Inventive storylines and fascinating performances made for a great first season, until the final episode failed to deliver.
Up until the last of the 10 episodes of Fargo on FX I was telling everyone who would listen that they had to watch this new series. There was the slow, but fascinating build up of the various storylines, the fantastic casting choices and the unexpected story elements that just kept adding to the originality and delight that this series regularly delivered. But after the finale, I began to see inherent problems in the series as well. The minor storylines that went nowhere. The promise of the major characters never paying off. The tone of the show skewing off into bizarre comedy sketches through minor storylines. It was a wild ride, but when it came to an end, its insistence on doing things Coen Brothers-style made it an odd fit for television viewers who are expecting more closure.
The major storyline — supposedly based on a true story, but that was just a ruse that was designed to give the writers an opportunity to experiment with the plot — is centered around a murder in a sleepy, snowy midwestern town. Though drawing on the tone and story of the movie it’s based on, this story takes place in another state with an entirely different cast years later. Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman with an astonishingly convincing midwestern accent, is a henpecked husband who gets pushed too far and hits his bullying wife over the head with a hammer in a fit of rage, killing her. He panics and calls professional assassin Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who he had met earlier in a random encounter at the hospital. When Lorne arrives to help Lester clean up the mess, he instead finds the local Chief of Police there asking questions and, being a cold-blooded hitman, puts a shotgun blast into the policeman’s chest.
With two dead bodies in the house and more cops on the way, Malvo disappears and Lester makes himself look like a potential third victim to claim innocence. Meanwhile, Malvo continues about his business which consists of driving the target of his latest job out of town in the trunk of his car. But he’s pulled over by a policeman named Gus, played by Colin Hanks, who senses Malvo is up to something. Malvo, having heard Gus on the phone with his daughter when he was pulled over, tells Gus to walk away if he values the life of his family. Which Gus does. Enter Molly Solverson, played by newcomer Allison Tolman, another police officer who is assigned to the case of the death of Lester’s wife and the Chief of Police. Though everyone else buys into Lester’s story, mostly because they know him personally, Molly knows it doesn’t add up and pursues the truth and Lester, relentlessly.
Over the next eight episodes we see Billy Bob Thornton imbue Malvo with equal parts convincing charm and remorseless violence. We see Lester grow more and more confident the longer he gets away with the murder of his wife (and later, his second wife). We see Molly tirelessly pursue the case despite her bosses’ direct orders to drop it and the risk to her own life. And we see a cast of minor characters and plotlines parade through that are generally played for almost absurd comedy against the bleaker main story. We even get a surprise jump forward in time by a year in the middle of an episode where we suddenly find Gus and Molly married, with the latter very, very pregnant in case you forgot what movie this was based on.
Then we get to the finale. Does Malvo come to justice? Yes. Does Lester get what’s coming to him? Yes. That must mean that Molly’s persistence and dedication to justice has paid off, right? Well, not so much. There is an inherent promise in police shows and it goes like this: the detective will stop at nothing, putting themselves in great personal and professional danger, to apprehend the criminal disrupting the community they have sworn to protect. Except in this case Molly did not apprehend Malvo. Her husband Gus, who let Malvo get away in the pilot after being threatened, randomly happened to stumble across Malvo’s remote cabin, wait for him to return injured and then shot him in cold blood when he had no way to defend himself. There were no legal or other repercussions for Gus, who wasn’t even a policeman at that point, but there was at least some kind of poetic justice in Gus ending Malvo’s violent spree after letting him get away earlier.
So at least Molly got her man, Lester: with Malvo’s death she found taped phone recordings between the killer and Lester that proved Lester killed his wife. But Lester never exactly sees justice, as the next scene shows forest rangers in Montana chasing Lester onto a frozen lake that cracks under his weight, sending him into the icy depths, never to resurface. Peace is once again restored to town, but not with the satisfaction of seeing Molly confront the criminals she so doggedly chased down was a large disappointment in the series for me. Yes, this is the style, once again, of the Coen Brothers whose movie this is based on, but, again, for television audiences, this was very frustrating.
The other big flaw in this series is how some of the minor storylines were handled. While the Molly/Lester/Malvo cat-and-mouse storyline was riveting until the last minutes of the finale when all the long building tension went unfulfilled, many of the smaller storylines often trailed off without full resolution. Did the deaf hitman Mr. Wrench take the key Malvo offered him to escape his handcuffs at the hospital? What happened to the gaslit supermarket mogul after the car accident that killed his son? Many shows get bashed for tying up storylines too neatly, but humans are geared for closure and there wasn’t too much of that going on here. And with a possible second season having an entirely new cast and setting, it’s not like the writers were holding out for a bigger payoff down the line.
And while the lighter tone of the smaller storylines were a welcome relief to the seriousness of the main plot, the Key and Peel appearance as bumbling FBI agents took the comedy angle too far. They seemed very out of place in the story with their obliviousness and juvenile attitudes. Contrast them to the two hitman earlier in the season whose married-couple-bickering-via-sign-language was a delight to watch as they mercilessly terrorized people in search of Malvo.
Now all this may sound like I hated the show, but I quite enjoyed it… until the end, that is. Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson was a revelation especially for an actress with few credits to her name before this show. Billy Bob Thornton absolutely commanded every scene he was in with his unruffled demeanor and casual violence. And Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard was fascinating to watch as he transformed from timid church mouse to self-involved, over-confident monster who didn’t give a second thought to sending his second wife to her death to save his own skin. I just wish this season had paid off a little more strongly with Molly’s character fulfilling her expected role of closing the case personally. Experimentation in storytelling is great (see American Horror Story, Lost, the first season of Twin Peaks), but no matter how you get there, the audience still wants its satisfaction in the end.
So is the Coen Brothers-style of thwarted expectations in storytelling ready for primetime television? Possibly, if it can find a middleground between their view of “real life doesn’t give neat closure” and the expectations of TV viewers for cleanly wrapped up storylines. Either way, Fargo brought a wonderful and inventive story to the small screen that was well worth the ride.