FX's Fargo is a 10-episode limited series, but it is NOT based on the story from Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 film, nor does it use the same characters. That led a lot of people to ask why are they calling it Fargo? However, similar to NBC's Parenthood, the show aims to emulate the same style and feel as the movie it's based on, and the Coen brothers are involved in a limited way as executive producers. And as the story has progressed, there have been more than a few connections to the story of the movie.
Both the TV show and the movie have a theme of temptation, whether it's the temptation for a little bit of respect or "a little bit of money," and how it spirals out into destructive violence.
"Your problem is you lived your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t. We used to be gorillas. All we ever had was what we could take and defend. The truth is you’re more of a man today than you were yesterday." —Lorne MalvoJoel and Ethan Coen's Fargo is considered one of, if not THE best film in the Coens' rather impressive filmography, with critically acclaimed performances by William H. Macy and Frances McDormand, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. The Midwestern setting, which makes the entire region look like a frozen wasteland, and the sing-song Minnesota accents ("Oh, you betcha, yaaa") gave the film a quirky feel.
"How do ya figure?" —Lester Nygaard
"It’s a red tide, Lester. This life of ours. The shit they make us eat. Day after day—the boss, the wife— wearin’ us down. If you don’t stand up to it, show ‘em you’re still an ape deep down where it counts, you’re just gonna get washed away." —Lorne Malvo
The nuts and bolts of the story revolve around a blackmail plan that goes horribly, terribly wrong. Everyone connected to the blackmail plot is flawed by ego and greed, and their inability to realize that they're not as smart as they think they are ultimately seals their doom and causes more death and destruction. And the one person on the case is pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who doggedly pursues the leads and unravels what happened.
FX's adaption of Fargo, created and written by Noah Hawley, retains most of the themes of the film, expanding on them in some ways, while also throwing in allusions to other Coen brothers films. Both the film and the TV show share a husband character who gets in over his head (Martin Freeman's Lester Nygaard) and a female law enforcement officer who's smarter than everyone else around her (Allison Tolman's Molly Solverson). However, the TV show throws in some existential dread with Billy Bob Thornton's malevolent Lorne Malvo, who's reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh from the Coens’ No Country for Old Men.
Overall, in the first five episodes the show has been amazing at capturing the tone of the film. However, it's not quite as good at getting the balance of comedy to drama right as the Coens were. And this may come from a bias of knowing Martin Freeman from The Office and Sherlock, but too often I'm distracted by his performance. Freeman still does a good job with making Lester's corruption believable and interesting, but to me at least, his accent comes off as an imitation of William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard.
- To be a man: Similar to Breaking Bad, the story of Lester Nygaard is that of a man with inadequacies and insecurities, who has been walked on his entire life, and he makes a horrific choice based on years upon years of built-up rage. The central issue at the crux of their stories is male self-image and ego. And the same sort of inadequacies are what lead Jerry Lundegaard to set up the plot to kidnap his wife and blackmail his father-in-law in the film. However, neither Lester nor Jerry get the audience's sympathy like Walter White. It's because Walter is intelligent and wants to stand on his own two feet in becoming "Heisenberg," unlike both Jerry and Lester who are not as smart as they think they are and remain outwardly pathetic with their crimes being an affirmation of how small they really are. And once the decision was made, Lester can't escape his damnation. The music in scenes with Lester always seems to have a thumping (a la the "The Tell-Tale Heart"), and Lester's rotting hand is the one clue he can't get rid of.
- A not-true true story: The TV series follows the film in claiming the plot is based on a true story. However, both the TV show and movie are completely fictional accounts that are a mishmash of real events. For example, the wood chipper in the film is based on the murder of Helle Crafts, who was killed by her husband and body fed into a wood chipper.
THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred. —Fargo (Film)
THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred. —Fargo (TV Series)
- God is real: Both the movie and TV show exist in the same fictional universe, with the series being a sequel to the events of the film. In fact, the fourth episode reveals that part of the story is directly related to an event from the movie. A flashback shows the ransom money for Jean Lundegaard being found in the snow. The million dollars that Carl (Steve Buscemi) hid under a red ice scraper is taken by Milos Stavros, who sees it as a sign from God. Stavros created his financial empire with that million, and his guilt from that event is the basis of Malvo's blackmail.
- ASL: The killers sent to avenge Sam Hess' murder are an interesting pair. One is deaf (Russell Harvard), Mr. Wrench, and the other is his interpreter (Adam Goldberg), Mr. Numbers. They use that dynamic to their advantage when interrogating/torturing people for answers. For the people who can understand American Sign Language (ASL), there are added in-jokes that only they can understand, which make those scenes even more hillarious. For example, in this scene, here's some of the untranslated sign language between Goldberg and Harvard.
