‘Fargo’ explores what happens when regular people break bad
With season two kicking off on Monday, and the complete first season available on Hulu, I finally got the chance to sit down and binge watch Fargo, the TV series adapted from the Coen Brothers movie of the same name. With smart writing, excellent visuals, and stellar performances, it was easy to get completely absorbed in the show. I was drawn in, and I didn’t want to stop until the credits rolled on the last episode. Fargo quickly became a favorite, in part, because it reminded me a lot of another one of my favorite binge-watching shows: Breaking Bad. Both shows feature a lead who goes from regular guy to twisted anti-hero in spectacular fashion, with a lot of bodies in his wake. I don’t know what it is about a good guy going bad, but that formula always makes for an excellent binge-watch.
First off, let me say that I will forever think of Martin Freeman as Tim Canterbury from the original UK version of The Office. That show is firmly embedded in my heart and no matter how many Hobbit movies or episodes of Sherlock they can make, he will always be Tim for me. It speaks to his enormous talents as an actor that Fargo made me look past Tim entirely and completely embrace him as Lester Nygaard.
Lester is a loser, emasculated by his wife, bad at his job, and teased by his successful brother. A chance encounter with Sam Hess, who used to bully him in school, leaves him with a broken nose, and shatters whatever was left of his confidence. It’s in the emergency room where he meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a hitman and all-around weird dude who encourages Lester to stand up for himself and stop taking everyone’s crap. During this conversation, Lester casually jokes about getting revenge on Hess, which leads Malvo to offer to kill Hess. Still assuming it’s all a big joke, Lester agrees, and he’s shocked to later find out that Hess has been stabbed at a local strip club. But Hess’s murder is only the beginning, and in fact, it’s the turning point that encourages Lester to embrace his dark side.
Investigating the multiple murders in the small town of Bimidji are Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and her acquaintance-turned-love-interest Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), two genuinely good people who have everyone’s best interests at heart. They’re a wonderful contrast with the morally corrupt Lester and the professionally twisted Malvo. Breaking Bad alum Bob Odenkirk is Chief Bill Oswalt, who proves that ineptitude is just as treacherous as maliciousness. Oswalt is great because he’s so infuriatingly bad at his job that even more people die as a result of his actions, which adds a whole new element to the discussion of nebulous morality. Is someone a bad person if they think they’re doing the right thing, but they’re just too stupid to realize it’s the wrong thing?
Throughout Fargo, we watch the transformation of a meek man into a selfish man who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. And boy, does it get dark! The best part is watching the separate actions of Lester and Malvo and wondering who is really the evil one. Malvo starts out bad, but appears to have some kind of moral compass—his offering to take care of Lester’s bully is what started this mess—but Lester starts out so pathetically normal that his descent into darkness seems like a much greater fall.
Of course, this reminded me a lot of Walter White from Breaking Bad (played by Bryan Cranston). When we first meet him, he’s a chemistry teacher with money problems, a side job where he gets no respect from his boss, and a successful brother-in-law who acts like a big shot. When Walter finds out he has cancer, something snaps and soon he’s on his way to becoming Heisenberg, the meth kingpin of New Mexico. Walter starts out as a regular guy, but slowly descends into villainy until he’s a complete monster who kills innocent people to get what he wants and thrives on the power trip of his illegal activities.
Both of these men are despicable, but also completely fascinating, thanks mostly to Freeman and Cranston’s phenomenal performances. These guys are so good at playing bad that they make their shows infinitely watchable. Couple that with spectacular storytelling and you’ve got TV gold. I didn’t think I’d find a binge-watch experience I liked as much as Breaking Bad, but I was absolutely thrilled that Fargo fit the bill.