Because True Detective is competing in the drama category, Noah Hawley’s Fargo has a fighting chance to nab some Emmys in the miniseries category (and like True Detective, Fargo was written entirely by one person). It’ll face stiff competition from Sherlock, a funny, self-aware show that also stars Martin Freeman, and the two shows seem like an apt odd couple to compete for the same statues.
Freely adapted from the Coen brothers’ classic, Oscar-winning 1996 film, Hawley’s series takes great joy in flirting with the Coens’ films while still venturing into uncharted territory. The main characters, initially, are Freeman’s neurotic, hen-pecked real estate loser Lester Nygaard, whose Coen brothers analogue is William H. Macy’s car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, and Bill Bob Thornton’s sinister, mysterious Lorne Malvo. Whereas Macy’s Jerry is a despicable cretin, he’s also a borderline idiot, as are so many Coen brothers characters.
Freeman’s Lester is a creep from the beginning, albeit one that feels emasculated. But as the show goes on, he makes himself feel empowered through the suffering of others (he staples a teenage boy’s neck, has violent sex with his dead enemy’s wife while glaring victoriously at her family photo, and sends his second wife to her death so he can get away). He’s irredeemable, even though we, the viewers, hold on to that last lingering hope that he will ultimately be a good guy — like we did with Tony Soprano and with Walter White.
Malvo has no analog equivalent in the Coen’s movie, but he’s also the most Coen-esque character, oddly. Toward the beginning of the series, Thornton seems to be on a different wavelength than the rest of the cast. As Hawley and his hired-gun directors are consciously uncoupling from the Coen brothers’ classic, the character gradually moving away from the ironic, cryptic whimsy that marks a Coen brothers film, Thornton smirks with the knowing, conspiratorial look of a man with a plan: a schemer. He is, after all, the guy who had a half-naked man stuffed in the trunk of his sedan, the guy who seems to get off to violence.
Well, no, that’s not really true: He doesn’t seem to enjoy the violence as much as he finds its fascinating, like an inquisitive higher being causing ripples in the pool of humanity and examining the repercussions. He’s at once alien and leaden, a hum-drum psychopath. Like Hannibal Lecter, he plays God; unlike Hannibal Lecter, who has exquisitely refined taste and lofty social standing, Malvo seems to exist solely to cause trouble.
As the series goes on, Malvo’s quirky likability dissipates, and he becomes an outright monster that makes Heisenberg look like Mr. Rogers.
Both Freeman and Thornton received nods for Best Actor at the Critic’s Choice Awards, but it’s unlikely that both will get nominated at the Emmys. Thornton will probably get the nod here, though it doesn’t matter, since Mark Ruffalo is going to win for The Normal Heart. Freeman will get the nod for Best Supporting Actor. Bob Odenkirk also deserves serious consideration. He begins the series as Bill, the bumbling deputy who inherits chiefdom, even though he seems incompetent at everything. But Odenkirk does such a good job of keeping his character empathetic that when he has his moment of undiluted humanity, his relentless search for a lost young African boy whom he’s supposed to be adopting, you can almost feel the tears swell. “I never wanted to be the guy who thinks big thoughts. … I just want a stack of pancakes.” His final monologue, about the inhumanity of the world, is devastating, and Odenkirk, known for his histrionic turn in Breaking Bad as the slick lawyer Saul Goodman, has never been better.
The real heart and soul of Fargo is Deputy Molly Solverson, deftly played by newcomer Allison Tolman. Tolman deserves the Best Actress Award as much as anyone this year, but the show’s narrative is so multilayered that it isn’t until the third episode that Molly becomes our main hero. Tolman is passionate yet restrained as a smart young woman who has to keep her emotions — sorrow, anger, depression, hope — caged up because the men in her department treat her like an insolent little girl. She’ll probably get a Supporting Actress nomination, but even that isn’t a safe bet. The actress category has two guarantees: Julia Roberts for The Normal Heart and Kathy Bates from American Horror Story: Coven. The rest is ambiguous. Tolman got a nod from the Critic’s Choice Awards, though, so that’s promising.
Hawley’s show is just as cryptic as the Coen brothers film, but it’s more misanthropic. The Coens are often described as being cynical filmmakers, but they slosh irony and self-aware humor all over their darkest movies (save for No Country for Old Men, which is the strange outlier in their oeuvre). Fargo the show seems to be outright defeatist until Hawley pulls a series of rugs out from under his viewers, revealing once-unlikable characters to be more complicated and conflicted people than we originally thought.
But in the end, the show regresses back to misanthropy. Ostensibly ending on a happy note, we see Molly and Gus’s family sitting snugly on a couch watching TV together, but the show is so deeply existentialist that even this pretty parting image has a lingering sense of dread to it. The way Molly seems passively upset by Gus killing “her guy,” getting a special medal that should have gone to her, and the look on both Molly and Gus’s faces hints that something is rotten in the town of Bemidji. Like a Richard Yates novel, Fargo insinuates that families, like material possessions and living things alike, are not meant to last.
Because Hawkey is the sole writer, he can set up twists and turns, some hard and some just slight veerings, far in advance. He has a way of planting in our heads ideas of who these characters are, what they stand for, what they want, their desires and their ideals, only to usurp them all an episode or two later, as with Odenkirk’s Bill.
This is what makes “The Heap” such a brilliant episode. It doesn’t have the stunning single-take elegance of Malvo’s 22-person massacre in “Who Shaves the Barber?” — a triumph of sound design, clever editing, and darkly funny indulgence –and it doesn’t have the apocalyptic feeling of the white-out abyss, snowstorm shootout in “Burdian’s Ass.” But it’s a subtle, keen piece of work, carefully crafted like a smooth, deftly shaped woodwork, finely sanded and glazed with an immaculate sheen. Scott Winant’s direction digs at the pessimism pooling just beneath the surface of all ostensibly close-knit, loving, caring suburban families.
That beautiful slow shot that seems to drag along the top of Molly and Gus’s bed, tracking down, as the bed sheets dissolve into a curtain, isn’t showy like the Malvo massacre scene: it has a Coppola-esque sublimity to it, saying so much by not saying anything. Fargo has, more than once, channeled Coppola. His mastery of dissolves and multiple exposures is the obvious example here, but it goes deeper than mere aesthetics. The patchwork cast of characters, the poetic monologues and enigmatic musings of mysterious men, the pervasive sense of mortality — those are all pillars of Coppola’s brilliance, back when he exclusively made great films.
Directors Scott Winant (“Who Shaves the Barber?,” “The Heap”), Matt Shakman (“A Fox, A Rabbit, and a Cabbage,” and the finale, “Morton’s Fork”), and Colin Buckley (“Burdian’s Ass”) each deserves consideration for Best Direction. The question is, of course, who will get it, and which episode will Hawley submit for best writing. “The Heap” has the daring time jump, which makes it a front runner, though pilots are the go-to for a new show; the philosophical musings of the last two episodes are also contenders.