Fargo Series Premiere Review: Breaking Bad

By Tim Surette

Apr 16, 2014

Fargo S01E01: "The Crocodile's Dilemma"


IMMEDIATE SPOILERS FOLLOW. If you haven't yet watched Fargo's series premiere, I highly recommend waiting until you've finished the episode to continue reading! Trust me! And if you haven't yet watched but you're looking for guidance as to whether you should, the answer is a resounding yes.


When Lester Nygaard (Watson Baggins Martin Freeman) smashed his wife's head in with a hammer toward the end of Fargo's brilliant first episode, "The Crocodile's Dilemma," and a trickle of her dark crimson liquid insides poured down across her face while her surely unconscious body refused to bend to gravity's will, I laughed. A lot. Such a confusing reaction to Noah Hawley's fresh interpretation of the Coen brothers' 1996 film Fargo is only natural, and it really shouldn't be any other way. FX's Fargo is a dark comedy in the extreme sense of both words; it has the rare ability to craft a scene where a man is pushed to such an extreme level of annoyance that he brutally murders his wife, but even as we recoil from the carnage, we giggle at the same time. 

And that kind of twisted humor is right up my alley. So far, I love Fargo. Based on the strength of the first episode, the series already has the chance to become one of television's next great shows, even if it struggles to connect with mainstream audiences because it's endearingly a little off, kind of like a drunk uncle. It reminded me, in a very good way, of early episodes of Breaking Bad (I still think the first season of Breaking Bad is way underrated), when the show was funnier than it had any business being yet the stakes were still incredibly high. And like Breaking Bad, Fargo is a show that excels in every major facet of its being, with a stellar cast, beautiful cinematography, and clever writing. 


Ostensibly about murder in a small town, Fargo is really about the violent disruption of an ecosystem that depends on its denizens living humdrum lives. There's a certain way of life in the stagnant hamlet of Bemidji, Minnesota that's probably never changed: High-school statuses persist well into adulthood, cops crack wise about the negative temperature even though the freshness of the joke melted away decades ago, and the average citizen is nicer than a summer day. And at the center of it all is Lester, who meets the devil on his shoulder in Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a hitman who just so happens to be passing through town and can't help but turn wimps into manly men. When a conversation between the two about killing one of Lester's enemies was misinterpreted (or did Lorne just feel like offing a bully?), the chain of events that followed—Lorne throwing a knife into the skull of Lester's tormentor Sam Hess, Lester taking a hammer to his wife's forehead, and Lorne saving Lester by shooting police chief Verne—was as delightfully grim as just about anything I could've imagined.

And each violent act was merely a way of bringing the walls in on Lester so we could watch him squirm. Lester isn't an anti-hero, he's an anti-zero, a literal loser who's been pushed around his whole life and who, on the advice from a man he probably shouldn't be taking advice from, finally decided to stand up for himself when he should probably never do anything but sit down. He's like Mr. Bean if Mr. Bean snapped and started committing homicides. And unlike with most other characters on television (Walter White being a recent exception), there's no clear-cut indication of whether we're supposed to root for him or not. Should we be happy that he's finally manning up and trying to escape the terrible rut he's in, or should we be appalled that, you know, he just treated his wife like a nail in a plank of wood? 


Of course, while we struggle with the decision of whether or not to cheer for Lester, there's no doubt that we should also be on the cops' side. These badge-carriers represent the real heart and soul of Bemidji, the kind of people who are just so darned nice that you can't help but like 'em. And front and center among them is... or was... Verne Thurman (played elegantly by Shawn Doyle), the town's hard-working knows-everybody police chief and father-to-be. So of course Fargo killed him off with two close-range shotgun blasts that splattered ribbons of blood all over Lester's home. Damn, Fargo. He was going to be one of my favorite characters, too! That leaves us with Molly (soon-to-be-a-star Allison Tolman), a delightful homage to Frances McDormand's character from the film, as the cop who will be putting Lester behind bars or in a box by the end of the season. 

