Like a lot of people, I was perplexed when I first heard Fargo was being remade as a tv miniseries (technically re-remade, since it already spawned one unaired pilot). One of the Coen Brothers’ best workers, the film doesn’t exactly lend itself to further exploration with its relatively high body count and stark ending. Beyond that, television doesn’t have a great track record for adapting films to series, with every M*A*S*H that exists being outnumbered by a million Fames. Like the original Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard, Fargo the show seemed destined to be a loser, but news of its cast started to change that perception, as Coens vet Billy Bob Thornton was announced alongside Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Kate Walsh and Bob Odenkirk. I doubt I was the only one whose bewilderment morphed into cautious optimism.
In fact, many of the complaints Fargo fans are likely to have in the first two thirds of the pilot– the lack of a strong, authoritative female presence, in particular– are basically resolved by the episode’s ending, and it’s to the credit of showrunner Noah Hawley and director Adam Bernstein that they’re so willing to gamble on audience expectations that they’d build in what appear to be flaws in the adaptation in order to maximize the impact of the episode’s climax. Like M*A*S*H before it, Fargo is a show that gets what made its source material work for its fans, but also knows exactly what elements can be cast away or reconstructed in order to truly create something different yet tonally faithful. Particularly useful to this is Martin Freeman’s performance as Lester Nygaard, who shares a uniquely Midwestern name and personality with Jerry Lundegaard, but is far more similar to broken Coen favorites like Barton Fink.
Nygaard is the accelerant that gives Fargo its narrative momentum, his base loser state serving as motivation for the explosive Malvo while also functioning as the kind of everyman archetype the Coens love to destroy. Much like Freeman’s performance in The World’s End, Fargo utilizes Nygaard as a sympathetic character who is meant to serve as a foil for the more entertaining but far more destructive aggro-male he’s following, up until he becomes a volatile, destructive force himself, a replacement of the status quo we initially anchored ourselves to. Nygaard doesn’t have an antagonist to play against so much as everyone around him is an antagonist, whether it’s Sam Hess, the bully who has tormented him since high school, or the younger brother who he continues to disappoint, or the wife who nags him for failing to live up that brother’s expectations and her own. In contrast to the cool, collected Sheriff Thurman, Nygaard is a bomb waiting to go off, the only surprise is how wide his explosive range is.
Adam Bernstein’s direction is surprisingly sympathetic towards all of the characters Hawley presents, but it’s the faith he has in Freeman that lets that sympathy pay off. Viewers may initially root for Nygaard, but even before he makes the terrible choices that really kick off the series, it’s hard not to want to punch him. Freeman has the skill to balance that sympathy and irritation without chewing the scenery and the result is a mesmerizing performance that perfectly contrasts the icy stoicism of Thornton, whose Malvo couldn’t be further from the original Fargo’s basically blundering thugs. In some ways, Fargo seems eager to present a self-aware juxtaposition to the kinds of middle class male power fantasies that have dominated the new wave of important television, whether it’s Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White, the latter of whom Nygaard is basically a bizarro version of. That self-aware and self-effacing perspective also works well with the wayMalvo’s character connects the series to the bleak, near apocalyptic criminality of No Country for Old Men, particularly in regards to the odd but fitting code Malvo appears to live by. The interplay between Malvo and Nygaard even allows for the root question of Fargo to develop, which is whether Malvo’s direct action or Nygaard’s passive aggressiveness is more inherently awful.
The Fargo pilot juggles a lot of different elements as it’s exploring that question, and although it is deliberately paced, the climax it builds towards is a phenomenal payoff that allows for plenty of room in the other nine episodes. Fargo may have seemed like a completely unnecessary adaption, but Hawley and his talented cast and crew have done an incredible job proving that this is an adaptation that is respectful towards it source but brave enough to dismantle and rebuild it.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.
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