Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fargo: The Series - Season 1


Cody takes an episode-by-episode journey through the Fargo television series.

These episode reviews were originally published on a weekly basis at Yahoo Voices. Beware spoilers and some repetition.

Episode 1: The Crocodile's Dilemma

The news that a television show based on a popular movie is being developed is generally news that will elicit groans from the film community. The history of TV is littered with failed, poor quality attempts to recapture the magic of a big screen property on the small screen. When that property is something as beloved as the Coen brothers' 1996 darkly comedic crime thriller Fargo, which won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Actress (Frances McDormand as pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson) and was nominated for several more, a movie which has a very specific tone and memorable performances, the makers of the television show are trading the brand name recognition that will bring in curious viewers for setting themselves up to fight an uphill battle in winning over those viewers, who will be looking for ways in which the show doesn't live up to the source material.

The developers of FX's Fargo show made things a little easier for themselves by not bringing back any of the characters from the movie, and thus not putting any actors in the awkward position of trying to duplicate the performances of others. Rather, the approach taken to the Fargo series is that it will tell, over the course of a ten episode run, another crime story set in the film's location of the state of Minnesota. New characters, new story, but the same quirky Fargo world.

The series got its start on the night of Tuesday, April 15, with an episode entitled The Crocodile's Dilemma.

The episode opens with the same not-quite-honest disclaimer the film did, text on the screen informing viewers that what they're about to see is a true story, told exactly as it happened, with just the names changed at the request of the survivors. Rather than the film's 1987, the series is set in 2006.

The first character we meet is Billy Bob Thornton as the badly coiffed Lorne Malvo, listening to the radio as he drives through the snowy winter countryside. When a herd of deer bounds across the road in front of him, Lorne accidentally hits one, crashing his car off the road, smacking his head on the steering wheel. The crash jars the car's trunk open, and from within emerges a man in his underwear, who runs off into the woods. A very intriguing start...

We're then introduced to Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard, a meek insurance salesman who's not happy with his station in life. He doesn't feel like he's enough of a man. He's bad at his job, he pales in comparison to his younger brother, family members are disappointed in and embarrassed of him. He's got it so rough that, at 40 years old, he's still bullied by the same guy who picked on him in high school. The latest occurrence of that bullying lands Lester in the emergency room with a busted nose, which puts him in the hospital waiting room just in time for a chance encounter with Lorne Malvo, there to have his head wound looked at. Malvo strikes up a conversation with Lester, seeming very interested in his life.

The simple-yet-weird interaction between the two men is the catalyst for a story that includes murder (both professional and cold-blooded), frozen bodies, insurance pay-offs, and references to a gun-running crime syndicate based out of Fargo, North Dakota.

At first, I was concerned that writer Noah Hawley was going to be trying too hard to imitate the way the Coens wrote the Minnesota-based characters, but as the episode went on this Fargo took on more of its own identity. While the show still includes the style of Minnesotan speech the Coens established and sometimes uses the accent for laughs, it's not overbearing. Gradually, it becomes clear that the show is, like the movie, capable of perfectly balancing a mixture of strangeness, darkness, and laughs with exchanges that delve into the mundanity of the characters' daily lives.

Lives that are turned upside down and destroyed by Lorne Malvo.

Thornton is an unnerving delight to watch as Malvo, a hitman by trade who is taking a little break and entertaining himself by screwing with these people in his downtime. At times it's hard to tell if the character is way into karmic retribution or if he's just an impish manipulator. He expertly reads every character he comes across, then finds a way to cause trouble for them. With his bad haircut and the almost otherworldly way in which he deals with people and situations, Malvo is sort of reminiscent of a character from another Coen brothers movie, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Like Chigurh, Malvo is mingling with characters who are not equipped to comprehend him.

This premiere episode was packed with twists and turns, with situations developing further than you would expect for them to go in a first episode, with characters you figure will stick around for the duration getting removed from the equation in a shocking manner. Because of how far it goes, it hooked me. I have to see how things progress from here, what this is all building to, and I now have confidence that this show is going to be able to stand apart from the film and exist as a very interesting story in its own right.

