As our nation lurches towards another birthday, our sense of common purpose and shared vision of America no clearer than the misguided ramblings of a sleep-deprived, sugar-addled toddler, it’s comforting to know Fargo will save us. Gathered around our communal electronic hearth, we confused, antagonized and unsettled citizens can find solace in a TV show on basic cable. Only Fargo can unite us in our frustrations, only Fargo can lay bare our failings, and only Fargo can set things right.
Fargo has little in common with its namesake 1996 Oscar-winning film, other than upper Midwestern accents, stunning bleak vistas and a penchant for creative violence. Its third season just concluded, and each has been a ten-episode love letter to America and all its wonders, faults, needs and desires, thirty hour-long events reminding us what’s good about America and what isn’t, and often in the most lurid ways.
Fargo’s stories are the intertwined experiences that makes us a bundle of nerves, in love with our guns, our money and our families, dedicated to hard work, even if it’s of the nefarious kind, always looking for that big score, whether at the Bridge table, a self-help seminar or through complex money laundering schemes that’d make Bernie Madoff blush. Immigrants, meat cutters, truck drivers, pill poppers, fitness freaks, flying saucers, hoarders, short-order cooks, orphaned book lovers, marital strife, blackmail, biblical plagues, thievery, murder, cattle prods and ice scrapers – Fargo is a tale of good versus evil and the hazy line between those opposing forces, a reminder the truth usually lies somewhere in between.
Created by Noah Hawley, Fargo’s three seasons are connected to each other in subtle ways, a character appears as an old man in one but a young dad in another, and a determined deputy in Season One is her much younger self in the second. Each season is its own masterpiece. So buy some beer, grab a few bags of Wavy Lay’s and pray for rain because there’s no greater tribute to this great country than watching every episode of Fargo this holiday weekend. Here’s a guide to help you navigate the show’s layered complexities and characters:
Season One: Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Lorne Malvo, is so malicious the devil himself would be wise to steer clear. The series takes place in Minnesota in winter, 2006. Martin Freeman, from the Hobbit films and Watson from the British series Sherlock, is travel agent Lester Nygaard, a man who makes one terrible decision after another until his entire world is upended, but not before he leaves a trail of mayhem behind him. All the while, Thornton’s Malvo torments anyone who interrupts his desire to sow discord. Amidst the carnage Malvo brings to the frozen Midwest, we meet Stavros Milos, a wealthy man wracked with guilt, and Pepper and Budge, the two incompetent FBI agents played by the comedy pair Key and Peele. A key thread that connects Season One to the second is revealed - Deputy Molly Solverson, portrayed by Allison Tolman, helps solve the crimes at the heart of the action. Best Episode - #6 – “Buridian’s Ass”; Best Moment - the fate of a certain Kansas City dentist.
Season Two: It’s 1979, Molly Solverson is just a child, and her father, Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson, played by Patrick McCarthy, investigates three murders central to the story. Season Two is better than the first, and the combination of the Gerhardt crime family, the young couple making a bad situation lots worse (involving a deep freezer and sharp implements), and a vengeful Native American will keep you locked inside, skipping the fireworks, your fingers greasy from the now-empty bags of potato chips. Bokeem Woodbine is hitman Mike Milligan who says things like, “Tomorrow morning we go home to bathe in that warm champagne that is corporate praise,” giving Lorne Malvo a run as Fargo’s best worst person. Richard Nixon makes an appearance, and the entire series is worth watching just for Karl Weathers, Nick Offerman’s take on a hard-drinking, patriotic lawyer who talks of his “sledgehammer of justice.” Best Episode - #10 “Palindrome”; Best Moment - how hoarding comes in handy with a murderer in the house.
Season Three: I’m not sure what’s better - Ewan McGregor playing the Stussy brothers locked in a battle of wits over a rare postage stamp, a cartoon alien robot named Minsky with a limited vocabulary, or the greatest character name of all time - Nikki Swango. Taking place in 2010 in and around St. Cloud, Minnesota, Season Three has no clear threads connecting it to the previous ones, other than the reappearance of the hearing-impaired hitman, Mr. Wrench from Season One. But what Fargo lacks in threads it makes up in storytelling, a set of ten superb interconnected visual essays about family, greed, love and power. Where Malvo shocks with his orchestrated malevolence and Milligan makes us laugh at his murderous calm, the character of V.M. Varga takes the prize as the most mesmerizing manifestation of evil the three seasons offer. Mr. Varga is the mastermind of this season’s misery, and his eating habits and desperate need for dental care, coupled with his narratives designed to impart wisdom on his hapless victims, make him the most riveting part of the series. Near the season’s end, Varga says, “The problem is not that there is evil in the world. The problem is that there is good. Because, otherwise, who would care?” I care – I care a lot because V.M. Varga’s deeds remind me that without good versus evil, we’d have nothing to talk about. Best Episode - #3 “The Law of Non-Contradiction”; Best Moment - Bowling Alley banter about kittens, getaway cars and past sins of Russian monsters.