From the opening scene right through to the closing credits Fargo emulates its film forebear with the same intriguing plot, twisted dark humour and spectacular cinematography. With the original Ethan and Joel Coen brothers as executive producers and writing credits the series was destined to have a similar tone. The series commissioned for a limited run of 10 episodes is neither prequel nor sequel to the film but a standalone series with new characters and only the Minnesota setting being the common factor. SBS1 decided to air the first and second episodes back to back and we take a look (beware spoilers lie within).
Meet Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), you could potentially call him our anti-hero, all we know about him is that he’s arrived in Bemidji, Minnesota under suspicious circumstances and is clearly up to no good. After accidentally hitting a wayward deer, crashing his car and having an almost naked man escape from his trunk and run off into the forest in freezing temperatures to die, we’re pretty sure this guy is no saint. We get an interesting juxtaposition as we see Malvo watch his human quarry run off to a certain hypothermia induced death with little regard whilst he seemingly looks upset over the slowly dying deer in the snow. It’s a long opening sequence that’s chilling and curious and sets the tone for one of our leading characters.
We then meet Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) a man so downtrodden by his wife Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar) and his brother Chaz (Josh Close) and his friends he’s practically afraid of his own shadow. Not to mention he’s pretty bad at his job and still being picked on by his former high school bully Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady). He seems troubled, anxious and it’s obvious that he lacks the social skills to cope with the constant harassment from all sides. After a chance meeting between Malvo and Nygaard, Malvo convinces Nygaard that it’s about time he stood up for himself as a man, and after an awkward but honest conversation he then decides to liberate Nygaard of one of his problems and murders Hess. It speaks volumes of his character to see that out of all the people Nygaard deals with, he is only truthful with a complete stranger. And perhaps it’s this initial sliver of truth that allows Malvo to begin his manipulative control of Nygaard.
The local police Chief Vern Thurmen (Shawn Doyle) and his deputy officer Molly Solversen (Allison Tolman) start examining the weird death of the almost-naked-man, and they then start looking into the murder of Hess as well through some tentative investigative links between the two cases. Sure enough though Malvo’s dark influence starts permeating through the locals and soon the body count and violence is escalating. As the episode draws to a close Malvo has left Bemidji and arrived in Duluth, Minnesota for his next criminal assignment when he’s pulled over by officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). In a chilling delivery, Malvo calmly threatens Grimly giving him two choices, to either let him continue on or risk facing death. So taken aback is Grimly he lets Malvo go, despite his better judgement.
As we proceed to episode 2 “The Rooster Prince” we’re introduced to Mr Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr Wrench (Russell Harvard) who have been sent to Bemidji from Fargo and the shady smuggling ring operation to look into Hess’ murder. Communicating via sign language as it appears Mr Wrench is deaf, initially we’re given a slight reprieve on the intensity levels with their almost comedic silent dialogue. But these guys aren’t clowns, they’re serious about getting answers. Resorting to heavy handed interrogation and even killing a man they initially suspected to be Malvo by dropping him into an ice fishing hole.
Over in Duluth, Minnesota, Malvo has been assigned to investigate who is threatening Milos Stavros a local supermarket king-pin. He initially goes to talk to Stavros’ wife but things don’t appear to add up, particularly since she’s more of a trophy wife. Malvo is patient, calculating and slowly starts putting the pieces together to solve the case. Whilst Grimly is having a lot of self-doubt over letting Malvo go, once the events in Bemidji reaches the attention of his precinct.
Back in Bemidji, Nygaard is struggling with post traumatic stress and Solversen is still trying to press him into getting answers even though the new police chief is trying to steer her in a different direction. The tension between the two of them becomes quite palpable as Nygaard repeatedly keeps dodging her questions, which only serves to make Solversen more paranoid and convinced of Nygaard’s involvement.
The show is beautifully shot, utilising the peaceful small town and wintry landscape to contrast sharply against the graphic violence being committed. The whiteness of the snow, against the dark red pools of blood. Blink and you could miss them props, like the poster that reads “What if you’re right and they’re all wrong?” or the “Everything happens for a reason” that are both in Nygaard’s house. There are dramatic moments that have zero dialogue but still manage to carry so much gravitas simply by staging the shot in a particular way so it holds our attention. The musical score composed by Jeff Russo (best known for being a member of the band Tonic and working on the TV series Hostages) also adds weight, with particular soundscapes tying in with particular characters as well as making music for a specific scene or shot.
Fargo has been written by Noah Hawley who’s previously had writing credits with Bones and The Unusuals, but this series is significantly darker and more morally ambiguous than the formers. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is every bit a brazen and scheming assassin could be, he’s fearless and determined but scarily charming all whilst he manipulates every person he meets. Martin Freeman is stellar as the socially awkward and the spiralling out of control Nygaard. Allison Tolman is the inquisitive Solversen who is more intelligent and morally strong than those around her give her credit for, and determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on. We’re not privy to the backstory of any of our leading characters, perhaps it’s coming in future episodes but with each episode we’re reminded that these events are true. In so far as how the events happened and their consequences are true, which leads us to believe that there’s some really messed up people in the world. The next episode is sure to bring us some more interesting twists and turns and sickeningly black humour in this evolving conspiracy.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Fargo airs on SBS 1 on Thursday at 9:30pm and is also available On Demand via the SBS website