by KARA VANDERBIJL
creator Noah Hawley
This is a true story.
So claim the opening credits of Noah Hawley’s Fargo, a television spin-off of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name. The original Fargo made a similar claim, and we wonder now, as we did then, how true what we are about to see will be. More importantly, we wonder how true this 10-episode miniseries will be to its predecessor, and we (rightly) begin to fear the worst.
It is tempting for any artist to mimic a master. You get the heady sense of power that’s inherent to any artistic endeavor, without doing any of the hard work. Essentially, it’s creative suicide. Or creative murder, if you take into consideration how your interpretation of a beloved work will reflect on the original. All too often, a remake turns a good story into something that looks like it’s been through the wood chipper.
Not so with Hawley’s show — it is more like the original story simply went in another direction, as if it turned onto a different dark, snowy road in the middle of the night and ended up in one of many other sleepy Minnesotan towns.
There’s a certain delicate science to this imitation, in which everything feels a little bit like déjà vu. To achieve it, Hawley got the Coen brothers to produce the series, then spends the pilot episode giving a slow wink to everything beloved about the movie. Fargo opens where the film hit one of its first, and finest, climaxes: with a car accident. One man escapes the wreck and begins running frantically across a frozen field. In the Coens’ world, this man gets shot in the back. In Hawley’s, he disappears into a fringe of forest, while his kidnapper, who was driving the car, watches him. From here, the show and film’s narratives split, mirror, and foil one another like Schrodinger’s cat.
So innstead of Jerry Lundegaard, the mediocre car salesman who really wants a piece of his father-in-law’s fortune, we meet a henpecked insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard, who is played by Martin Freeman of Sherlock and Hobbit fame. Lester is as blond and stammery as his forebear, except he doesn't plan to cause trouble; he sort of falls into it by ending up in the emergency room next to a psychopathic killer, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Malvo offers to pick off the bully who landed Lester in the hospital, and when Lester doesn’t explicitly disagree, pandemonium strikes Bemidji, Minnesota.
Like other Coen villains — think Anton Chigurh — Malvo is a soft-spoken devil, a hired gun who seems to do plenty of pro bono work since he enjoys watching people destroy one another almost as much as he enjoys destroying them himself. Thornton thrives in this role with a weird priestly haircut, a fur collar on his coat and an only slightly suppressed Arkansan accent. Like every other Coen character, he isn’t spared moments of humor, however dark.
Besides Lorne and Lester, there is a comedic pair of miscreants, “Mr. Numbers” and “Mr. Wrench” (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard). There’s a heavily pregnant woman. There’s a man who likes ducks and ice fishing. There are bland, hotdish-loving townspeople who exhibit surprisingly morbid penchants, disquieting hobbies, and scandalous secret lives. There is a group of well-worn cops, including a plucky deputy, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) who, like Marge before her, is the story’s bulwark of sanity and decency.
Molly is like Marge in the same way that Hawley’s Fargo is like the Coens’ Fargo: the way a stranger can resemble a friend from afar. Unlike Marge, whose position as chief of police sets her apart from the very beginning, before we even see her prowess as a detective, Molly must prove her mettle — not only to the show’s motley crew of mostly oblivious males, but also to the audience, who will look at her and miss Frances McDormand. Molly is brilliant; she's a diamond in the rough, sweet and sharp and persistent as hell, but she can’t hold a candle to Marge. She tries her hardest, though, and we can’t help but root for her, mainly because it becomes very apparent as the show progresses that she holds her own, and that there’s really no need to compare the two. Minnesota is, after all, where all the women are strong.
Where this Fargo really surpasses the original is in exposing the dark underbelly of the legendary “Minnesota nice.” The Coen brothers hinted at it — often cheekily — but always deferred to a dichotomized world in which the bad guys engaged in bad things, and the good guys talked about the weather or dipped a spoon into Jell-O salad. But Hawley throws shadows even on the good folk; Duluth cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) is a devoted father, but he can be a bit of a pushover… also, he wants to bang his married neighbor. Lester Nygaard’s brother is a successful salesman and family man… and owns illegal firearms.
In other words, nobody could have been more wrong than Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times, who claimed that “Fargo finds humor in the stunning ordinariness of Midwestern small towns, where people are uniformly even-tempered and mild, bringing Jell-O salads to potlucks and saying ‘aw jeez’ and ‘heck’ when bad things happen.” Instead, it finds humor where humor has lived all along: in the disconnect between what appears to be true in the living room and what is being hidden in the basement — a body, or a stolen car, or a psychopath. What we’ve grown to recognize as Minnesota nice is just the same as every other culture in this country and the world: an attempt to handle what can’t be controlled, like chaos, death, and unhappiness.
It’s possible that we need to tell ourselves the same stories over and over in order to deal with chaos. Didn’t we spend our childhood asking our parents to read us the same bedtime stories, so that for at least a few minutes after the light had been turned off and they had left the room, we’d forget about the monsters lying in wait under our beds? It’d be easier if we could just kill them, of course, but you can’t put chaos to sleep with more chaos. You have to tell it a better, truer story.
"Bullet in the Brain" - The Black Keys (mp3)
"Waiting on Words" - The Black Keys (mp3)