Fargo: The Series will be airing on Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX, and I will be watching.


Episode 2: The Rooster Prince

Storylines had advanced further than expected in the first episode of the Fargo television series, some to a shocking degree, and while delving into the aftermath of those events in the second, the show also begins to further develop its own identity, one that sets it apart from the 1996 Coen brothers film that it was inspired by.

The mood is somber in the town of Bemidji, Minnesota following the three murders that were committed, all of which meek and hapless Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) was in some way responsible for. Because of the sadness and/or paranoia most of the characters are feeling, this doesn't allow for much humor to come out of small town banter or funny accents in this particular episode.

After Chief of Police and expectant father Vern Thurman was gunned down, his obvious replacement would have been his 31-year-old protégé Molly Solverson, but unfortunately the dimwitted and inept Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) had seniority and is the new Chief.

Molly really begins to take center stage as she does her best to investigate Vern's murder, despite being hampered by Bill's trusting nature and refusal to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. Molly is a smart, sympathetic, soulful character, and actress Allison Tolman is captivating in the role. The character is provided even more depth by her interactions with her former police officer father, portrayed by an engaging Keith Carradine.

The murder of trucking company owner (and Lester's lifelong bully) Sam Hess has also brought representatives of the Fargo, North Dakota-based gun-running crime syndicate he was mixed up with to Bemidji, in the forms of a deaf urban cowboy (Russell Harvard) and his sign language translator (Adam Goldberg), who doesn't really translate what he's saying. These are not the sort of guys Lester Nygaard would ever want to meet, but he almost certainly will by the end of this season.

Having been a fan of Goldberg's since his Dazed & Confused and Saving Private Ryan days, I was especially glad to see him join the cast.

After enjoying himself by destroying lives in Bemidji, Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo has returned to his paying gig as a troubleshooter/hitman and takes a job in Duluth figuring out who's trying to blackmail the "supermarket king of Minnesota", played by Oliver Platt. This additional plot line was quite unexpected, and is part of what takes the TV series further into its own, fresh territory. As impressive as Thornton is as Malvo, I'm not entirely sure about following him on a job separate from what's going on with the other characters introduced in the first episode.

I couldn't quite tell where Malvo was coming from before, but by this point it's clear that the man is just pure evil. Some viewers are even speculating that Malvo is the devil himself, but it's highly doubtful that the series is going to go in such a direction.

Meanwhile, there were also scenes focused on Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly, a police officer and single father who had a chilling run-in with Malvo at the end of the premiere episode. As Grimly discusses bullying and doing the right thing with his young daughter, the show seems to be setting him up to be the one who could bring Lorne Malvo to justice.

What all of the new additions to the Fargo story have in common with the movie and the rest of the Coen brothers filmography is a certain degree of quirk. The sign language that the men from Fargo engage in, and what Goldberg's character says his partner is concerned about ("Why isn't there a library in this town?"). Oliver Platt's Stavros Milos has a grown son who is way too amused by grade school level jokes and still finds comfort in his mother's bosom. The married mother who lives in the apartment across the way from Gus Grimly's place stands in front of windows in her underwear to catch his attention. Everyone has something that makes them slightly out of the ordinary.

Despite some reservations about the extra plots, I'm hooked on this show and will continue tuning in to see where this expansion on Fargo will be going. What I'm most interested in seeing more of is Molly's determination to get to the bottom of what happened in Bemidji.


Episode 3: A Muddy Road

In each episode of the Fargo television series so far, Billy Bob Thornton has had at least one standout moment as his troubleshooting hitman character Lorne Malvo. The first episode was full of them as he crept around Minnesota, stirring up bad situations, killing people, and delivering chilling monologues. His highlight moment in the second episode was certainly when he calmly went about his bathroom routine while a man stood in his hotel room, threatening him. His biggest moment in the third episode comes right up front in the first scene, when he strolls into an office building, grabs a worker out of his cubicle, and drags the man out to the parking garage by his necktie while stunned co-workers look on.

As it turns out, this unlucky fellow is the man who popped out of Malvo's trunk during the car accident that the first episode began with, and we're getting this glimpse into the past because police officer Molly Solverson from the sleepy town of Bemidji is on an investigative path that is taking her in the direction of Malvo.

