‘Fargo’ Makes for a Riveting and Fascinating Hour of TV

FARGO - Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

Fargo opens with a tongue-in-cheek “true story” disclaimer, a deer-induced car accident in the rural Midwest, and a spine-deficient protagonist being harangued at home and humbled at work. These are the trademarks of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 classic both lends it name to and animates the spirit of FX’s new miniseries.

From the show’s first sequence onward, it’s pretty evident that showrunner Noah Hawley knows where his bread has been buttered. In Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), he has a browbeaten can’t-do-right who is very much an heir to Jerry Lundegaard, or, more recently, Llewyn Davis. In Bemidji, Minnesota, he’s got a setting whose bleakness and vastness evokes not just the show’s namesake but also the West Texas of the Coens’ No Country For Old Men. This is a show about circumstances breeding quiet desperation and quiet desperation erupting into unforeseen consequences, and it advertises these themes from the very first frame.

Which is, not surprisingly, where we are introduced to Lorne Malvo, played with restraint and relish by Billy Bob Thornton. You don’t have to squint to see plenty of Anton Chigurh in Malvo, a professional dealer of violence whose vocation also appears to be his hobby: like Chigurh, he’s guided by closely held principles and has the same penchant for speaking in aphorisms (some of which seemed downright clunky, especially in contrast to Rust Cohle’s pithier moments on True Detective). Thornton’s even sporting a bowl cut that rivals Javier Bardem’s. But Malvo isn’t simply here as a triggerman; his more important function, at least in “Crocodile’s Dilemma,” is as an enabler of the violent instincts of those around him. His chance meeting with the meek Lester sparks a series of events that kills off a whole slew of the episode’s seemingly important characters and totally reorients the circumstances of those left standing.

Speaking of seemingly important characters: a word on Lester’s wife Pearl, who is every bit the shrewish wife that early-series Skyler White was prematurely declared to be.  It’s become a ritual, in the prestige TV era of Antiheroic Men and the Women Who Stifle Them, to evaluate shows in part on their ability to write convincing and sympathetic female characters. Unlike Skyler, or Mad Men’s cadre of careerist strivers, Pearl is not such a character, nor is she supposed to be. She is a plot device, a symptom and cause of her husband’s anguish, someone who exists in Hawley’s universe only to establish a context. And last night’s premiere is mostly about demolishing that context and creating a new one.

“Crocodile’s Dilemma” is more than anything else an exercise in tone. The tone is familiar; Hawley, like the Coens, is interested in the interplay of the mundane and the malicious. The upper Midwest accents leave something to be desired. But it’s still a riveting hour-plus of television, and as aspirations go, Hawley could do worse than his show’s namesake.

Ross Green is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.