Most avid television viewers can rattle off a list of their favorite shows. Many of us can take that list and narrow it down to a few classic shows that will stand the test of time to us. Then, there’s that next layer of obsessives who take things a little bit further and examine their favorite seasons of a show. What makes a single season of a series stand out? That’s exactly what we’re going to look at in this series, “Standout Seasons.” This week, Laura Stewart looks at Fargo Season 1.
Season 1 of Fargo takes place in 2006 when hired assassin Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) crashes his car outside of a small town called Bemidji, Minnesota. At the hospital, he meets Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who he influences by revealing the power he has using methods of destruction and deceit. Lester turns from an unassuming, gentle sales clerk into a murderous, selfish, manipulator. The repercussions of their chance meeting play out throughout the ten episodes, involving a string of murders in a domino effect. Officers Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) work together to solve these crimes and make connections between Lorne and Lester and the murders.
Fargo Season 1 sounds a lot like any other cops v baddies story on paper, but it’s far beyond that, and that is down to the brilliant writing by Noah Hawley. He wrote every episode himself, with the Coen Brothers (who made the original Fargo film) as executive producers. The task of directing was given to Adam Bernstein, Randall Einhorn, Colin Bucksey, Scott Winant, and Matt Shakman.
So what makes this standalone tale standout? I could easily write about Seasons 2 and 3, to be honest, but it didn’t feel right to do the others first. Fargo Season 1 is certainly not a horror story, but the Lorne Malvo character gives it a little bit of that feeling. When combined with the small-town setting where everyone knows each other and communities are tight-knit, it adds an extra dimension. It feels like a Slasher, with a monster running around killing people and never getting caught. The town feels even smaller with the winter setting in, everywhere covered in deep white snow. It is the same sense of isolation that you get in horror films like The Shining and The Thing.
“What’s the story then?” I hear you ask. Well, do you remember the perpetually bullied geeky guy from every ’80s movie? That’s Lester Nygaard. When we first meet Lester, he’s a punching bag for everyone around him: his boss, his wife, his brother, even his high school bully still picks on him. A violent encounter with said bully lands Lester in the hospital, where he meets Lorne Malvo. Things start friendly enough before quickly taking a turn for the WTF when Lester confides in Malvo about Bully Sam. If Lester gives the word, Malvo says he’ll take out Sam. Instead of saying yes or no, Lester stays silent, which Malvo interprets as a thumbs up. Without a word, a chain reaction of events begins to play out.
Upon returning home from the hospital, Lester and his wife get into a heated argument, and Lester snaps. It was Lester with a hammer in the basement. He panics and calls Malvo, and at that moment, he sold his soul to the devil, but will he pay the price?
Police Chief Thurman stops by to question Lester about his wife’s death and is about to cuff him when Malvo appears and shoots Thurman. But…Thurman ordered backup before his death. A panicked Lester knocks himself out, later claiming a home invader knocked him out and killed his wife, and Malvo sneaks away. While he’s escaping, the sweet Officer Grimly pulls over Malvo, who makes his choices very clear: he can either let Malvo go or die. Grimly takes the first option.
Bully Sam is dead, leading a pair of expert criminals to come to Bemidji: Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) who is deaf. They’re looking for revenge, which means they’re looking for Malvo. They (literally) ice the wrong man, thinking he’s their guy. The bodies are piling up already.
Things get more and more complicated for Lester now, and we are starting to learn that he will do almost anything to get away with murder. Any pity we once had for him is dwindling rapidly now that he’s made so many bad choices in the name of self-service. That includes setting up his own brother for the crime by planting the murder weapon and a pair of his wife’s knickers in his house to make it look as if the pair were having an affair. It works, and his brother is arrested—much to the frustration of Deputy Solverson who is convinced Lester is not as innocent as he appears. Lester is still a wimp though, and it doesn’t take much torture for him to give up the truth about who murdered the bully to Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers.
Solverson and Grimly, who have been flirtatiously discussing the murders, respond to gunshot reports. They arrive to find a whiteout and an abandoned car—a trap from Numbers and Wrench for Malvo. Malvo stages a trap of his own, ambushing Mr. Numbers and forcing him to reveal who hired him and Wrench. Mr. Numbers’s prize for cooperating? A slit throat.
Malvo, who now knows the name of the company that hired Numbers and Wrench to kill him, decides to visit headquarters. You would think that having FBI agents Pepper (Jordan Peele) and Budge (Keegan-Michael Key) on site would prevent a massacre, but you would be wrong. This scene is just incredible—Tarantino-esque in style and substance. The FBI officers sit in their undercover vehicle eating tacos and talking about food when Malvo blatantly walks by without them noticing. He enters the warehouse headquarters with a semi-automatic weapon under his arm, clear as day. We don’t see anything from inside the building, but we know exactly what is happening as the camera pans from blacked-out window to blacked-out window as Malvo storms through, shooting everyone in his way. We hear the screaming and shots as he slowly makes it up the levels of the building. At the top, a man is thrown through a window to the ground. Twenty-two people are dead, and the FBI didn’t notice it happening right under their noses.
Malvo’s character is menacing and unpredictable. He does things without explanation, and sometimes his actions seem to defy reason anyway. After the murders in Bemidji and the massacre in Fargo, Malvo has moved on to another job. He has spent six months in the guise of a dentist in Kansas City so he can get close to a co-worker’s brother, who has a $100,000 bounty on his head as he’s in witness protection. Lester bumps into Malvo in Las Vegas, just as Malvo is getting close to completing his assignment, and cockily, he asks Malvo to acknowledge him. Malvo tells Lester to “walk away.” Lester refuses, and Malvo asks him if he’s sure he wants to do this. When Lester says yes, Malvo inexplicably murders his fiancée, the co-worker, and his wife in an elevator, allowing the bounty to slip through his fingers. After Lester flees, Malvo decides to go after him. But why kill them all in the first place? Why not just kill Lester? And why does Malvo keep recorded conversations of people?