Malvo has moved way past all that stuff as far as he's concerned. We've seen what kind of trouble he can cause while taking a break from his criminalistic line of work, but now that the show is following him on an actual job, we see that he's not straightforward in doing that either. He's meant to be helping the supermarket king of Minnesota out of a blackmail situation, and instead he's twisting and manipulating things for his own gain.

Meanwhile, Duluth police Gus Grimly, who had an unnerving encounter with Malvo at the end of the first episode, is on an investigative path that is taking him toward Bemidji and its resident Lester Nygaard, who had a chance meeting with Malvo that led to a series of murders that has shaken the small town to its core.

With all these investigations going on and representatives of a gun-running crime syndicate also trying to get to the bottom of one of the murders, Lester Nygaard is feeling the world closing in on him... But it's not all darkness and paranoia for him in this episode.

Kate Walsh of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice had briefly appeared in a previous episode as the widow of the trucking company owner who regularly bullied Lester right up until the day he was assassinated by Malvo, and given that it was Kate Walsh in the role you'd rightly expect for her to return later on in the series. In this latest episode, she was given a good scene to play opposite Martin Freeman as Lester. Her Gina Hess is a woman of comedically questionable character.

Perhaps the most talked about scene in the 1996 Coen brothers film that serves as the inspiration for this series is one in which police officer Marge Gunderson catches up with old high school pal Mike Yanagita over lunch. Some viewers are completely baffled as to what the point of the Mike Yanagita scene is, while others see it as an important turning point for Marge's thought process. A scene in this episode of the show was very reminiscent of that one, as Molly Solverson makes a stop to catch up with an old high school pal over lunch.

Molly's friend is a woman who relates horrendous personal stories while always maintaining a cheery tone, wide eyes and a big smile. It's a highly amusing scene, but I'm not sure it will have any great meaning in the long run. For now, it's just a comedic interlude that plants the horrific idea in Molly's head that it's possible for spiders to lay eggs within a person's skin... She's not sure she wants to live in a world where that sort of thing can happen.

The actress playing the high school pal does an incredible job during her scene, fitting since actors delivering great performances is de rigueur for Fargo. Aside from the show-stealing Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman in particular continues to impress and captivate in the role of Molly, bringing a depth and warmth to every single scene she's in. As she interacts with Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly in the final moments, I almost want this show to just become a love story between these two troubled cops. Tolman doesn't have many pre-Fargo credits to her name, but this show will almost certainly be a huge breakthrough for her.


Episode 4: Eating the Blame

The titles of the individual episodes of the Fargo television series are taken from old fables and paradoxes - The Crocodile's Dilemma, The Rooster Prince, etc. The fourth episode opens with a sequence that plays sort of like an old fable in itself.

Following a recap that shows what has happened on the show "erstwhile", episode four begins in the winter of 1987, as Stavros Milos drives his wife and son through the snowy Minnesota countryside. Times have been time for the young Milos family, they're moving to Minnesota to find a way out of the deep debt they're in. In the middle of freezing nowhere, their car runs out of gas. Stavros could only afford to put $5 in the tank at their last stop. With traffic passing them by, Stavros falls to the ground and pleads desperately to God, "Let us prosper in the smallest of ways and I'll be your humble servant for the rest of my days."

Then Stavros spots a red ice scraper sticking out of a snow bank beside the road.

For the most part, the Fargo TV show is only connected to the 1996 Coen brothers movie of the same name through its setting and tone. With this moment, the show becomes very directly linked to the film. For viewers who haven't seen the movie, what Stavros discovers buried in the snow beneath that ice scraper marker must be very mysterious, but for viewers who are familiar with the film, they'll remember that the carrying case Stavros finds contains just under a million dollars, buried there by Steve Buscemi's kidnapper character.

The show then jumps ahead to its primary setting of 2006, by which time Stavros has used that buried treasure, which he took as a sign of the true existence of God, to build an empire and make himself the supermarket king of Minnesota. He hasn't remained humble, I guess he prospered a little too much, and now perhaps he views the blackmail ordeal he's suffering through (a situation being manipulated by the man who's supposed to be helping him, Billy Bob Thornton's character Lorne Malvo) as punishment from God for losing his humility.

