In 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen released Fargo, an instant cult-classic that offered a glimpse into an oft-ignored Hollywood locale—northern United States. The Coen brothers’ film centers around a bumbling pushover who hires two amateur thugs to kidnap his wife so her father will pay a heavy ransom. Needless to say, things go awry, and by the end, the lush white snow of Fargo is left dripping red. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. Like so many other Coen brothers’ films, it straddles the line between dark comedy and thriller. So when FX announced a new 10-episode mini-series titled Fargo, I was unsure if it would do the film justice or be a cheap rip-off.
Last night, Fargo aired its season (and possibly series) finale, and now that it’s concluded, I can safely say justice has been done. FX’s Fargo operates in the same world created by the film, and there are quite a few Easter eggs alluding to past Coen brothers’ movies—most noticeably a bar sign showing a White Russian special (The Dude abides!). But more than mere Easter eggs, the series also continues the one open-ended storyline from the film (To keep myself from spoiling the film, I’ll allude to it with this picture.)
For me, Fargo has been must-see TV each week, easily holding its own with Sunday night stalwarts Mad Men and Game of Thrones. But in case you need further motivation to watch, here are nine reasons why you should embrace the age-of-binge and take a trip to Fargo.
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard
Famous for his lovably-sarcastic portrayal of Dr. John Watson in BBC’s Sherlock and as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit films, Martin Freeman’s career is on the rise, and he continued his upward trend with Fargo. Freeman’s character, Lester Nygaard is a timid, uninspiring failure of an insurance salesman with a wife who emasculates him at every opportunity. Lester eventually snaps and the trajectory of his life is greatly altered. Freeman does a masterful job of making us feel bad for him while at the same time hating him for his slimy, courageless behavior. And while he may be pathetic, he’s not stupid. Although in over his head most of the time, Lester’s improvisations are well thought out and creative.
Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo
I’ll put it this way: Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Lorne Malvo, is such an embodiment of evil that there were serious theories floating around the internet that labeled him as the reincarnation of the devil. That’s how frightening he was. Sporting what looks to be a self-administered bowl cut, Malvo doesn’t necessarily embody the usual villain. But his cold, matter-of-fact speak coupled with his ever-rising body count makes Malvo into a man who we want to see die. But not too quickly, as Thornton's on-screen presence is so captivating that we yearn to see more. Malvo’s thirst for mayhem seems unquenchable, whether it’s suddenly mentioning a foot he found in a toaster, telling little children about a gruesome murder, or dropping his pants and using the bathroom in the middle of an argument. You’ll hate Lorne Malvo. But you’ll also be curious to see what he does next. And you might also find yourself saying “Aces” a lot more—it’s okay, I did too.
Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson and Colin Hanks as Gus Grimly
In complete homage to Frances McDormand's character from the Coen brothers’ film, Allison Tolman plays Molly Solverson, a small-town cop with more skill than the rest of the police department combined. Gus Grimly, played by Colin Hanks, is one of those other cops. He’s not in love with his job—he’d much rather be a mailman, but they weren’t hiring. Despite being two completely different types of cops, Gus and Molly become romantically involved. Gus, whose run in with Lorne Malvo early in the season proved his cowardice, is content giving parking tickets and helping old ladies. But Molly is out to catch killers (as evidenced by her Cary Matthison-like web of suspects), and unlike every single other person in Fargo, she’s convinced there’s more to Lester Nygaard than the feeble man he projects. Molly is our protagonist; in that, there’s not a doubt, and for ten episodes we get to sit back and watch a well-orchestrated game of cat and mouse play out.
It Hooks You In From Episode 1
I’m actually jealous of you, you Fargo binge-watcher. Because when the credits role after Episode 1, and after you pick up your jaw from the floor, you’ll be able to simply move straight onto Episode 2 and not have to wait a week like I did. The show introduces us to many characters right away—some of whom will not make it to Episode 2—and gets right into the action before you can say “You betcha” in your best Lester Nygaard impression.
The Supporting Characters
I’ve outlined the main characters of the show above, but like any good series, you need good support in order to succeed, and there are quite a few faces you’ll recognize. Bob Odenkirk, who you probably know as Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad, plays the overly-optimistic and gullible Police Chief Bill Oswalt who's more interested in “a stack of pancakes and a V8” than he is in “think[ing] big thoughts about the nature of things.” Glenn Howerton, known for his role as Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, plays Don Chumph, and from his character's last name, I’m sure you can figure out how quickly he’ll misplace his trust. Keith Carradine, who you might recognize from his role as Special Agent Frank Lundy in Dexter, plays ex-cop and diner owner Lou Solverson—Molly’s dad. Other supporting cast members pop in and out, giving the show a flushed-out feel: Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) and Stephen Root (Justified, Boardwalk Empire, TURN) to name a few.
Key and Peele: Philosophy 101
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are well-known for their sketch comedy show Key and Peele. With natural comfort and chemistry, the two actors show up in Fargo halfway through as a FBI Agents Pepper (Key) and Budge (Peele) caught in a string of bad luck. After being duped by Lorne Malvo in a scene you’re sure to remember, Pepper and Budge are relegated to the evidence room to waste away. With nothing but time to think and a tennis ball to bounce, Key lets his eclectic thoughts run straight to his mouth. There’s a scene in the file room where Agent Pepper asks Budge if one file were to be removed from the room, would it still be a file room? Budge grudgingly plays along and agrees that it would. But what about two files removed, asks Pepper? Budge still agrees. Pepper argues that file room would continue being a file room regardless of how many files were removed. This scene stands out to me for its depth, as not only does this literally explain the Greek philosopher Eubulides’ Paradox of the Heap, but also explains the ambiguities of gradual change. My hat goes off to the show’s writer, Noah Hawley, for seamlessly working in such symbolic content and relying on its two comedic actors to deliver it.
Despite its name, most of Fargo takes place in Bemidji, a small Minnesota town (Fargo is visited at some points too.). Although the show didn’t actually shoot in Minnesota or North Dakota, it did film in Alberta, Canada, giving Fargo a true wintery feeling. The roads are icy and the snow is heavy. There’s one scene where Molly is chasing three suspects through a blizzard and the visibility is practically at zero. In what would be an intense scene regardless, the tension is naturally heightened because of the weather. With so many television shows choosing to focus on sprawling cities or warm locales, the freezing and bitter tundra of Fargo separates it from the rest of the pack.
This is not a show for the squeamish. There’s enough blood, death, and violence to keep Game of Thrones honest. But unlike cheap horror flicks where heavy hands force cheap thrills, Fargo succeeds in making it all seem necessary. Sure, most of the death in Fargo is at the hands of Lorne Malvo, but between Lester’s gun-obsessed brother (Joshua Close), a pair of angry teenage twins, a blood-soaked shower, a festering wound, a bear trap, and stapler sneak-attack, Fargo is guaranteed to keep you seeing red.
Fargo is practically built for binge watching. There’s only one season, and it’s ten episodes. There’s no obnoxious cliffhanger, no unsettled ending. The story wraps itself up and says its goodbyes. There’s a chance some of the surviving characters will return for a second season, but like True Detective, it’ll be with a new cast and storyline. But they better not change the location!
Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element who graduated from Marist College. He spends his time obsessing equally over the Game of Thrones series and the New York Giants, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.