That’s what is great about Fargo Season 1 though. It doesn’t explain every little detail as justifying every action can become tedious. The characters and plot are fully fleshed out so the reasoning becomes apparent anyway most of the time. And when it’s not, we, the viewer, are given something to ponder over forever. Did we need to know why Malvo kept recorded conversations? Not really. It’s probably just because he’s conniving. Why did he choose to hunt, rather than kill Lester? Perhaps because this new version of Lester was far more intriguing to him. Trying to second-guess Lorne Malvo was the most exciting thing about the show. Many viewers (including myself) assumed he was The Devil, which he may or may not have alluded to in Episode 9 when he said, “I haven’t had pie this good since the Garden of Eden.” The theory was always left wide open, and its storytelling is very similar to Twin Peaks in that sense.
Indeed there are many similarities between David Lynch and Mark Frost’s creation and Fargo Season 1. Malvo’s remark about pie has got to be an allusion to Twin Peaks, and Fargo feels like the show’s spiritual successor. Cherry pie was famously the dessert of choice for Agent Cooper at the Double R Diner, but Fargo echoes Peaks in so many ways: its remote, small-town setting, its dark humour, its ensemble of quirky characters, its stark battle between good and evil.
While Malvo is just a man, he feels like much more. He mysteriously appears in Bemidji, presumably on an assignment as a hitman that we never learn more about. Malvo worms his way into Lester’s life, planting a seed of destruction in his mind. He avoids the police and hired hitmen during a snowstorm. He massacres an entire crime syndicate in Fargo with the FBI sat right outside, and he survives a broken leg from a bear trap. Right up to his final confrontation with Grimly, that nagging feeling that Malvo was pure, supernatural evil—like BOB was in Twin Peaks—remained. Even in the way Malvo smiles after being shot, he feels like a truly worthy villain because he seems unstoppable even after death, like a virus infecting those around him. The influence he had over Lester lured him to uncover his darkest self and made sure his malevolent spirit lived on. Malvo is a terrifying antagonist and not just for the characters in the show, but for the viewer, too.
Solverson is our Agent Cooper of the story. She is obsessed with bringing down Lester. She suspects from the beginning that the death of Lester’s wife and the town’s police chief doesn’t quite match up with Lester’s story. She draws the connections between Malvo and Lester, believing that Lester got caught up in this mess unintentionally. Yet for much of the story, she’s dismissed as crazy by her new boss, Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk). For Grimly, his obsession is finding Malvo. From Episode 1, when they encounter each other in Duluth and Malvo threateningly asks him to back off, Grimly knows this man is evil. And while he is rebuked for letting Malvo slip away, he ultimately has his showdown with him. Solverson, for all her excellent police work, doesn’t quite get her confrontation with Lester. She tries to get him to give Malvo up, but he walks away. You really can’t forgive him at this point.
Obsession is powerful. It is often used in TV and Film to drive a character to the brink of madness, but thankfully it’s used for good effect in Fargo Season 1. It makes Solverson a brilliant heroine, and we root for her because we know she’s right (and goddammit men, trust women’s intuition, we are almost always right). In the end, her infatuation leads to her promotion to chief of police.
Each episode title of the season is a Zen Buddhist Kōan, a paradox or kind of logic puzzle. Within each episode, that puzzle plays out in the plot. Each title is a kind of preview of what takes place. For example, there was a variation of a river crossing puzzle: “A Fox, A Rabbit, and A Cabbage” (Episode 9). The premise is this: a man must cross a river with a fox, a rabbit, and a cabbage, but he can take only one across at a time. Left alone with the cabbage, the rabbit will eat it. And if the fox is left with the rabbit, the fox will eat the rabbit. How does the man get all three across the river? One solution is to simply allow them all to eat their prey. By the end of the season, when Lester is asked this riddle, he answers easily. It’s logical to him because he’s evolved into a selfish and manipulative liar by this point. The puzzle also applies to the end of Episode 9, where Lester, sitting with his new wife across the street from his insurance office, sends her in to get passports and cash from the safe. He suspects Malvo is lying in wait for him, and he is correct. Lester (the rabbit) lets his wife (the cabbage) put on his big orange coat before crossing the street because it’s cold out. Thinking it’s Lester in the office, Malvo (the fox) appears and kills her.
Malvo asks Grimly a simple question: “Did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour?” Grimly is stumped as to why, but Solverson has the answer: humans evolved from monkeys, which once lived in the jungle and needed to detect predators hiding in all the different shades of green. In this case, Malvo is clearly the predator. Yet, by the end of the story, it’s Lester who outwits him. In Episode 1, Lester accidentally kills his wife and freaks out, then calls Malvo for help. By the last two episodes, he’s sent his new wife into a situation that he knows will lead to her death, then lures Malvo into a literal trap. Lester has become the predator.
The way the story evolves over the ten episodes is so clever. You begin rooting for Lester, but by the end you desperately want him caught. It might be disappointing, but while Lester changes for the worse, we gain Solverson and Grimly to root for. They become every part the positive protagonists that Lester could’ve been.
Every single performance was perfection in Fargo Season 1. And despite its cold, white setting, the suspense, and a massive body count, this little town in Minnesota made me eager to watch each week. Our protagonists and those around them were warm, friendly, and simple, and I can’t wait to go back to Fargo again soon.