The man currently pulling Stavros's strings also has a lot to deal with himself in this episode, but he doesn't let it get to him. Even though Duluth police officer Gus Grimly arrests Lorne Malvo, attempting to make up for not doing the right thing and taking him in after their chilling encounter at the end of the first episode, Malvo continues to conduct his blackmailing business right in front of the police, although not to their knowledge. That one phone call a prisoner gets? Malvo uses it to call his accomplice and check on the status of their plans.

Although Grimly has experienced the true Malvo, the man shows an entirely different face to the other officers, transforming his demeanor to a meek, bespectacled man of God who couldn't possibly be capable of the things Grimly wants to charge him with. It's interesting that Malvo brings religion into his alibi when he is actually so coldly evil. And completely in control of every situation he finds himself in, as the shocked Grimly witnesses.

Billy Bob Thornton continues to deliver a fantastic performance as Lorne Malvo. When it's all said and done, the Fargo TV show may end up being a standout moment in his career. The character's interactions with Grimly in 'Eating the Blame' are particularly great, with a wonderful bit involving the line "You're making a mistake."

Things are really beginning to escalate in all of the plot-lines the show has going on, and we're not even at the halfway point of the self-contained season. Writer Noah Hawley continues to surprise me with how far he's willing to take things and at which points in the show he takes them there, sometimes moving things along at an unexpectedly rapid pace. The twists and turns he keeps heaping on are keeping me very intrigued to see what's coming next.


Episode 5: The Six Ungraspables

As of the episode that aired on FX on the night of Tuesday, May 13th, the Fargo television series, which is set in the snowbound Minnesotan world of the Oscar-nominated 1996 Coen brothers film, has reached the midway point of its ten episode season. It seems rather fitting, then, that the bulk of the episode focuses on characters dealing with physical and mental/emotional repercussions of moments that occurred in the first episode.

While Bemidji police officer Molly Solverson is getting very close to solving the case of the three murders that rocked her town and took the life of her mentor the Chief of Police, Lester Nygaard, the man who inadvertently started the chain of homicides (and committed the second of the three, killing his nagging wife) is getting dangerously sick from a wound he sustained during the murders.

When eerily malevolent professional criminal Lorne Malvo blasted the Chief of Police with a shotgun in Lester's living room, one of the pellets passed straight through the man's body and embedded itself in the meat of Lester's hand. This is a wound he never reported, never got treated, and now the hole in his hand is infected, festering, poisoning his system, breaking his body down to match the way his mind has been breaking down ever since that night of bloodshed.

Meanwhile, Duluth police officer Gus Grimly is still tormented by his own encounters with Malvo, so preoccupied that he can't sleep. Malvo had scared Grimly away when the cop had an opportunity to arrest him and get him charged with a serious crime at the end of the first episode, and Grimly has been working to make up for not doing the right thing ever since. When he got another chance to arrest Malvo, it was too late, the manipulative creep was able to act his way out of the situation with a manufactured alibi. Malvo is still out there, and Grimly has to find a way to bring him to justice.

Series writer Noah Hawley clearly has a fascination with parables. Each episode gets its title from a parable, the episode 'Eating the Blame' began with a flashback that was much like a "God provides" parable in itself, and in the midst of this episode we have a character, the kindly husband of the neighbor who sometimes stands in front of her apartment windows in her underwear while fully aware that Grimly can see her, actually telling a parable to Grimly, his narration accompanying soundless scenes showing the story of a rich man who goes so far as to literally give everything away in an attempt to help end suffering in the world. The moral is, only a fool believes he can solve the world's problems. "But ya gotta try, don't ya?"

Characters like Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly may not be able to solve the world's problems, but they are certainly determined to do their part, trying their best to right wrongs the best way they can, and that's why they're becoming more and more endearing as the show goes along.

