This should not have worked. FX’s Fargo — a limited-run series “original adaptation” of the Coen Brothers’ seminal 1996 film, which had its season finale last night — should not have been good. Carrying over many character types, plot tropes, and thematic ideas from the movie, it should have been a lazy cash-in or a failed experiment, ala the TV adaptations of Crash and Traffic after their Oscar-winning successes. But that was not the case. Just the opposite. In stunning fashion, Fargo was one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year.
It would be a disservice to the excellent writing of Noah Hawley, a TV writer who cut his teeth on Bones of all shows, to summarize the ten weeks of expert plotting and carefully-sketched characterization. Much better to watch it than hear it from me. I’ll leave the trailer here to give you a taste.
Fargo has two qualities that are worth some praise here and now, though. Firstly, FX made clear from the onset that this story would be told in just ten episodes and none of the characters would necessarily return in subsequent seasons, and that is some sort of genius. It may have been to protect their pocketbooks, but it was also a tremendous boon to the writing. The narrative stakes were substantially heightened because we in the audience knew there was a definite end-date to the plot. A well-crafted scene with a protagonist in danger took on unnerving weight because, well, there was no guarantee that any characters will be seen again after the finale. Imagine Game of Thrones with in its final season and you are near the tension Fargo squeezed out of its bloodily gut-churning setpieces.
Secondly, I admire its gentle rebuke of the prevailing moral and gender order of today’s TV dramas. Not to knock them, but shows like Mad Men, True Detective, Breaking Bad, and the aforementioned Game of Thrones have created a TV drama landscape ruled by visions of male violence, vainglory, and dominance. None of those shows embrace those creeds, exactly, but making characters like Walter White, Rust Cohle, and Tyrion Lannister the centerpieces still creates an environment where the male gaze and prerogative are never really undercut because they still drive the narrative, even while the shows critique that paradigm.
By contrast, Fargo takes place in the Coens’ rigid moral universe. As wonderfully laid out by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve earlier this year, the Coens’ films (and this TV spin-off) are populated by men like Walt, Rust, or Tyrion, but never as protagonists. Their universe may be empty and justice may be a fleeting illusion, but decency is still an organizing and prevailing force. The wicked may succeed — and even thrive for a time — but their own selfishness renders them beyond the caring of a community, thus dooming them beyond redemption. In Fargo, that’s Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who begins as a blandly frustrated insurance salesman but who morphs into a man of unfathomable cruelty and cowardice through his own selfish and deflecting nature. By the mid-point of the series he has committed acts of desperate villainy. By the end of episode nine he had cruelly planned an innocent person’s death in an act of cowardly evil. At this point I really wanted him to die, truth be told.
Happily, the show’s true center is not Lester but Bemidji Deputy Officer Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman, a Second City Training Center alum in her first major role!). A seemingly nondescript woman in a small town, she becomes the beating heart of the show by displaying endless reserves of grit, warmth, and intelligence in her pursuit of justice — a quest that most of the men around her would rather ignore or hinder because they lack her inner fire. Like Marge Gunderson from the original film, she is that rarest of things in serious American media and art: a woman of smarts, self-assurance, and resourcefulness who suffers no qualms about her feminity or her inherent goodness.
Despite long odds, Fargo is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year. It expands a classic movie into a grander vision of the intractable collision between the selfish and selfless who characterize so much of American society. It was incredible to watch over the past ten weeks, and I cannot encourage our readers to watch it more strongly.