Witness: He got stabbed on the back of the head at a strip club is what happened to him.
Interpreter (signing): He was killed while with a prostitute.
Deaf man: Was he standing up at the time with the girl, or was the girl fucking him while on top?
Interpreter (signing back): What? You want to ask him specifically what position he was in with this girl?
Deaf man: Yeah! It could be important information. For all we know he could have been fucking hoes on a boat when all of a sudden a sword fish jumped out of the water and landed on the back of his head stabbing him.
- Dumb kids: All of the children in the show are dumb, disturbed or violent. Whether it's the Hess children, who are dumb bullies that didn't fall far from their father's shadow, or Lester's nephew, who stocks jars of his piss in his closet. Or Stavros' son, who's the nicest of the children presented in the series, but still not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Although, to be fair, most of the adults are no better. Most of the characters are malicious, including some of the victims like Pearl Nygaard (Kelly Holden), or ruled by greed like Don Chumph (Glenn Howerton).
- Dog eat dog: Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo is almost Faustian and reminds me a lot of Leland Gaunt from Stephen King's Needful Things. Both characters play on the weakness of others to achieve their ends, and both tempt characters into making choices that are self-destructive. The end result is chaos that spirals outward. And the characterization of Malvo is almost quasi-omnipotent (at least so far) rather than someone who outworks and out-thinks everyone else. I think the latter is what they're going for, but too often he comes off as existing as a force outside of the normal rules and fully aware of everyone's actions and reactions in almost any situation. What little has been revealed about the character is that he's apparently a contract killer with an organization that can set up convincing false identities.
“Saint Lawrence ... The Romans burned him alive. Do you know why? ... I think it was because the Romans were raised by wolves. The greatest empire in human history, founded by wolves. You know what wolves do? They hunt. They kill. That’s why I never bought into ‘The Jungle Book.’ A boy is raised by wolves, he becomes friends with a bear and a panther. I don’t think so ... What I’m saying is that the Romans, raised by wolves, they see a guy turning water into wine. What do they do? They eat him cause there are no saints in the animal kingdom. Only breakfast and dinner.” —Lorne Malvo
- What Marge Gunderson must have been like in the beginning: Allison Tolman's Molly Solverson is still green. In the very first episode, she misses clues and makes wrong assumptions when she finds Malvo's abandoned car. However, she learns from her mistakes and seems to be the only person that has any sense between the Bemidji and Duluth police departments. Molly is motivated to solve the murders and avenge her mentor and friend, Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle), and is able to piece together the clues and see the murders are more than the random work of a drifter, even as she is stymied by the new Chief (Bob Odenkirk). Just like Marge, Molly keeps asking logical questions until she gets an answer that makes sense. And just like Marge, people have a tendency to underestimate her because she's a (young) woman. The latest episode ends with Molly watching Lester in his hospital bed, sure that he is the key to unraveling what happened. The character's relationships with her father (Keith Carradine) and officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) are parallels. Following in her father's footsteps is the reason she's a cop, and that relationship is why she's the only person that sympathizes with Gus' "cowardice" when he confronted Malvo the first time. Molly was a cop's daughter, and knows what it's like to worry about a father that has to pull people over late at night.
- Trying to save a world that can't be saved: In every situation in which Malvo corrupts someone, the character is offered the choice of doing the right thing or the option that on some level they want to do. Lester wanted Sam Hess dead and officer Gus wanted to walk away from arresting Malvo rather than risk losing his life and leave his daughter without a father. But almost always, those characters are tormented by the repercussions. For example, Gus now wonders about the consequences of his decision, and whether he should have sacrificed himself to stop Malvo. To that end, the show as well as the film presents two conflicting philosophies. Malvo is nihilism personified. For him, life has no meaning beyond the strong devouring the weak. That's a direct contrast to Marge Gunderson's plaintive lecture to Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stromare) at the end of the film, when she tells Grimsrud "there’s more to life than a little money."
- Allusions: There have been allusions to most of the Coens' filmography throughout the series. In the latest episode, the parable told by the rabbi has similarities to a sequence in A Serious Man. The shot of a tormented Gus lying in his bed is similar to a scene with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in No Country for Old Men.
“Only a fool thinks he can solve the world’s problems.” —Ari Ziskind
“Yeah, but you’ve got to try, don’t you?” —Gus Grimly