Lorne Malvo, he's trying to create more problems in the world, and so far in the series he's having great success in doing so. He came to Duluth with the job of getting Stavros Milos, the supermarket king of Minnesota, out of a blackmail situation, but instead took over the blackmail operation and as of this episode has managed to get Stavros to pay up a million dollars, much more money than his original blackmailer was asking for and the same amount the kidnappers in the Fargo movie were paid... The criminals in the film did not get to spend their money, in fact $800,000 of it was found buried in the snow in 1987 by Stavros Milos, who used it to build his supermarket empire. It remains to be seen whether or not Malvo will have a better experience with his ill-gotten gains, or if he'll get what's coming to him in a different way.


Episode 6: Buridan's Ass

The sixth episode of the Fargo television series, and thus the second half of its ten episode run, begins with the image of fish swimming in an aquarium. One fish is scooped out of the water, taken to the kitchen of a restaurant, cleaned, cooked, and served to one of a group of men having dinner at a table. If I hadn't seen the fish's guts get scooped out of its belly, I'd be expecting the diner to find a human finger or some other troubling object inside it when he bit into it, that seems like something that would happen on this show. But no, the man who it was served to is the important element here, not the fish itself.

The man is the head of the gun-running crime syndicate based out of Fargo, North Dakota. And during this dinner he announces that he wants the person responsible for the murder of their Bemidji, Minnesota-based associate Sam Hess, which was committed in the first episode of the series, to be executed for their transgression.

There's no finger in the fish, but the man eating it wants a head in a bag. It's sort of a pointless scene, because we've previously seen that the syndicate representatives who are looking into Hess's murder already intended to kill his killer. This simply reiterates that the character Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton doing some of the best work of his career) has a cloud of trouble moving in on him that he's not aware of.

Malvo is busy in Duluth, blackmailing Stavros Milos, the supermarket king of Minnesota (Oliver Platt), for the amount of one million dollars. The scenes with Milos in this episode recall a line from another recent television crime series, True Detective. "Time is a flat circle."

That's because back in 1987, in the feature film Fargo that inspired this series, the kidnapper character played by Steve Buscemi was delivered a ransom of one million dollars at a parking garage. Here, Malvo has Milos take his one million dollars to a parking garage for the exchange. The Gustafson Parking Garage. Gustafson was the name of a character in the movie.

Following the exchange, Buscemi's character removed $80,000 of the money to split with his partner and buried the rest in the snow to retrieve later. He didn't survive long enough to retrieve it. Instead, Milos found that money at a desperate time in his life and used it to build his supermarket empire. Deeply religious, Milos believed the money was a gift from God. Malvo exploited his religion to convince him to give up the million, wreaking havoc on his life with versions of Biblical plagues. Because of this, Milos comes to think he's being punished by God and that rather than hand the money over to his blackmailer, God wants him to go bury it in the snow for someone else to find.

So Milos leaves the parking garage before the exchange can happen, and again has a similar experience to one Buscemi had in the film - an argument with the parking garage attendant over whether or not he should pay. History repeats itself.

Characters are converging in Duluth at the same time as a whiteout blizzard blows in. Lorne Malvo has been many steps ahead of everyone else and in control of every situation up to this point, and this episode again shows him pulling off some master manipulation with the horrific way in which he covers his blackmailing tracks, but as the end nears he gets the closest he's ever been to being out of control. He certainly never planned to have people firing automatic weapons at him.

While armed characters stumble around in the blizzard, many shots are fired, and there's an accident that would have me screaming "No!" Darth Vader style if only I didn't have the feeling that the consequences aren't as dire as it appears.

Oddly, as things are getting hectic for Malvo, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), the man in Bemidji who inadvertently caused the deaths of Sam Hess and the town's Chief of Police after meeting Malvo, and also murdered his own wife in the middle of it all, seems to be having the best streak of luck in his miserable life, thanks to the fact that he just happens to have a roommate with a bandaged face in a poorly run hospital. Lester's scenes were the weak point of this episode for me, because it all seemed way too convenient.

In the episode's final moments, the show goes even further into "Biblical event" territory, as there's a plague-like (or Magnolia-like) occurrence in Milos's presence that seems impossible for Malvo to have been behind. Things are getting strange in Minnesota, almost too strange for me, but Fargo has me caught in its net like that hapless fish.


