I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this show was being made. Fargo (1997) is one of the best films by the Coen Brothers, and one of their most critically successful, winning two Oscars after being nominated for seven. Thankfully the brothers are executive producers on the show, so my fears of it going in a different direction were put at ease from the outset.
Like the original film, the show starts with a disclaimer that what we are about to see really happened some years beforehand. This was a clever conceit of the film, playing with audience expectations and encouraging people to suspend disbelief (especially with the woodchipper scene). The show – set twenty years after the events of the film – starts with Billy Bob Thornton with a bowl-haircut similar to Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber, driving along a snowy road. Something is not right, as we can hear knocking coming from the rear of the car. Suddenly a deer runs into the path of the vehicle and it crashes through a fence and into the snow. A rotund half-naked man hops out of the boot of the car and runs off into the woods. Thornton has hit his head on the dash, but instead of chasing the man, as we might expect, he closely inspects the injured deer. This peculiar event sets the tone for the rest of this entertaining episode.
Like the film, the show seems to feature two main characters; a weak male protagonist stifled by his life, and a strong female police officer. British actor Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, and when we first see him eating with his wife he is being negatively compared to his successful younger brother. “I married the wrong brother” his wife claims, in a nasally accent reminiscent of the female characters of the film Fargo. Freeman sounds a bit like William H. Macy’s character from the film when he speaks, and is a similarly pathetic figure. Throughout this scene the dialogue is accompanied by the droning sounds of a faulty washing machine. Like many moments in the films of the Coen brothers, this gives you the strong sense that something is not quite right here.
Lester sells insurance, badly, and is even bullied by a man who pushed him around at high school nearly twenty years earlier. When the bully feigns hitting Lester, he flinches so hard that he spins into a door and knocks himself cold. When we next see Lester in a hospital waiting room, he meets the enigmatic Thornton character, who has had his own head wound from the opening car crash examined. Lester explains how he received his injuries, and even admits that the stress of being bullied in high school gave him a stomach ulcer. Thornton’s interest is piqued when Lester says “heck, maybe you should just kill him for me!”
We are also introduced early on to cop Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), who is relatively inexperienced in the police force, though impresses her mentor enough for him to claim that she will one day be his successor as chief of police. Like Marge (Frances McDormand) in the film Fargo, Molly is a character who is at times a source of black humour (like when she questions the cause of death of a man with a knife sticking out of his head – “pretty self explanatory isn’t it?” asks her boss), though also serves as the serious moral heart of the show. This is especially in contrast with Lester.
Thornton stalks Lester’s high school bully and brutally murders him. Thornton acts like he is carrying out Lester’s wish – like some kind of genie. In fact the character is very Coen-like. He seems to be a hired assassin, is certainly a trickster, and possibly purely evil, like Anton Chigarh from No Country For Old Men. Though he does spare the life of the policeman played by Colin Hanks at the end of the episode – which I couldn’t image Chigarh doing. Thornton is described to police as a “real peculiar fellow. Real intense”. At a motel he argues with the clerk about their policies about keeping pets, then tells a kid to urinate in his boss’s gas tank. When the kid follows his advice, Thornton alerts the boss to the crime while it is taking place. Violence or mayhem seem to follow him wherever he goes, and Thornton seems to blend cold sincerity with a general strangeness in an engaging performance.
After hearing of the murder of the bully Lester confronts Thornton in a diner, saying that he didn’t mean for him to carry out the killing. Thornton tells Lester that he is “more of a man today than you were yesterday. It’s a red tide this life of ours…if you don’t stand up you’re just gonna get washed away.” Lester tries to adopt this philosophy when he tries to fix his wife’s broken washing machine. When he fails, his wife again berates him for being a lifelong loser. Lester seems to show the deadly influence of Thornton when he snaps and beats his wife to death with a hammer, and we quickly see a red tide of blood. Events now seem to spiral out of control for Lester, as Thornton kills the chief of police at his house and then disappears. Molly enters the scene and finds Lester lying next to his wife, after he deliberately knocked himself unconscious by running into a wall to avoid suspicion.
Just how will Lester explain all of this? This is a very impressive first episode of Fargo and I can’t wait find out what happens next.