The transition from big-screen to small-screen isn’t an easy one to navigate. For decades, television networks have attempted to cash in on the name-recognition of hit movies to create a “sure thing” television series. Few have been successful. For every M*A*S*H or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there are far more Ferris Bueller’s Day Offs, Gung Hos, or Casablancas. Fargo is an exception to the rule.
Created by Noah Hawley, who is executive producing FX’s X-Men series Legion, the anthology show is the ultimate tribute to Joel and Ethan Coen’s unique style of storytelling in that it contains dozens of nods and references that Coen aficionados will instantly recognize, yet easily stands on its own as a one-of-a-kind accomplishment. Like much of the Coens’ work, including Fargo itself, the series is best described as a black comedy, but it’s also got elements of horror, drama, and sci-fi—making it a space where anything can happen.
Populated by the same oddly accented, seemingly-good-but-perhaps-slightly-simple kind of characters that made the movie Fargo so memorable, and quotable, both seasons of the TV show have focused on what happens when an everyday person accidentally stumbles on a crime. In Season 1, that everyday person is pretty much anyone who walks into the path of Lorne Malvo—Billy Bob Thornton’s pitch-perfect sociopath who might be fun to have a beer with. In Season 2, it’s a young couple—Ed and Peggy Blumquist, played by Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst—who get embroiled in a crime war when they try to cover up what any normal person would consider an accident.
Because the show is so densely packed with nuance, storylines, and characters (not to mention a dream list of actors, including Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Glenn Howerton, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Stephen Root, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Bokeem Woodbine, Brad Garrett, Nick Offerman, Kieran Culkin, and Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan), it’s hard to give much detail without giving too much away. It’s better you watch for yourself, particularly before Season 3—which features Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, Michael Stulhbarg, Jim Gaffigan, and Ewan McGregor playing two characters—drops in the spring. Here’s how to binge-watch Fargo. (Go Bears!)
Number of Seasons: 2 (20 episodes)
Time Requirements: While dedicated binge-watchers could easily complete both seasons in a single weekend, Fargo is the kind of show that deserves a digestion period. It’s so nuanced and layered that it can sometimes take a minute to connect the dots of the story—and because of that, watching just one to two episodes per night is ideal. Stick to a single hour, and you’ll be done in less than three weeks. Opt for two episodes per night, and 10 days will have you caught up and ready for Season 3.
Where to Get Your Fix: Hulu (Season 1), Amazon, iTunes
Best Character to Follow: Because it’s an anthology series, there’s little character crossover from Season 1 to Season 2. As such, we’re going to cheat a little here and give you two characters—one for each season. Though Deputy Molly Solverson (Tolman) does Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson proud as an eagle-eyed detective, it’s sociopath Lorne Malvo (Thornton) in Season 1 that makes the story tick. He’s very much a nod to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, in that you’re never quite sure what his motivation is—if there’s any motivation at all. He’s brilliant and calculating, but can change personas in a flash and, even when he’s acting psychotic, there’s something oddly charming about him. It’s the kind of role that’s exactly in Thornton’s wheelhouse, and made more interesting because he embodies it.