Episode 7: Who Shaves The Barber?

As the FX series Fargo continues to trudge confidently on toward the conclusion of its ten episode run, the degree to which his experiences over the course of the previous episodes have changed Martin Freeman's character Lester Nygaard is becoming very apparent.

Once hapless and milquetoast, Lester has transformed into a man who will do anything to get ahead in life. His freedom, money, sex life, and power trump everything else... Including family. Lester's wife Pearl used to chide him for not being as much of a man as his brother Chaz was. Lester murdered Pearl with a hammer, and now he has framed Chaz for the crime.

In the process of his character framing Chaz, Freeman is given a monologue to deliver during which Lester expertly lies right to the face of Chief of Police Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk), telling him a false version of what went down on the night of the murders that occurred back in the first episode. Lester's story breaks the heart of dimwitted, too-trusting Bill, and Freeman and Odenkirk both did fantastic work in that scene.

Meanwhile, police officer Molly Solverson is thankfully recovering from being accidentally shot by beleaguered fellow cop Gus Grimly. (He promises he'll get her a new spleen.) I had a feeling that Molly couldn't possibly be dead, as she appeared to be in the previous episode, because Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks provide the show with its heart and soul, its moral center, so even though the show has occasionally shocked me on its way to this point, I didn't believe we could lose one of these two with a handful of episodes left.

As the show has gone on, it has from time to time worked in scenes reminiscent of scenes in the 1996 film Fargo, even though this series isn't a remake, it's essentially a loosely connected sequel. Regardless, Molly has a scene with a criminal in episode 7 that is very much like the scene that played out with police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) near the end of the movie. The "And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day" scene. Neither Marge nor Molly can comprehend the wrongdoers they have to deal with in the line of duty. They commit horrible crimes... "And for what?" Once again, Tolman is able to touch the hearts of viewers with her endearing, beautiful performance as Molly.

Kate Walsh shows up late in the episode to have more fun in the role of Gina Hess, the not-really-grieving widow of Lester's longtime nemesis Sam Hess, now just another person for the reborn-into-a-monster Lester to use.

Billy Bob Thornton's criminal mastermind Lorne Malvo didn't get much screen time this week, but when he was on the screen he made the most of it, appearing to sever the series' connection to the city of Fargo by way of committing a massacre that was shot in quite an innovative manner by prolific television director Scott Winant, who kept the camera outside the building for the duration of Malvo's vengeance, following his progress from window to window.

Yes, Malvo is so in control of every situation he strides into that he's even able to wipe out a building full of gun-runners as a one man army. He's always so in control that it's becoming an annoyance. I'm putting my faith in Molly Solverson and Gus Grimly that they'll be able to give this guy what he deserves, because I would be delighted to see him take a fall... I'm hoping the last three episodes of the season will deliver on that.


Episode 8: The Heap

Ever since FX's 10 episode television extension of the Coen brothers' 1996 film Fargo began, actress Allison Tolman has been hyping up the eighth episode. It would be crazy, she promised. As the weeks went on, she even mentioned that her favorite scene she got to play in the series was in episode eight. So while enjoying every episode on the way here, I've really been looking forward to episode eight... and now we've finally reached it.

And Tolman was right: It was crazy.

As the episode begins, we find Lester Nygaard happily, confidently moving on with his life after killing his wife and framing his brother for the murder. While bonding with his sister-in-law over the tragedy that has befallen them, Lester is told by her (she doesn't know he's responsible for the crime) that he deserves good things in life. From the reaction actor Martin Freeman has Lester give in that moment, it appears that's the first time the character has ever been told he deserves good things. Now that he has heard that, he truly believes it, and he goes forth with the aim of getting what he deserves.

It's starting to appear that crime does pay. Tolman's character of noble and determined Bemidji, Minnesota police officer Molly Solverson can't convince her Chief that Lester is the guilty one. Duluth, Minnesota police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) was unable to bring Billy Bob Thornton's criminal mastermind Lorne Malvo to justice. Even newly introduced FBI agents Budge and Pepper - played by sketch comedy stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele - are suffering due to the actions of the show's criminals, being demoted to working in a file room after Malvo massacred twenty-two members of a Fargo, North Dakota-based crime syndicate while the agents sat in a car outside the building the murders were being committed in.

