It sounded like a very risky idea to attempt to adapt Fargo, the Coen Brothers' 1996 masterpiece, into a television series, even one that would be entirely self-contained and limited to a 10-episode run. But Noah Hawley, creator and writer of all ten episodes, pulled off the impossible. Not only was Fargo a wonderful tribute and homage to the film, but it was also its own creation, a universe filled with unique and memorable characters, dialogue and relationships- and played by some terrific actors giving tricky and credible performances, some of which are sure to be Emmy-bound in the near future.
The idea of the limited series run seems to be a new trend, with True Detective another example of a show that's going to try to pull off this one story-one season deal, coming back with an entirely new cast and mystery next year. Fargo is attempting this as well, but in this case that's almost disappointing because I'd like to see another season that involves police officer Molly Salverson (now promoted to chief) and husband Gus (Colin Hanks), even though he's now technically a mailman. The two served as our protagonists on the side of good this season, nearly helpless in the face of ultimate evil, embodied by the devilish Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and the deteriorating, weaselly Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). The show set up the main conflict in the the first episode, when the picked on and beaten down by life Lester (the stand-in for the William H. Macy character in the film) finally snaps, accidentally coming in contact with Malvo at a hospital, which sets him off on a course he cannot turn back from. He kills his nagging wife in a moment of lunacy and from that point on becomes more and more malicious and truly, truly evil, going from a pathetic man leading a boring and unsuccessful life, to an effective and even clever one as he embraces his dark and twisted side. That's where he differs from Macy of course, who was only ever bad at the crimes he attempted to accomplish, while Lester learns from his mistakes and progresses to be quite good at living the bad life, better than he ever was at the other one. He frames his brother for the murder he committed and nearly pulls everything off, that is until fate finally catches up with him in the finale. Martin Freeman gave an excellent performance in this everyman turned antagonist character, and though his was a lot more subtle than his fellow criminal Thornton, it ended up being all the more impressive for slowly turning the audience from pitying him to thrilling in his successes to finally hating and despising this man and wanting to see him pay for his misdeeds more than we ever wanted to see, for example, Walter White pay for his.
On the other hand we have Billy Bob Thornton, who very clearly stole the show as the purely evil and uncomplicated Lorne Malvo, a con man and drifter of a kind, who waltzes into town, kills whoever he wants, delivers the best lines and casually saunters off, never worrying or paying for anything. This is the kind of villain audiences easily warm to, as he's simply entertaining throughout the series and it's almost fun to watch what he's going to do next (he reminded me of a funnier version of Javier Bardem's character from No Country For Old Men actually, right down to the ridiculous haircut). His entanglement with Lester leads directly to the events of the rest of the series, but my one serious problem with him is that he's a little too infallible. Seriously, they made him practically the devil, as he even says himself in the penultimate episode. With everything Malvo gets away with on this show, it seemed nearly impossible to bring him down, and yet spoiler alert, that's exactly what happens in the end, which we'll get into in just a second.
First we've got to mention the supporting cast, which includes Alison Tolman as Molly (yes, she's the Frances McDormand stand-in), who's of course the smartest cop in town, the only one who sees what's going on, and virtually the only person who figures out exactly how Lester and Malvo are connected to the mysterious murders plaguing the town of Bemidgi, Minnesota. But she's shunned by the police force, the chief played by Bob Odenkirk, who is so willfully ignorant and belittling towards her that it's very nearly distracting, because there is no reason whatsoever for her to be the only cop in the entire town that actually tries to do her job. The entire force is corrupted by buffoonery and stupidity, which for me was a little too over the top and is the only reason that Billy Bob is able to get away with everything that he does. For example, in the episode where he poses as a fake priest in a nearby town- why does absolutely no one think to fingerprint him? I'm not a cop obviously, but is this not standard procedure when you bring somebody into the station? Frankly, the complete ignorance of the police on the show felt like it was essential simply to move the plot forward and for that it did scream of subpar writing, unfortunately.
Now, we have to get into the finale, where in plot driven limited event series, it's more important than ever to stick the landing, because that's what people are going to remember. Sadly, I was let down by this ending, which I thought handled three things in completely backwards, unsatisfying fashion, which is all the more disappointing because I mostly loved the show until that point. I'm going to have get into this here, so read no further if you don't want to know spoilers. First, after setting Malvo up as the devil himself for nine weeks, he turned out to be way too easy to kill in the last episode. But overall, fine, if that's the way they wanted to do it, I guess it's a minor complaint on my part. Second, Lester's fall through the ice and subsequent death was wholly unsatisfying to me, because I desperately wanted to see him arrested and dragged away kicking and screaming, forced to face up to what he did instead of going out very nearly on his own terms (sure, he probably didn't want to fall through the ice, but at that moment he'd obviously made up his mind to die running away if he had to, so it was anti-climactic). And third, (and this was the worst), Molly, our heroine, is completely and utterly shortchanged in this finale by having no part in the action in either Lester or Malvo's comeuppance. After doing all the police work herself and finally being recognized for being right last week, she was pushed to the side so that her loser husband Gus, of all people, who ordered her to stay put, can go and take care of Malvo himself, to redeem his cowardly actions at the beginning of the season. Worse still, he's the one who finds the tapes of Lester's involvement and handily presents them to her, so that she has virtually no part in the resolution of her own case.
I was pretty infuriated by that, as Molly was clearly the hero of this series until the last episode, in which she was tossed away in favor of redeeming Gus, who I really had no desire to see redeemed (he could have died himself for all I cared about his character), and to have her grudgingly accept being ordered to "stay put" so that her man can go out and be the hero was like rubbing salt in the wound. Badly, badly done, Hawley. Marge Gunderson would not have stood for that shit, let me tell you. So, despite the amazing production values, incredible acting, mostly good writing, and colorful characters, I was so upset by the ending of the series that I'm ultimately conflicted on whether to recommend it. I fully loved the vast majority of the show, so does a bad ending ruin the entire thing? There are plenty who were satisfied by how things wrapped up of course, so I feel that I have to grade it on the whole and not by how sucker-punched I felt by the finale, and for that I've got to give it close to top marks (I even liked it better than True Detective overall). But if I was on that writing staff, boy would I have blown a fuse at the decision to sideline the only woman in the cast and protagonist of the show in favor of all manly action so that the "little wife" can stay home and be protected. Oh, but let's go ahead and make her chief as a pat on the back. Ugh, it still stings a week later.
Grade for the whole season: A-
Grade for finale: D