterns that their cinematic equivalents did, particularly Lester who finds himself failing at his job, failing his wife, and failing to stand up to Sam Hess, the Biff Tannen-esque man who used to bully him in school and continues to do so in their forties. Similarly, after an encounter with Sam and his sons lands him in ER with a bust nose, Lester finds himself spiralling into a world of crime after meeting a malevolent hitman named Lorne Malvo who takes Lester’s complaints about Sam as signal to kill him (which he later does with a knife to the head while Hess is mid-coitus with a stripper). So far, we have a relatable protagonist unwittingly brought into this criminal world while a sharp detective is trying to figure out what’s going on. It all sounds very Fargo, until Hawley completely and utterly pulls the rug out from under your feet and you realise everything in that first 40 minutes was to merely get you settled and comfortable, before surprising you with what this Fargo actually is.
The catalyst of this rug-pulling is Billy Bob Thornton’s phenomenal turn as Malvo. The soft-spoken hitman doesn’t really have a Fargo doppelganger (although his quiet malevolence does have shades of Peter Stormare’s Gaear about it), but he feels like a villain/antihero that could quite easily exist in a Coen Brothers film, just not one that’s been created yet - a less immediately psychotic Anton Chigurh perhaps. From his introduction, Lorne acts as a Loki figure; the devil come to town. He likes to play with people and watch the chaos that can ensue for no other reason than he enjoys the result. He takes advantage of an young employee at the motel he stays at by telling him the best way to get revenge on the kid’s boss is to piss in her car’s oil tank. While the boy is doing so, Malvo rings the front desk to inform the boss of what is going on just so he can watch the boy get chased away by a very angry woman with a rifle. He also starts a fight between Hess’ two sons by phoning the elder boy pretending to be the lawyer in charge of their father’s will to tell him that he was getting nothing, and his brother was to get pretty much everything. Lorne can’t even see what occurs as a result of his phone call (namely assault with a hockey stick) but he still revels in the chaos he has caused. When he meets Lester by chance in a hospital waiting room, Lorne pushes his buttons by implying, though never outright saying anything of the sort, that Lester was less of a man because he didn’t stand up to Hess. But these mind games flick a switch inside Lester, turning him into his own character; no longer a mere mirror of Jerry. In a fit of frustration, Lester cracks his wife’s skull open with a hammer, her henpecking having finally become too much for him after a newfound sense of masculinity thanks to Lorne. It’s a point of no return for Lester and Fargo begins to feel more like Breaking Bad than it does the original film; Lester becoming an even more incompetent Walter White, without any of the criminal talent (though his run head-long into his motivational poster to knock himself out, creating some sort of alibi, is pretty clever).
The show also dispatches with Vern Thurman pretty quickly too, with the chief being something of a decoy protagonist. A visit to chase up a lead at Lester’s house, not long after Lester had murdered his wife in the basement, leads to Thurman getting cut down by Lorne’s shotgun (a pellet of which ends up embedded in Lester’s hand; surely a telling piece of evidence for later in the series?). The show quickly becomes its own thing after gingerly luring the punters in with a false sense of familiarity with the film, but it’s clear that it was all a ruse, and one that pays off spectacularly. As that brutal scene in the basement occurs, you feel the transformation of Fargo into less of a show adapted from the film, and more a show inspired by the film; the only thing being shared is the name and the rough idea. Though the majority of the pilot focuses on Lester’s transformation from Jerry to Lester, we are introduced to a variety of other characters including Colin Hanks’ Duluth Deputy Gus Grimly, Bob Odenkirk’s Mr Show-esque simpleton Bill Oswalt (another cop who works with Molly), and Kate Walsh as Sam’s widow. Each makes their own little impact but we don’t see enough of them to make a decent judgement.
The limited series looks set to introduce even more quirky, weird characters who seem to have a bit of the Twin Peaks about them while still capturing that Coen vibe; unafraid to look at the implications of actions and to stare head-on at the concept of evil. That’s what Fargo does so well, it seems. It’s the first non-Coen Brothers project that has managed to get anywhere near to their style whilst not being an overt copy, which I imagine is hard to do, particularly when the show is based on one of their films. Over the course of the 70-minute pilot, it organically moves from the recognisable to its own thing. Like the film, Fargo isn’t really about those explosive moments, preferring to focus on the mundane and every day, which is why those explosive moments really do explode and make even more of an impact. But where the film gave Jerry some form of humanity despite his crimes, Lester has already become something of a monster under the influence of Lorne and can now begin to spiral out of control, whilst Molly and the rest of the police department try to keep things together as the web grows ever wider and things become more complicated. I’m intrigued to see where they’re set to take it but the grapevine seems to suggest that it continues to further deviate from the source material and only gets better and betters as a result of this. Put all hesitations you might have to one side, because I think we’ve got us a winner, don’tcha know?