There have been a lot of subtle references to the overall works of the Coen brothers throughout the series, not just callbacks to the Fargo movie. Sometimes Lorne Malvo has been involved in scenes that were very reminiscent of No Country for Old Men. There's another one of those types of scenes in 'The Heap', wherein Malvo gets past a police officer to have a chat with a man who tried to kill him a couple episodes back.

I avoided spoilers before watching 'The Heap', and yet I did catch multiple references to a scene with Colin Hanks, although I didn't know the context of this scene.

When Grimly stops his squad car in forest clearing by the side of a road and calls Molly, I began to get an uneasy feeling. The scene is so quiet and sweet, Grimly is in such a desolate location, there have been so many shocks in this series so far and the criminals have always been in such control, I thought for sure Grimly was going to be murdered in this scene. A gunshot and some exploding glass, he was going to be removed from the series.

At one point, Hanks looked quickly over toward the woods beside his vehicle. I thought he had spotted his killer... But no. The show continued to toy with me...

Eventually, the camera began to pan away from Grimly and his car, over the woods, and I thought for sure we were going to see Malvo trudging through the forest with a large gun in hand.

No. Grimly wasn't murdered in this scene. Instead, the show found a completely different way to shock me. I didn't expect this at all.

The second half of 'The Heap' puts several of the characters in much different situations than they were in the first half. The scene with Colin Hanks I had seen references to? It's a quiet bedroom scene, not a murder.

Molly Solverson has always been sort of like Frances McDormand's character of Marge Gunderson from the film, and by the end of episode eight she has gotten even more like the character that earned McDormand an Oscar.

Life has gotten better for a lot of the characters by the end of 'The Heap,' but there are still murderers out there, characters that need to be brought to justice, and the show's representatives of the law only have two more episodes to make that happen.


Episode 9: A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage

Within the second half of the eighth episode of FX's expansion on the concepts created by the Coen brothers for their 1996 film Fargo, the show's writer, Noah Hawley, threw viewers for a loop by abruptly jumping the story ahead one year.

Even though the not-truthful-at-all disclaimer that opens every episode still says these "true events" are meant to be taking place in 2006 at the head of the ninth episode, we should be in 2007 by now... And for the first 10 minutes or so of this episode, Hawley continues to mess with our heads.

One year after the events that took place in the first seven and a half episodes, Billy Bob Thornton's hitman character Lorne Malvo is somehow an established dentist, living in a nice house, telling "aw shucks" regular guy stories, hanging out with a fellow dentist played by Coen regular Stephen Root, dropping his own catchphrase into interactions ("Aces!"), and getting engaged to his dental assistant. My mind was boggled.

Was Malvo always a dentist on the side? Is this guy even Lorne Malvo? I was quite intrigued and confused... and then the reality of the situation started to become clear during a conversation with Root's character. And when Malvo relaxes at night by kicking back and listening to recordings he's made of panicked people whose lives he has destroyed, it was made certain that this is the same Lorne Malvo as ever, no matter what sort of facade he's putting on.

Nearly every terrible thing that has happened in this series up to this point spun out from a chance encounter Malvo had with Bemidji, Minnesota-based insurance salesman Lester Nygaard in the first episode, and when these two chance across each other again in Las Vegas, more terrible things begin happening.

While the law enforcement agents who have been unable to catch Malvo and Lester in their crimes begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the criminals themselves become embroiled in a game of cat and mouse... A deadly game that brings Malvo back to Bemidji.

Malvo's return allows for the standout scene of this particular episode, in which he stops by the diner run by local officer Molly Solverson's former state cop father Lou, played by Keith Carradine. Lou has always come off as a great, wise, kindhearted guy with a strong sense of right and wrong, he is a figure of pure goodness within this show. Meanwhile, Malvo is so deeply corrupt and evil that viewers have speculated that he could be the devil himself - eating the apple pie Lou serves to him, he even says it's the best he's had since the Garden of Eden.

