Being the obsessive Coen Brothers fanatic that I am, I feel safe in saying that I, perhaps more than most people, approached the TV adaptation of Fargo with no shortage of apprehension. And while the first episodes made for somewhat of a shaky start, it soon become apparent that this reinterpretation of the filmmakers’ 1996 masterpiece was in very good creative hands.
What Fargo offered was neither glorified fan faction nor a generic crime drama masquerading familiar beats under the guise of its prestigious title; rather, it managed to capture the spirit of Joel and Ethan Coen while simultaneously forging its own path. Whether it was the Walter White-ization of Martin Freeman’s Lester or the Marge Gunderson-ing of Allison Tolman’s Molly, every development managed to feel both surprising and utterly organic.
In showrunner Noah Hawley, the show found not just a phenomenal writer, but someone who knew where to offer his respects to the source material and where to strike out on his own. For Coen Bros. fans, there’s ample Easter Eggs to enjoy, including visual references to the likes of No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There (and those are just the ones I could make out). For those seeking merely a good story, however, there was that in spades.
Perhaps the most impressive feat with Noah Hawley’s Fargo, however, was how, despite the show’s ever-expanding canvas, it still managed to keep its focus on the characters and themes that mattered. That being said, it also did a great job of presenting supporting characters as something more than simply a collection of quirks. As cartoonish and broad as Fargo’s characters could get (and, boy, could they be broad), one always got the sense they were still human beings with their unique fears and desires. Last week, we saw this in the form of Linda, Lester’s poor, gullible second wife who he ended up heartlessly employing as a decoy. Prior to her unfortunate demise, the writers provided the character with a brief story about how she used to work in a seedy hotel as a child and would fantasize about a good man coming to take her away. Besides fleshing out the character, the story makes her inevitable death all the more affecting.
But that’s enough naval-gazing. Let’s get to that finale, shall we?
Picking up right where the previous episode left off, we find Lester Nygaard briefly looking over Linda’s body before promptly heading into Lou’s nearby diner to establish his cover story. When the police eventually do pick him up, Lester is prepared with his regular song-and-dance routine. One of the true joys of these ten episodes has been watching Martin Freeman slowly evolve from hapless nice guy to a sociopathic manipulator worthy of his very own cable drama. And though Lester’s lying skills are not nearly as shocking hear as they were in “Who Shaves the Barber?,” it’s still a kick.
Yet, while any decent TV watcher expected good things from the star of The Office and Sherlock, one of the biggest surprises this season has been Allison Tolman ‘s portrayal of Molly. Tolman’s standout moment in this episode comes when she tells Lester the story of a man who lost his glove while getting on a train and ended up tossing the other one out, so that anyone who found the gloves would have the pair. In lesser hands, such a monologue could come across as overly didactic. As delivered by Tolman, it acts as the ideal representation of Molly’s character and values. Furthermore, the fact that Lester cannot even comprehend what he’s being told speaks volumes about how far his morality has been compromised. To hit the point home even further, Lester later offer up an answer to the “Fox/Rabbit/Cabbage” riddle that plagued agent Budge last week. While I don’t pretend to be smart enough to understand the metaphorical implications of the riddle, it does successfully highlight the calculating person Lester has become.
After undergoing questioning, Lester is put under the protection of Budge and Pepper. Unfortunately, the two once again prove themselves to be ineffectual at surveillance and are promptly dispatched by Lorne. Hopefully, in the afterlife, they’re safe to say “bitch” to their heart’s content. Lorne then makes his way into the house, only to find out that Lester— having grown more cunning since their last encounter—has set up a bear trap to ensnare him. Because he’s The Terminator, Lorne manages to slip away, thus leaving Lester free to also escape.
A severely wounded Lorne drags himself to his hideout where he proceeds to bandage his mutilated leg. It’s here that Gus, having followed a hunch and discovered Lorne’s headquarters, emerges from the shadows with his gun drawn. This time, he does not back down and unloads his gun while the baddie is down for the count.
As much as a part of me wanted Molly to be the one pulling the trigger, Gus’ actions do make narrative sense. Ever since the pilot episode, when Gus let Lorne go against his better judgment, the guilt of the subsequent chaos has hung over him like a storm cloud. Now, Gus faces down his old foe, having grown stronger from both his past failings and the support of a new family. It’s still a bittersweet victory, however, in that sweet Gus has now become a killer. What’s more, one can very much read Lorne’s death smile as indication of one last victory.
Later, when Molly arrives on the scene, Gus offers her an incredible smoking gun: a recording of Lester’s panicked phone call to Lorne from the pilot episode.
We then flash forward to weeks later. We find Lester enjoying his freedom and riding down some Montana mountains on a snowmobile. It’s a snowmobile that we recognize from the opening shot. Thus, it all but telegraphs the man’s fate. Finding himself confronted by police, Lester takes a detour into a patch of thin ice. Here, he can only watch in horror as—in a set piece the Coens would have been proud of—the ground literally falls out from under his feet.
In approaching Fargo’s final episode, the title naturally caught my attention. It refers to a concept wherein two seemingly contradictory arguments result in equally negative outcomes (i.e. let’s say you flip a coin and a person says “heads, you die; tails, I kill you”). Certainly, Fargo has been a show all about people being forced to make tough decisions—often ones that seemed to offer no positive outcomes. While some attempt to frame such choices in a more a positive light (Molly and the gloves story), others merely go into denial until the consequences eventually catch up with them (Lester’s entire arc).
This distinction between such mindsets is important because, as much as Fargo has been about the corruptive powers of evil and evil people, it also frequently highlighted the power of positive influences; as much as Lester found himself transformed into a villain after his brief encounter with Lorne, characters like Molly, Gus, Lou and Greta ultimately found strength in one another’s presence. During Molly’s final encounter with Bill Oswalt, the police captain confesses to having become disillusioned. “I use to have positive opinions about the world, about people—used to think the best,” he begins. “Now, I’m looking over my shoulder…I never wanted to be the type to think big thoughts about the nature of things. All I ever wanted was a stack of pancakes and a V8.”
It’s tempting to read this monologue as a thesis for the whole first season—that is, it’s the story of how an idyllic place is invaded by pure evil in the form of Lorne and ultimately loses its innocence. Then again, considering the existence of the Hess family, corruption was pretty much there from the start; rather, “Morton’s Fork” is more about correcting the imbalance of light and dark. It’s telling that the final image of the season is a young family who—having gone through hell for the past year—are still able to come together as a loving unit and watch silly game shows. As much evil and darkness as we’ve seen over the past ten hours, the show ends with a visual affirming that, yes, there is indeed light at the end of that tunnel.
And that does it for Fargo’s inaugural year! I would like to extend a sincere thank you to regular reviewer Amy Amatangelo for allowing me to step into her shoes. It’s a shame you guys couldn’t get an actual professional to take you through this final installment, but I hope I sufficed!
So what did everyone else think?