June 18, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale: “Fargo”


FARGO was great television of a kind we’ve never really seen before.  Neither a prequel nor a sequel nor a remake, not even a true spin-off, this was more like a reincarnation of the Coen Brothers’ classic movie, as though the writer Noah Hawley had allowed himself to be inhabited by the filmmakers’ idiosyncratic spirits.  The TV Fargo was a homage to the Coens (not just through Fargo itself, but with nods to Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man and more of their works), but not an imitation or an in-joke, or an academic exercise like Gus Van Sant’s restaging of Hitchcock’s Psycho.  It was respectful and admiring and also unafraid to go its own way, all at once.

The final episode, directed by Matt Shakman (he also directed last week’s) was a tour de force of measured, unadorned suspense.  (The title of the episode was “Morgan’s Fork,” probably a tip of the hat to Miller’s Crossing.)  Unlike earlier episodes that featured spectacular setpieces of violence, like the shootout in the white-out blizzard in episode 6, and the Fargo massacre, shot entirely from the exterior of the building where it was taking place, in episode 7, the finale played with our knowledge that the time had come for final reckoning, and for most of the episode, it made us wait for the bloodshed that was surely on its way.  Jeff Russo’s score, one of the show’s strengths from the start, provided low-key accompaniment (blending, at the very end, into Carter Burwell’s majestic, mournful theme from the original Fargo movie) as the net tightened steadily around Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), while the forces of good, in the persons of Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and her husband Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) and father Lou (Keith Carradine), acted to protect their own–and to restore moral balance to their world.

Throughout Fargo, Hawley’s sense of narrative structure has been a powerful source of the drama’s impact.  Lester had his nose broken in the first episode, which is what put him in Malvo’s orbit to begin with; it was broken again tonight, as part of his final confrontation with the killer.  (The use of a bear trap to catch the animal was a particularly sweet touch.)  Gus, who had never forgiven himself for letting Malvo go at the beginning of the story, was the one who put him down in the end.  (Thornton’s ghastly, bloody smile when it seemed for a moment that he might actually be unkillable was inspired.)  Bulletproof story construction is a hallmark of the Coens, of course, but Hawley has also absorbed their love for defying genre expectations.  Molly, as the heroine of the piece, would have been the logical one to have the final confrontation with Malvo, but it was more important for Gus’s character to have that moment–they had, however briefly and horribly, a personal connection–and more satisfying this way.

Nothing in Hawley’s previous credits (some episodes of Bones, the busted series My Generation and The Unusuals) could prepare one for the work he turned in here.  His dialogue was a beautiful mix of the stylized and natural, with a particular flair for anecdote and fable that was again indebted to the Coens but original as well.  In tonight’s finale, there was a particularly effective bit where FBI agent Budge (Keegan-Michael Key) ruminated to his partner Pepper (Jordan Peele) that the events occurring might be a dream–it started as a running gag, then turned existential when Budge concluded “This is a dream,” just before Malvo shot him in the throat.  Hawley’s concept of the year-long time shift within the story was another brilliant touch, both retooling the characters and allowing for a second act complementary to the first (and cleverly permitting Molly to be pregnant after deliberately avoiding that Fargo movie trope at the start).  The only way in which the series didn’t emulate the Coens as much as it might have was in their pared-down, hair-trigger pacing.  The 10 hours given to the TV Fargo (and these were full hours, since FX allowed them to routinely run 75 minutes including commercials) provided, perhaps, more time than was really needed for the antics of some of the secondary characters, and the subplot devoted to the extortion of Stavros Milos and its biblical implications (although Oliver Platt was marvelous as Milos, and his story was the only place where the show deliberately intersected with a loose end from the movie Fargo).  There was also unnecessary emphasis on dumb police work by Molly’s and Gus’s superiors (and initially, by Budge and Pepper) to keep the crimes unsolved for as long as possible.

The show’s casting was stunning.  Tolman, a virtual unknown before this, proved herself a genuine star, believably tough and smart and also morally decent, in a way that echoed Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance in the movie without repeating it.  Thornton made the most of the best part he’s had in years, simultaneously amused and utterly ruthless.  Freeman was another revelation, like Tolman able to walk in William H. Macy’s movie footprints while creating a character, pathetic and ultimately heinous (the scene where he sends his wife to her death, pulling up her hood so Malvo would think she was him!) all his own.  Hanks brought complexity to what could have been just a nice-guy role.  The casting of Key and Peele as FBI agents might have played as a joke, but they were both terrific, and while Bob Odenkirk, as Molly’s mostly clueless boss, had one of the more problematic roles, he made the sheriff a basically decent guy instead of a mere dolt, and that paid off in the last 2 episodes, where he did the right thing and acknowledged that Molly had been right all along.  In the large supporting cast, Keith Carradine deserves special note; his scene with Thornton, when Malvo visited the diner he owned looking for Lester, was one of the highlights of the entire series.

Fargo was as well produced as any show on the air, and cinematographers Dana Gonzales and Matthew J. Lloyd, along with production designers Warren Allen Young and John Blackie, gave the show a feature-film look.  All the directors (Adam Bernstein, Randall Einhorn, Colin Bucksey, and Scott Winant, as well as Shakman) provided a feel that honored the Coens without trying to show off.

While not a breakout hit in the ratings, Fargo has done well for FX, especially considering that the movie Fargo was never a blockbuster hit in its own right, and the series has more than earned its keep with critical praise and likely award nominations.  The series was designed as a one-time event, but like American Horror Story and True Detective, a successful event need not occur only once.  Although it would be nice to visit with some of these characters again, the more daring and exciting move would be to explore another corner of the Coens’ universe.  In any case, this experiment was a roaring, unlikely success, a transplant of one of the most distinctive artistic sensibilities in movies that kept both its brain and its heart thriving.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."