Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The finest TV drama series of the year ended last night: Fargo II was a masterpiece

I know I should take a few weeks to reflect and revisit the second series of Fargo before making up my mind - but the hell with it: it was glorious. I've always been consistently wrong in advance of the various implementations of the Coen Brothers' Fargo template. I loathed The Hudsucker Proxy, the film the brothers released in 1994, so I wasn't expecting much from their next film, Fargo, when it appeared two years' later: it turned out to be an absolute delight, and has remained so through numerous subsequent viewings. It's one of those movies the very mention of whose title invariably produces a warm glow of pleasure recalled. (SPOILER ALERT: what follows is one big spoiler.)

I was appalled at the idea of a television spin-off series, convinced that it would tarnish one's love of the original film. I presumed that the Coens (who were the executive producers) had run out of ideas and were simply cashing in on past glories. I was particularly unexcited by the thought of Martin Freeman (too mannered) and Billy Bob Thornton (too deadpan) as two of the main players. The series was, of course, quite brilliant, as were those two actors - in particular, Billy Bob Thornton was an utter revelation as the psychopathic killer Lorne Malvo. I also approached the second TV series warily, convinced that the law of diminishing creative returns would have drained the magic out of it, especially as it sounded like it would just be more of the same. It was indeed more of the same - but, if anything, it turned out to be the best Fargo of the lot.

I won't pretend to have got my thoughts in order, and I've got presents to wrap, so I'll just blat them down as they occur to me.

Practically every single event in the ten-hour drama confounded one's expectations, apart from the Indian killing Dodd Gerhard - but, to be honest, I only intuited what was going to happen a split-second beforehand, when the loathsome Dodd snarled, "Jesus Christ, you mongrel. Just shoot these two and get me to a fucking hospital." And I couldn't believe that Mike Milligan was going to allow himself to be killed by The Undertaker - but that was probably just wishful thinking on my part. I know at least one viewer found the intrusion of flying saucers an irritating distraction - but my wife and I roared with laughter at the simultaneous audaciousness and sheer matter-of-factness of those close encounters ("It's just a flyin' saucer, Ed, we gotta go.") As for the Indian stabbing Floyd Gerhard during the "Sioux Falls Massacre," and Peggy tasing the bejabers out of Dodd in the cellar - no, didn't see either of those coming. Ditto the following violent scene from Episode 1:

The acting. Oh Lord, the acting. Ever since The Sopranos first aired in 1999, we've got used to fantastic ensemble playing by the casts of long-form American dark-comedy crime dramas. But every single damned actor in Fargo 2 was pitch-perfect. Initially, I worried that Patrick Wilson as State Trooper Lou "Am I the Only One Here Who's Clear on the Concept of Law Enforcement?" Solverson was too much of a clichéd good-cop character - but, by the end, he was a monumental Old West figure: the bringer of order out of chaos, a rock of selfless decency in a sea of selfish evil, a guarantor of justice in an unjust world - a true American hero.  Lou, unfashionably (there's nothing fashionable about him) sees a man's role in life as protecting his family: "It's the rock we all push - men. We call it our burden, but it's really our privilege." Lou's loving family is the diametric opposite of the depraved version of the Addams Family that is the Gerhardts (the scene where the psychotic Bear Gerhardt prepares to murder his pea-brained niece for betraying the Family is particularly chilling - Lou is desperate to see his wife recover from cancer: these beasts are slaughtering each other).

If Lou is the embodiment of grand old-fashioned Frontier certainties, the butcher's wife, Peggy Blumquist (a truly marvellous performance by Kirsten Dunst) is the embodiment of self-obsessed, distracted, me-generation fecklessness: "Life's a journey, and the one thing you don't do on a journey is stay in one place, right?" In extremis, she has all the toughness and resilience of a cornered animal - but, unlike her slow-witted, decent husband, she is bereft of meaningful values: "I just wanted to be someone." Her husband, who wanted nothing more than to own his own small-town butcher's shop (she took the money for the downpayment from their account to pay for a daffy self-actualisation course recommended by her lesbian boss) finally understands this as he lies dying in a supermarket meat-locker as a result of his wife's terrible decisions. He tells her they can't stay together: "You're always trying to fix everything. But sometimes, nothing's broken." In the last episode, as  Lou drives Peggy to the police station to face a variety of charges (she ran over and killed the youngest and most useless of the Gerhardt Brothers in the first episode, thus setting a number of tragedies in motion), she prattles on in the back seat about how she's a victim and how he wouldn't understand because he's a man.  Lou shakes his head: "Peggy - people died."