Lou and Malvo have a five minute exchange of dialogue in this episode, good and evil having a chat, and it is a masterpiece of tension. The music, the cutaways to Molly driving to the diner that make us wonder if she's going to arrive there to find her father murdered, the way the characters both seem to suspect each other of something... Malvo might believe that Lou has the ability to see through him, Lou can certainly tell that Malvo is a very strange person. Malvo tries to get information out of Lou, Lou doesn't give it up, instead telling a story about a case he once worked. We expect one or the other to draw a gun at any second, and we know that if Malvo is the one who draws, he's not going to hesitate to shoot Lou and remove this representative of goodness from the world. While Thornton and Carradine were putting on a display of fantastic acting, I was on the edge of my seat.

That's indicative of how powerful of a show Fargo is, how engrossing its story and characters are, the wonderful work Hawley has done delving into this world the Coens set up, and how perfectly executed all of it is. Only one episode remains, and although I'm excited to see how everything gets wrapped up, it's also going to be bittersweet to see the show ending. I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey back through Fargo every step of the way.


Episode 10: Morton's Fork

FX's Fargo, a television expansion of the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning 1996 film, reached the end of its first season with this super-sized (90 minutes instead of the usual hour) tenth episode.

With the second wife of Bemidji, Minnesota-based insurance salesman Lester Nygaard having been murdered by professional criminal Lorne Malvo just one year after a life-changing chance encounter with Malvo inspired Lester to kill his first wife, the forces of the law were beginning to close in on the killers.

At the same time as Bemidji officer Molly and FBI agents Pepper and Budge (played by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of the sketch comedy show Key and Peele) continued to work the cases that had been baffling them for a year, Lester and Malvo also continued to play the deadly game of cat and mouse they started in the previous episode. When the series began, Lester wouldn't have stood a chance against the resourceful hitman, he would've been dead in seconds... But Lester has changed a great deal as the episodes have progressed. At this point, he might be able to give Malvo a run for his money.

Of course, ever since the first episode, the true conflicts at the center of the series were between Solverson and Lester, Duluth police officer Gus Grimly and Malvo. Solverson still has a chance to catch Lester up in his crimes, but the situations caused by the presence of Malvo in Duluth destroyed Grimly's career. Now that he's a Bemidji mailman, what chance does Grimly have to finally right the wrong decision he made at the end of episode one?

I won't go into how the series wraps up, but I will say - the core conflicts were kept in mind, and everything comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

The choice to turn Fargo into a TV show may have been questionable at first, but as developed by Noah Hawley, who also wrote every episode, the series turned out to be unexpectedly brilliant.

The characters were engaging, the cast fantastic. When a series can boast featuring some of the best work of Billy Bob Thornton's entire career, as Fargo does with his turn as Lorne Malvo, you know it's something special. Established actors like Martin Freeman, Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt, and Kate Walsh also fared quite well, as did Colin Hanks, who reached a new level of regard for me with his performance as Gus Grimly. But the true standout of the entire bunch was Allison Tolman as Solverson. In her case, this series could be a major breakthrough for her, and in years ahead we may be looking back at Fargo as the show from which a star was born.

Hawley stayed true to the Coen brothers style with his writing of the show, while using the world they created as a foundation for a story and characters that were entirely his own. The Coens may have set the stage, but the things that made the show worth watching, people like Malvo and Solverson, that was all Hawley. He did a commendable job following up a film that is so lauded and beloved, delivering something that is worthy of being paired with it. The Fargo name was not tarnished in any way here, and Hawley's storytelling was odd, shocking, and always captivating.

There has been no word on whether or not FX intends to greenlight a second season of Fargo, and if they do, whether or not there would be returning characters or if the story of season two would be as separate from season one as it was from the movie. I'm almost tempted to say they should leave it alone, but I would have said the same thing when talk of a series began, and I would have missed out on some excellent television if they had left it alone. So I'm open to the idea of getting more Fargo, and if we do, I'm hoping Hawley will continue to surprise with it.


Note: Since the writing of the episode 10 review, Fargo has been renewed for a second season that will be about Lou Solverson dealing with a mess in Sioux Falls in 1979. I will be watching.

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