In case you don’t already know, Fargo is one of my favorite movies of all time. Depending on the mood I’m in when you ask me, it may even top the list. I elaborated on my love for it in a recent review, but suffice to say that I think it’s a brilliant examination of moral and ethical boundaries; what they mean, why they exist, and why people cross them. My point is that you’d be hard pressed to find a tougher critic for a television adaptation of Fargo than me.
And for the first fifteen minutes or so, I admit that I was skeptical. Although the series (a “limited” one, which will tell a complete story over the course of ten episodes) tells a completely different story than the film, the broadest strokes are the same. There’s a weak-willed salesman (William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in the film, Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard in the show) who turns to the dark side when he enlists the aid of a criminal (Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter and Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsmud in the movie, Billy Bob Thorton’s Lorne Malvo in the show) for a crime involving his wife, and there is a savvy and sweet police officer (Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the movie, Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson in the show) trying to solve the crime. If it wasn’t literally called “Fargo,” you’d assume it was a pretty blatant rip-off.
The show doesn’t do much to dissuade you of those notions at first, which is why I was so frustrated with the beginning of this episode. It opens with a few title cards that are almost identical to the ones that open the film, explaining that this is a true story, that these events took place in Minnesota in 2006 (the film took place in 1987), and that only the names have been changed. The opening shot is of a long, empty road flanked by equally empty fields of snow, just as in the film. As the identical opening titles roll, alongside identical opening music, a car starts to come down the road towards the camera. Seems like a pretty direct adaptation up to this point.
By the time the episode ended, most of that skepticism had faded away. It’s telling a completely different story than the film did, despite those similar broad strokes, and it works best when it departs the most. Billy Bob Thorton’s Lorne Malvo is a fantastic addition to this world. Despite his ostensible function in the story, he has no counterpart in any character in the film. If Fargo was about people being pushed to commit immoral acts out of greed and desperation, Fargo is about an innate human desire to do evil as a connection to our animalistic roots. Lorne spends much of the episode wandering around Bemidji, Minnesota (that’s right, this doesn’t take place in that titular city either) giving people tiny little pushes towards their darker instincts. His motives are unclear at this point, but he seems to get pleasure out of influencing people to embrace selfishness and anger. He’s a master manipulator, especially in that he knows his limits. Lester Nygaard is an easy mark; Lorne hardly has to do anything to push him over the edge. But when he meets Deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) near the end of the episode, he goes straight into icy intimidation, knowing right away that this is a man who won’t be swayed by him.
There’s nothing supernatural about Lorne, but he might as well be credited as “Satan, Prince of Darkness.” That’s the metaphor, anyway. It’s exactly the kind of character that could have been in the movie, which is probably why he resonated with me so strongly. Jerry Lundegaard had a devil on his shoulder, too, but we couldn’t see it. Literalizing that dynamic might oversimplify the story in the long run, but Thorton and Freeman are so good here that I’m willing to go along with it for now.
Speaking of great, Allison Tolman is phenomenal as the appropriately named Molly Solverson, clearly meant to be a surrogate for Marge Gunderson. As I discussed in my review, Marge is one of my favorite cinematic characters, so Tolman had some big shoes to fill. Luckily, Molly quickly became one of my favorite characters on the show, which is one big reason why I became less and less skeptical as the episode went on. She’s pretty similar to Marge, but she’s ambitious and driven where Marge was collected and sharp. They’re ultimately different enough that I can appreciate Molly without feeling like she’s just a Marge wannabe. Tolman is new to acting, as far as I know, and I hope to see a lot more from her in the future.
A Fargo television show could have easily become a straight-up comedy that relied solely on Midwestern accents for humor. I think people remember the funny stuff from that film more than the dark and violent stuff. “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” certainly uses that accent and attitude for comedic effect, but it’s balanced nicely with the show’s darker explorations into the human condition. Not that those explorations are all that complex, but this is only a pilot, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt for now.
And hey, let’s not take away the show’s right to be comedic. The movie is really funny, and this episode has some great moments as well. Bob Odenkirk’s Bill Olson is only a recurring character, but his brief scenes offer a nice example of what I’m expecting from the show comedically going forward.
So I’m optimistic. Obviously it’s difficult to judge a pilot out of context, but Fargo sets itself up as a rebuke to the “Tortured White Male Anti-Hero” genre, with male characters who do evil things not out of necessity or love for their families, but because it makes them feel better about themselves. We’ll see how this develops going forward, but for now I’m pleasantly surprised. Fargo isn’t the best show on television, but it’s far from the derivative dreck that it could have been. That sounds like a backhanded compliment to give an adaptation, but as an enormous fan of the source material, it’s higher praise than I ever expected to give it.
Hope you enjoyed the episode and this review. If people like it, I’ll probably continue covering the show week-to-week. It’s something I regret not doing with True Detective, but I started watching the show too late anyway. In any case, see you next week!