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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."



Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 6/17/2014

Season 1 : Episode 10

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