It’s always tricky to know how to react to an announcement that tells you a favourite film or TV series is going to get a remake. Or a refresh. Or a re-imagining. Or a re-whateverthecurrentphraseistodescribeanewversionofsomething. On the one hand it’s exciting to know that you’ll soon be getting more of your favourite thing, but on the other there’s a nagging dread: Why are they doing it? Will they keep it close to the original? Will they destroy what I love? Although Fargo isn’t necessarily our favourite film of all time, we liked it enough to feel apprehensive when it was announced that a 10-part TV series was to be made. Thankfully, the first, feature-length episode of this 10-part series keeps everyone happy.
First things first. This is not a remake or even a sequel. It’s an all-new story with a cast of all-new characters, set this time in the city of Bemidji in the snow-covered state of Minnesota (Fargo being just over the border a couple of hundred miles away in North Dakota).
Those worried that this TV series would destroy the memory of the beloved original needn’t have been. The tone is so familiar, so Coen brothers (that mix of high farce and dangerous noir) that’s it’s like slipping into your favourite pair of slippers.
Providing the high farce is Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman. In the UK we’re used to Freeman’s soft British intonations, so it took a bit of time to get our heads around him being expertly exasperated in another accent. We’ve heard that some people took a long time to get used to his Scandinavian-American accent, but to us he was doing such a good job it didn’t take too long to adjust. As for the dangerous noir element? Billy Bob Thornton was the hitman called Malvo, a similar character to Chigurh in No Country For Old Men – a roving, marauding phantom who seems to exist outside of normal society, where rules don’t matter and someone or something who proceeds in an almost mechanical, unimpeded way.
We’ve seen these character paradigms before – not least in the original Fargo and other Coen brothers hits – but to us, the nub of this particular story hinged on a pivotal moment. It happened when put-upon, ready-to-snap Lester first met Malvo in the waiting room at the local hospital. It was a magnificent scene, encapsulating everything good about the show and laying down the moral conundrum right there in front of us.
First there was humour. Lester, his nose broken after his encounter with his tormentor, Hess, opened a can of fizzy pop and struggled to drink it. Every time he tried to drink it the can touched his nose and he wailed in pain. But he kept trying in that way only humans can (refusing to be beaten), but came a cropper every time. It was brilliant physical, almost silent film, humour.
Then the man sat to next to him – a languid, slivery presence – asked if he could have a sip. Lester being Lester said yes and Malvo drank it all in one go. Because he could. The hitman demonstrated there and then that he could and would do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. His disregard for rules and social parameters put him at total opposites to Lester.
After a brief conversation, where Malvo questioned why Lester’s nose was broken, Lester tried to gloss over the whole sorry business. But Malvo, never in the habit to forgive and forget, would not let it go.
“Why? Why is it not good to dwell on these things?” he whispered menacingly.
Lester didn’t have an answer.
Malvo was like the devil on his shoulder in all things – he posted the seed of an idea in Lester by asking a simple question… why? Why should you let this man get away with it? As soon as Lester entertained the question, rolled it around his brain like sucking on a lozenge, he had opened a Pandora’s box. Suddenly this question led onto more questions: How far would you go? Would you kill this man? How would you like to live in a world where you don’t take shit off your wife or your brother or whoever? How do you like the sound of a world outside of normal society where you make your own rules for a change, where you’re the boss? The devil on his shoulder was winning.
And this is the eternal moral question at the heart of many crime dramas, and specifically pure noir, and what Fargo concerns itself with: How do good people become bad? Life is about choices – desperate men and women either listen to the devil on their shoulders or, like the vast majority of us, shrug things off and stay living the way they’ve always lived, within the rules of society.
For Lester the temptation was too great, but he wasn’t prepared for the consequences of taking a step off the road. Suddenly he was plunged into a world beyond his comprehension, somewhere he had bitten off more than he could chew.
‘What If You Were Right, And They Were Wrong’, was the logo on the poster in the basement he murdered his wife in. And then Malvo’s proclamation in the diner: “Your problem is that you’ve spent your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t.” Everything was steering Lester down a road of nightmares he was not equipped to deal with.
If we had a criticism of Fargo it would be that this opening episode seems to be trying too hard to be a carbon copy of a Coen brothers film. Their mixture of farce and noir is not to everyone’s taste, their constant quirkiness seen by many as emotional emptiness and evasiveness. Occasionally, and ever so occasionally, Fargo’s quirkiness was perhaps too frequent, and ever so slightly self knowing.
We also felt this first feature-length episode was a little bit over-long, but overall we loved it. Martin Freeman’s physicality – all nervous ticks and smiles and clown-like exterior – was expertly done, the snow-bound wasteland was a fitting, dream-like environment to stage such a morality play in, and Jeff Russo’s score was serious yet playful. A bit like the show itself.
For all our Fargo coverage, go here.