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Fargo: A test of ordinary human decency

OpinionDan Hall

Core cast of Fargo S02
Image - FX

Since it was announced, the TV adaptation of Fargo has been subject to sky-high expectations and an overwhelming curiosity. Viewers wanted to see how the world of the film would translate to TV screens—a curiosity intensified by the fact that the Coens Brothers themselves rarely talk about their work, and never revisit it in sequels or spinoffs. The show felt almost wrong, somehow; as if demanding fans were willing a sequel into existence for a film that was never intended to have one.

We’ve now seen two seasons of the show (with the third starting last night - Ed.), and the cynical view has given way to the realisation that the show is an entertaining blend of things its filmic ancestor did so well and the unique approach of showrunner Noah Hawley and his team (if you were always optimistic about the show, congrats. Buy yourself a Coke).

Hawley managed to take elements from Fargo, and other Coen films—the dry humour, the moments of unexpected violence, even some of the surface details like song choices and camera angles—and reassemble them into something that feels like a natural extension of the Coens’ world, without just being a pastiche or homage.

These stylistic and tonal details—the shots, the music, the one-liners—are so successfully deployed that they threaten to obscure the real connective tissue that bonds the show to its inspiration; that it’s a show about nice people.

Fargo, the TV show, presents a world filled with near-unimaginable horrors, then posits that the greatest defence against them is ordinary human decency.

The antagonists of a Coen brothers’ movie can take a variety of forms, some human and some less so. There are the ordinary people driven by their own greed and recklessness, like Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) and Burn After Reading’s Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). There are the human-in-form-only villains, who seem almost supernatural in their skill, tenacity and lack of backstory, like Raising Arizona’s Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) and No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). And there are the Acts of God, the sudden and powerful intrusions into the human world of great and mysterious forces, like O Brother Where Art Thou’s climactic flood or A Serious Man’s closing tornado.

Martin Freeman is Lester Nygaard
Image - FX

The two complete seasons of Fargo we’ve seen present variations on all these types. Season 1’s Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) and the Blumquists (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst) of season 2 are short-sighted buffoons in the Jerry Lundegaard mould; Billy Bob Thornton’s Season 1 hitman Lorne Malvo recalls Chigurh; the presence of a UFO in season 2 is as unexpected and impactful as a sudden tornado.

In the face of these evils stand decent, hardworking people. Molly and Lou Solverson (Allison Tolman and Patrick Wilson, both amazing), the hearts of their respective seasons, are the kind of cops we don’t always see in TV dramas. While they’re hardworking and competent, neither are exceptionally good in a gun battle or a fistfight; Lou only vanquishes the thuggish Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson) due to the intervention of the aforementioned UFO. The Solversons are smart, but not genius-level intuitive with the accompanying TV-friendly quirks of a Sherlock, a Monk or a Rust Cohle.

The Solversons and their allies are simply good people who are good at their jobs. They solve cases and save lives through patience, skill and dedication. They retain their integrity and their basic goodness. As their reward, they get to return to their families and live peaceful lives.

In this way, the Solversons are connected—spiritually, if not through the machinations of plot or genetics—to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, the hero of Fargo (the film). 

In the world of Fargo, this is the true test of heroism.