That's how Fargo is going to work. There are two forces at play: one of violent change, as represented by Lorne, and one of static decency, as represented by the residents of Bemidji. Caught between those two steamrollers is Lester, a man who's been knocked just far enough off his orbit by Lorne that it's causing ripples of upheaval as far as 50 miles away. Just as Breaking Bad wasn't about making meth—it was actually about transition—Fargo isn't about murder. Fargo is about change. But where Walter White pushed forward and welcomed his transformation, Lester Nygaard has already realized that he should have made peace with his life as a boring insurance salesman. I give Fargo two giant thumbs up, eight high-fives, and a 42-minute standing ovation. "The Crocodile's Dilemma" was one of the best pilots I've seen in a long time.



NOTES

– That scene that began when Verne showed up at Lester's house and ended when Lester ran into the wall to paint himself as another victim was outstanding. So much well-crafted tension!

– The Hess kids are fantastic. Someone give them their own show!

– I can't wait to see more of Kate Walsh as Gina Hess. This is the role that Walsh was meant to play.

– "Well if you were a better salesman, I'da bought you a nicer tie" might be the most brutal takedown I've heard on television all year. So painful.

– While trying to fix the gun that Lester broke, Chaz mentioned that Lester had been acting weird "Ever since your..." and cut himself off. What do you think Chaz was talking about?

– My favorite line of the episode, from Lorne to Lester: "You let a man beat you in front of his sons to send them a message?"

– Lester's boss at the insurance company on Sam Hess' death: "Yeah it's a shame. Big policy."



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  • GirishKrishna1 Jun 01, 2014

    COME ON, TIM! SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE OF US WHO HAVEN'T SEEN THE FRIGGING MOVIE!

    Its taken me this long to finally check out Fargo. Those dumb kids are probably homages to the bumbling Thomson and Thompson detective twins from Herge's masterful The Adventures of Tintin. As a man, I would says its not 'manning up' when you go and kill someone or bully people just because its what you want or that's how the circumstances are. That said, I don't like Freeman's character, in a good way, and the episode was fantastic.

    P.S: You should probably give it a 70 minute standing ovation (not for the smacking into the wall thing when the officer was in the silent house) since the episode was longer than that, not 42 mins.

  • JenMo73 Apr 24, 2014

    Ah Jeeze. What a dandy shmandy pilot! I'm totally hooked. Highly entertaining. Can't wait to see where these characters go. I don't think I've ever felt like I should be rooting for both sides. I'm already pissed that they killed the Sheriff! He was a likable character from the get go (which is hard to establish) and BAM he is gone. Sad oh well. Give me more!

  • ben45tpy Apr 23, 2014

    It's taken me awhile to watch this and I'm not sure it was long enough. Looks it's interesting enough, the story has been tweaked enough to not be completely derivative and the dark comedic violence of the movie is still there but I have many issues with this.

    It felt very clunky to me, especially in the early stages. In each scene I felt this is a scene establishing whatever and then moved on to the next one. The pacing was slow (sort of like taking the first third of the movie and dragging it out to more than twice as long)and the small doses of comedy were far short of Coen standards.

    Coen movies are tightly and intricately constructed and their comedies are consistently funny and entertaining. This felt drawn out and nowhere near funny enough. Maybe the long running time had something to do with it, a regular length episode could have achieved just as much far more effectively.

    Freeman's casting wasn't a total disaster but his 'acting' style far from nailed the character and we're already seeing how departures from the movie are dulling the experience. In the movie Freeman's equivalent is a similar, likable character who conspire with criminals to kidnap his wife. That made him already far more interesting than the show. Dabbling in crime which inevitably spirals out of control is far more interesting than only resorting to violence following the influence of others. Lester has no motive to commit crime and no genius either. Anything he does will be reactionary and his denouement will therefore be a pretty dull affair. I'm sure the violence begetting violence idea is rich in thematic resonance and seems like a great way for the series to go but having characters actively choosing their own fate is always better than being passively affected by others.

