Fargo: A Movie and TV Masterpiece

Fargo is a 1996 darkly comic crime thriller by the Coen Brothers, starring William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand – for which she won her first of three Oscars. It is a brilliant film and when in 2014 it was brought back as a tv show hopes were high but also concerns that it would tarnish the original. But the show is good, better than good, it is one of the best tv shows of the last ten years.

The Seasons

The chance encounter of Lester and Lorne Malvo
The chance encounter of Lester and Lorne Malvo // Credit: Fargo, FX

Essentially none of the characters from the original film appears in the tv show although there are some connections. The seasons all take place in that broad area of America and all have a similar feel to them – crime, dark comedy and mistakes that lead to terrible consequences. One of it’s best ideas has been that each season is a different story with different characters set in different time periods. Season 1 is set in 2006 and follows sad sack insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), insane but incredibly effective wandering hitman Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), extremely competent Sheriff’s Deputy Molly Salverson (Allison Tolman)and extremely incompetent police officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). The season runs through murder, false identities, blackmail, shoot-outs and more.

Season 2 travels back in time to 1979 when a murder spree in a waffle shop, possible UFO sightings and a car accident sparks a turf war between rival crime syndicates.

Season 3 is set in 2010 and this time the main drama is around two brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor), Ray’s girlfriend Nikki Swango, sort-of police chief Gloria Burgle and V.M Varga a deeply sinister individual who uses a dodgy loan to take over Emmit Stussy’s business.

Season 4 is set in 1950 and mainly concerns two organised crime outfits in Kansas City, and as is tradition to ensure peace between such organisations each leader has one of their children raised by the other organisation, acting as a hostage. The fact that this never works, as is demonstrated in a montage of failed agreements, does nothing to curtail the tradition. Also of importance are Oraetta Mayflower a sociopathic nurse who seems to take pleasure in killing her patients and a local funeral home in debt to one of the crime families.

Chance Encounters, Mistakes & Wrong Place, Wrong Time

The decent and upstanding Lou Salverson facing down a gang of mobsters
The decent and upstanding Lou Salverson facing down a gang of mobsters // Credit: Fargo, FX

As with the movie, Fargo the tv show focuses a lot on people getting caught up in things by accident. Season 3 revolves around what was supposed to be a simple robbery but because the criminal forgets the address and goes to the wrong house it gets far worse. Season 2 hinges on a beautician hitting a mobster with her car and the confusion when her butcher husband is thought to be a hitman who uses the name “The Butcher”. In season 1 people cross paths again and again, with these chance encounters proving hugely important.

Odd Stories & Impossible Characters

Nikki Swango and a possibly supernatural character in a possibly supernatural bowling alley //credit: Fargo, FX

Again in keeping with the film the tv show does not focus relentlessly on the plot. There are numerous scenes and stories that do not serve to further the plot (but perhaps are connected in thematic ways) that are there to explore characters and bring the world to life. Season 3 spends a lot of time on the life of the “wrong” Stussy, who just got caught up in things because he shared the name of the target, it turns out he used to be a sci-fi writer and much time is spent examining this including a cartoon scene detailing one of his stories. Season 2 has repeated UFO sightings that occur at key moments.

A feature in the Coens work is people who perhaps are more than what they seem. Season 3 features a character very much hinted to be some manner of divine/supernatural being offering aid to the just and punishment to the wicked. Both Lorne Malvo and Vargo sometimes seem to be something more than just a bad guy, their effectiveness, odd manner and at times omniscience in what is going on and what will happen.


Oraetta Mayflower is not the nurse you want //credit: Fargo, Fx

The show has undeniably created a raft of brilliant villains. Lorne Malvo from Season 1 is one of the greatest villains in all of film and television, a hitman who also seemingly delights in causing chaos and upset wherever he goes. He is ten steps ahead of everyone and even when arrested seems to wriggle free. At one point Malvo is seen as a practising dentist and it turns out he has spent months befriending a fellow dentist to find his witness protection brother. Then there are the pair of hitmen sent by the other side Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, very effective with a somewhat dysfunctional friendship (one of these deadly hitmen laments the lack of a public library in the town).

Season 2 has a collection of criminals but perhaps the standout is Mike Milligan, a mob enforcer sent to spearhead the takeover of new territory, an extremely eloquent and articulate individual who can easily slip from charming friendliness to sinister threats.

Season 3 has V M Varga, a truly horrific villain in every way shape and form. An unpleasant and intimidating figure who bullies all those around him, claiming to be middle-management of whatever crime organisation he represents but actually much more than that. A man replete with useful stories and anecdotes to illustrate his points and happy to order brutal violence.

Season 4 is a little more complicated in that most of the characters are active criminals and it becomes a case of pointing out that some are worse than others, with Gaetano Fadda being the most brutal.

Of course, these are the obvious villains, those who orchestrate murder and crime, but every season shows those aren’t the only people you need to worry about. The show is full of the crimes of mundane people – people who murder their spouses, siblings who betray each other, ordinary people in a moment of madness do something they shouldn’t do and the unexpected duplicity of those people put their trust in.

Fargo is coming back for a fifth season and can only imagine it’s going to be another rambling odd tale of murder, revenge and coincidence.

Also Read: Making A Coen Brothers Film

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.