In Praise of Fargo

When it was announced there was to be a TV version of the Coen brothers movie, Fargo, not too many people were optimistic. It’s one of their most beloved and quirkiest movies, and who could possibly replace Frances McDormand as Marge, one the best movie cops ever.

Therefore it was a huge – and pleasant – surprise that it ended up being one the best shows of the year (and was voted the number 1 by TV critics overall)

The show was NOT a remake thankfully, but shared a lot of tonal similarities with the movie. Hapless dork Lester Nygaard (the fabulous Martin Freeman) is pretty similar to William H Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in the film, but watching how conniving and selfish Lester becomes over the course of the 10 episodes was a lot of fun. Billy Bob Thornton’s bizarre wig was off putting at first, but as hitman Lorne Malvo, he was brilliantly menacing. Like The Terminator, this wasn’t someone to be trifled with.

However, the real star of the show was unknown actress Allison Tolman as dogged deputy Molly Solverson. As clever and determined as Marge Gunderson, Tolman’s Molly is a beacon of decency and intelligent level-headed  detective work while surrounded by knucklehead cops and FBI agents. The gentle romance between Molly and Colin Hanks single dad Gus was one of the sweetest relationships anywhere on TV this year.

I recently rewatched the series and it was even better binge watching it in 2 days. The fantastic cast of characters aside from the leads were a joy. I especially enjoyed Keith Carradine as Molly’s dad Frank (whose past as a cop is going to be the focus for series two). Creator Noah Hawley (whose IMDB page give little hint of the originality and strength of purpose seen here) has done a great job of unfolding the story pretty well perfectly over the 10 episodes. The pacing was deliberate, but with some amazingly memorable set pieces (the shoot out in the snow, Malvo taking out a building full of bad guys, Lester’s shocking act in the first episode, Frank vs Malvo in the diner, the elevator shootings, the reveal of Molly’s pregnancy etc)

There was criticism from some quarters that Molly, our touchstone and hero, was kind of edged out of getting her man in the finale. It was her relentless quest to find out who killed her mentor, the police chief Verne in episode 1, that drove her to piece together the whole set up with Lester, Malvo, Fargo, the assassins etc and yet when it came to the climax of the whole show, Gus wants her to be safe so she stays at the station sat by the radio instead of being pro-active.

I really didn’t mind this too much however. Gus’ timid and slightly spineless act in the first or second episode where he lets Malvo go because he is afraid of him, set him up as a man with something to prove. I loved that he was flawed in this way. Gus’ weakness is his hesitancy to risk himself when he has a teenage daughter to care for. Molly also has something to lose by the end, and her decision to take a back seat was understandable. She doesn’t have anything to prove, her boss has acknowledged she is a better cop, the useless FBI agents are bowled over by her deductive powers, Gus has quit being a cop, knowing it isn’t his passion. Molly doesn’t get to catch her man – Lester drowns trying to escape across a frozen lake, Malvo is killed by Gus – but as she says “I get to be chief.”

The show manages to capture the black humour, the Minnesota sing-song accents that always sound faintly silly, combined with brutal violence (anyone who has seen the movie will remember the wood chipper fondly. No wood chipper here, mainly shootings but a few shockingly brutal ones.) Great performances from Thornton, Freeman and Tolman and just a wonderful show.