    And as for the impetus for his change, the conversation in the hospital room was a gobsmackingly awful use of a sitcommy misinterpretation trope to launch a murderous escapade. At the end of the day everything will come back to this ridiculous conversation. If you're going to murder half the town (presumably) then surely you can think of a better reason for it to start than stupid miscommunication (and don't forget that Lester explicitly stated in that conversation that he did not want the guy to kill Hess. Thornton's assassin is far more plot contrivance than real character, he's certainly not living up to Buscemi and Stormare at this stage.

    To the police, watching this I was furious they changed the police chief from a a pregnant woman to a man with a pregnant wife. I thought what possible reason could they have for changing such a pivotal character. Well I got my answer when they killed the chief off at the episode's end, so the deputy will become the real equivalent to McDormand's character. Still why didn't they make her pregnant instead? Why lose that rich element to the character.

    It probably sounds like I'm just being a stickler to the movie but I am open to them having their own interpretation, it's just when you start with a masterpiece every mistake you make is glaringly obvious. It's still a decent show so I'll keep watching for now (probably to the 4 episode test) but I have serious reservations about it.

  • GavinRollings May 08, 2014

    Well for one, it's not an adaptation of the movie so most of your points are moot. The show needs to stand on it's own and it does delightfully well.

  • binor Apr 22, 2014

    "He's like Mr. Bean if Mr. Bean snapped and started committing homicides." ROFLMAO, what a brilliant conception that is!

  • MSmollins Apr 21, 2014

    This episode was amazing and totally agree about the suspense during the murder scenes in Lester's house. The tension was amazing.

  • Swinglabacase Apr 20, 2014

    Made me reminisce about David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" series, but more macabre...
    If those events really occurred, as they claim in the opening sequence, "Out of respect for the dead..." as they wrote, it's kind of morbid that they turn it into a comedy.

  • ben45tpy Apr 23, 2014

    Of course it's no coincidence that the events of the pilot were so similar to the Coen's 1996 movie of the same name, that one also helpfully informed us it was based on true events being told "Out of respect for the dead...". This is Minnesota after all, things like this happen there all the time.

  • deniellecrawford Apr 30, 2014

    Things like this do not happen in Minnesota all the time. When there is a murder that may have many levels to it, the cops get all excited to be doing something besides simple burglaries or domestics. And also, when I worked at the St Paul Police dispatch, most of the calls were domestics, house break -ins, drug cases. Something exciting, and every available squad and then some, go to the scene. Anyway, I really love the new 'Fargo'. It's dark, and funny..I can't wait to see the next episodes. It's a nice break from the other shows I watch... the vampire, motor cycle gang, game of throne type of shows. Love it!

  • ben45tpy Apr 30, 2014

    Excellent. Since you're a local maybe you can remember the events from 2006 and 1987. I've heard rumours the events of the TV show were copycats of the those from the movie.

  • loginuserid Apr 18, 2014

    The analogy to Breaking Bad is very good, especially with Saul Goodman switching careers from criminal lawyer to small town cop.

  • sangbaran Apr 18, 2014

    only one word for the pilot-- sensational!

  • larrydavid Apr 18, 2014

    I spent the entire episode wondering whether that was Billy Bob I was watching or a very good look alike.

    LOL.

    That man looks younger now than a decade ago.

  • Swinglabacase Apr 20, 2014

    Yes indeed!!! and he never could tolerate anything around his neck, like no Turtle Neck, no tie and wouldn't even button the top button on his shirt... and, now we see him with a scarf around his neck!!! I too was kinda like "What? Is that really him?" LOL

  • CherokeeRose4 Apr 18, 2014

    As you wrote, this pilot episode was brilliant. And its nice to know I'm not the only one who found humor in the scene of the wife getting konked on the head with the hammer. The humor from the film was well captured for the small screen.

    Very sad about the sheriff because, like you, he was poised to be one of my favorite characters. To off him so soon was cruel. But the actor playing Molly did a great job. Looking forward to seeing her character grow.

    At first, I didn't know Billy Bob Thornton was in this and I think it took me most of the way through the ER waiting room scene before something in the way he said something made it click. He is damn good in this role.

    I'm excited to ride the wave of this show in the coming weeks.

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