Towards the end of the final episode, the gangster Mike Milligan (played by the delightfully named Bokeem Woodbine - stick that in your pipe and smoke it) visits the mob's HQ in Kansas City to discover that his reward for wiping out the Gerhardt crime family is a tiny office and a 9-5 admin job in a soulless skyscraper. His boss tells him to ditch the afro, the bolo tie and the western outfit and get himself a business suit and a proper tie - and to start looking for ways to cut costs: the employee who saved $1.5m in their mailroom operation has just been handed California as a reward. Milligan wanted to be an old-style mob boss, but finds that bean-counting rather than gunplay guarantees success. The Old West - his world (and Lou Solverson's) is dying.

I'll end with my three favourite quotes from the final episode. The first is from Lou Solverson. As he takes his leave of the corrupt plain-clothes detective he had earlier dismissed (to his face) as "a shit cop", the Western-style theme from the original Fargo swells on the soundtrack, and Lou says:
"I'm gonna take Peggy Blumquist back to Minnesota. If anyone has a problem with that, after the week I've had, they can keep it to themselves."
A line worthy of John Wayne.

As Lou's sick wife is lying in bed with her daughter after collapsing earlier in the day, the local girl who's watching over them looks up from the book she's always reading and says:
"Camus says knowing we're going to die makes life absurd."
"Well, I don't know what that is. I'm guessing he doesn't have a six-year old girl."
"He's French."
"I don't care if he's from Mars. Nobody with any sense would say something that foolish. Each of us is put on this earth to do a job, and each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over and you get to stand in front of the Lord, just try telling Him it was all some Frenchman's joke."
I've read The Myth of Sisyphus, and I'm with Betsy Solverson on this one.

The series ends with Lou and Betsy in bed. As Lou switches the light off, she says: "Goodnight, Mr. Solverson," and he responds with "Goodnight, Mrs. Solverson. And all the ships at sea." As always, Lou's thinking of the safety of others. Lovely touch.

The TV series producer and writer, Noah Hawley, neatly summed up what Fargo is about in a recent Q&A:  "I like the idea of setting these very pragmatic and humble people against a culture of narcissism and to see what that generates for us story wise." Well, sir, you've done a truly splendid job so far - and it's heartening to hear that you've written the first hour of Fargo 3, which will be set in 2010. It should be with us in Spring, 2017. I really can't wait.


  1. Calumnious Hollywood24 December 2015 at 01:48

    Annoyingly, the TV version of Fargo copies the film version by making the claim that the story is based on actual events.

    This is not the case. Ethan Coen : "The film aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true."

  2. Almost on the same page SG. And from the sublime Blood Simple, through to The Man Who Wasn't There (Including Hudsucker!)I was on the same page as the Brothers too. Then, along came Intolerable Cruelty. I couldn't believe that they had made such a stinker - but worse was coming down the pike.
    My guess, probably wide of the mark, was that by now they were both so rich they didn't need to think too much, and they switched to auto-pilot, checking their bank-statements from time to time.
    I've stayed away from this incarnation for many of the same reasons you have suggested above. What a joy to know that, through your enthusiasm for it, I can man-up and reach for the debit card

  3. " I know at least one viewer found the intrusion of flying saucers an irritating distraction....". Sounds like a dick-head?

    Just read your post. Really enjoyed reading it. My only disappointment was there was no "Really Bad Hairstyle" in Series 2 - see Javier Bardem and Billy BoB Thornton.

  4. Yes, SDG, but there is always the Premier League for the tonsorial twat factor. Check out a hair-do called Astronautovitch or some such, who has a short back and sides plus a completely egregious crown pony tail, utterly in keeping with playing for Stoke City.