When it comes to actors of a certain age, few can play the good guy as believably as Patrick Wilson, which allows his character, Lou Solverson, to bring a bit of calm into what is an out-of-control power struggle—both between two criminal enterprises and two competing law enforcement departments. But whereas Solverson’s character stays true to what we first see him to be, it’s Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blumquist that gets to have all the fun (well, from an acting standpoint) in second season. She’s a young wife who is tired of living in the past—though she doesn’t seem to live too much in reality, either. Still, flightiness and all, it’s hard to not to be charmed by her transformation from stuck-in-a-rut townie to self-actualized badass. Even though she makes all the wrong moves, she’s still always able to see the positive. Both Dunst and Wilson received Golden Globe nominations for their roles—as did Thornton, Tolman, Freeman, and Hanks in Season 1—and all for good reason.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip: For shows with smaller episode counts, we often advise against skipping any… before pointing out the weakest one or two episodes. Fargo is that rare series that truly does not waver in its quality. Plus, each episode is packed with information and forward movement in terms of the narrative, so it also requires your full attention. Sure, there are a few episodes that we can (and, in just a second, will) point to as standouts, but there’s not a single episode you should skip.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip: If you want to start with just a single season of Fargo, you can really start with either one and not be lost. (Though it’s good to start from the beginning.) Because it’s an anthology, each season is a self-contained unit—though the stories are connected. In fact, it’s one of the few series that makes going back and watching the whole thing a second time a great idea—because you’ll pick up on references in both seasons that you hadn’t noticed the first time around. Which is a long way of saying: Don’t skip a single episode—especially these…
Season 1: Episode 1, “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” You simply cannot watch (or understand) the first season of Fargo without watching its first episode. It starts out very similarly to the movie—complete with a (fake) disclaimer that the events depicted within the show are all true—with a long stretch of snowy highway and a death. It introduces us to the main antagonist, Lorne Malvo (Thornton), plus bored insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Freeman), anxious police Deputy Molly Solverson (Tolman), who is trying to figure out why a man wearing only boxers would be frozen to death in the middle of a field, and single dad/cop Gus Grimley (Hanks), whose frightening encounter with Malvo sets the story in motion.
Season 1: Episode 4, “Eating the Blame” A flashback gives us some insight into how Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt)—who Malvo is protecting from being blackmailed but blackmailing at the same time—became the “Super Market” king of Minnesota. Grimley, struggling with the fact that he made a huge mistake by letting Malvo go when they first met, comes face-to-face with him a second time and isn’t about to make the same mistake again. At the same time, Malvo uses his one call from jail to continue his campaign against Milos, and has roped Don Chumph (Glenn Howerton), a personal trainer and wannabe blackmailer, into helping him.
Season 1: Episode 6, “Buridan’s Ass” Recent widower Lester Nygaard, who Solverson suspects of killing his wife, slips out of the hospital to point the finger in another direction, while Malvo continues to torment Milos—getting Chumph to do the dirty work, then finding a way to cut him out of the plan. Solverson and Grimley join forces to try to get to the bottom of what’s going on, but find themselves lost in the midst of a white-out with near-fatal consequences.
Season 1: Episode 9, “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage” It’s not a year later and much has changed for the main characters, but Solverson still isn’t satisfied as neither Nygaard nor Malvo is behind bars. A chance encounter leads Pepper (Key) and Budge (Peele)—whose reputations have been sullied and now have a lot to prove—to Solverson, who shares her theory of what happened the previous year and gains their trust and support. Meanwhile, Nygaard runs into Malvo in the most unexpected of places and, feeling emboldened by a new life, decides to grow a backbone. Bad move.
Season 2: Episode 1, “Waiting for Dutch” Season 2 takes us back to 1979 with what seems like an entirely new cast of characters, until we meet State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), the father of Molly, who is a crossover character from Season 1 (where he owns a diner and is played by Keith Carradine). Here, he finds himself in the middle of a war between two crime syndicates—Fargo’s Gerhardt family and a group of badasses (Woodbine and Garrett) from Kansas City. As in the first season, an everyday couple—butcher Ed (Plemons) and hair stylist Peggy Blumquist (Dunst)—find themselves in the middle of this war when Peggy accidentally hits the youngest Gerhardt with her car and, rather than call the police, tries to hide the evidence.
Season 2: Episode 6, “Rhinoceros” The Blumquists’ many bad decisions have come back to haunt them, as Ed has a price put on his head and is nearly killed when his butcher shop burns down. But Peggy, who Sherriff Hank Larsson (Danson) suspects is “a little bit touched,” sees this tragedy as a chance to self-actualize and start a new life. Reality sets in when Ed is arrested, and a couple of Gerhardts show up at her house. Karl Weathers (Offerman), the town’s only lawyer, arrives at the police station (barely standing) to help Ed out, but it turns into a standoff with the Gerhardts demanding the return of their man, and that Ed be sacrificed.
Season 2: Episode 8, “Loplop” Having captured the leader of the Gerhardt gang, Peggy seems to be adjusting—and even enjoying—life on the run, with a hostage in tow. But, much to Ed’s dismay, the Gerhardts don’t seem all that concerned with getting their man back, so he makes a call to the Kansas City guys to see what he can do. At the same time, the police are on their trail.
Season 2: Episode 10, “Palindrome” One wouldn’t necessarily say that either season of Fargo ends on a “happy” note, but after much bloodshed—and at least one UFO sighting—the war between the two crime factions seems to have come to an end. And Solverson can come home to his wife, Betsy (Cristin Milioti, who is wonderful) and daughter Molly (here played by Raven Stewart) and contemplate the future. The one that, if you watched Season 1, you already know.
Why You Should Binge: With so many popular series currently in their tenth or more season (see: The Simpsons, Grey’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory), it’s nice to be reminded that economy can be a good thing. The TV-watching world is catching on to that, as anthology series like American Horror Story have been gaining in popularity. Bottom line: Why spend 266 hours watching all of Criminal Minds when you can watch one of television’s very best crime series in less than a week?
Best Scene—”Pepper and Budge on the Scene”:
Given the huge cast of characters, plus the various storylines in each season, choosing a “best” scene is damn near impossible. Lorne Malvo transforming into “Pastor Frank Peterson” when he’s being questioned by the police is what makes Thornton a one-of-a-kind performer. But one of the things that makes Fargo different is the truly innovative—and cinematic—approach it brings to television. Yes, we’ve heard this “cinematic” argument for many other shows, many of them deserving of what might be the highest compliment. But Fargo takes it to the next level; its regular use of split screen gives the viewer a bird’s-eye-view on everything that’s happening (one camera might show what’s happening in the front of a house, while another shows the back) and also provides a visual metaphor for what’s happening in the story (a split in the screen might indicate a fracture in a relationship).
In one of Season 1’s most breathtaking moments, what could have been a gore-filled scene instead took a more subtle turn where the violence is heard and fully understood, yet not seen, giving the viewer’s imagination a workout. It’s bookended by the comedic influence of Key and Peele’s FBI agents Pepper and Budge, who always seem to get distracted at the very moment their jobs require undivided attention.
Albert Camus was fond of pointing out the absurdity of life, and famously that, “Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.” No, that’s not a lazy way of ripping off another writer in an attempt to summarize the series—but it could very easily serve as the show’s tagline. In fact, Camus even gets a couple of direct shout-outs in Fargo, including a second season episode titled “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Anyone familiar with that 1942 essay knows that it’s essentially a metaphor for the futility of life and the lack of control we truly have over what happens to ourselves and the people around us. And that the only way to combat the seeming pointlessness of it all is to embrace whatever challenges come our way and accept them as the path that’s been laid out for us.
In the land of Fargo, strange things happen. Bad things happen. Tragedy strikes. There are deaths, and there are births (though the former far outweighs the latter). There are moments of sadness, and laugh-inducing incidents. And through it all, the series’ enormous cast of characters weather the challenges and persevere (well, the ones who live to tell the story at least), as they move forward and prepare for whatever life has in store for them next. Stated more simply: That’s life.
If You Like Fargo, You’ll Love: If you haven’t seen the 1996 Coen brothers’ movie upon which the series is based, that’s your first mistake: Fargo the series perfectly captures the darkly comedic tone of Fargo the movie, which was nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture) and won two (for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay). It’s about a sad-sack car salesman who hires some guys to kidnap his wife in order to get some money from his father-in-law—and its small-screen sendup is full of subtle nods and references. (José Feliciano, anyone?)
On the small screen, it’s really not hyperbolic to say that Fargo has sort of created its own genre. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t share elements with some other series: Like Breaking Bad, it’s a look at what happens when seemingly “good” people suddenly find themselves on the other side of the law; the two shows also share a very precise type of pacing where the story unfolds in a way that keeps you guessing—and watching. So it stands to reason that it shares a lot of the same characteristics (plus one Bob Odenkirk) with Better Call Saul, too.
For sheer strangeness and creating a world in which anything can happen, Twin Peaks is yet another kindred television spirit.
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