Charismatic Villains Turn Fargo’s Dark Comedy into an Epic TV Saga

“This is a true story,” says Fargo’s opening tagline. “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” This is an untrue but apt prefix for an iconic tale of bloodshed and deceit.

Fargo was the first film by Joel and Ethan Coen to receive an Academy Award, winning the 1996 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

With its dark humour, vivid neo-noir cinematography and lush Carter Burwell soundtrack, Fargo is a crime drama typifying the Coen brothers’ unorthodox style of filmmaking.

In 1987, Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundergaard conspires with thugs Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter in Fargo, North Dakota to kidnap Lundergaard’s wife and blackmail his wealthy stepfather into handing over a lucrative ransom.

But when the plan goes awry, Grimsrud and Showalter leave multiple homicides in their wake. They are pursued by savvy policewoman Marge Gunderson, who eventually gets Lundergaard and Grimsrud brought to book.

Played out through the distinctive Minnesota accent, Fargo is also a modern classic in American comedy. Grimsrud and Showalter particularly stand out as a double act, with Peter Stormare’s Grimsrud being the muted straight man, and Steve Buscemi’s Showalter a hyperactive sidekick who gets beaten up and shot in the face with hilarious effect.

 Its dispensing of conventional opening titles makes the episodes stand-alone like individual movies

FX and Noah Hawley’s television adaption of Fargo (2014-17), consists of three anthology series taking place in Minnesota from the 1970s to 2010s.

Hawley’s version remains faithful to the Coens, with its main protagonists all being likeable cops like Gunderson. In season one this is Molly Solverston and her love interest Gus Grimly, in season two Molly’s dad Lou, and in season three Gloria Burgle.

Not only does Hawley’s imagining live up to the Cohens’ Fargo in its cinematic aesthetic, gory violence, and sense of irony, but its dispensing of conventional opening titles makes the episodes stand-alone like individual movies. This forms a rich tapestry of interconnecting stories, a saga incorporating references to fables and mythology, historical flashbacks and even cartoons.

However, Hawley’s version most notably contrasts with the Coens’ in its heavier seriousness, which is embodied by antagonists who are truly sinister and intimidating spectres for the sympathetic heroes to fare with.

Set in 2006, season one’s villain is mysterious contract killer and con man, Lorne Malvo, who grooms weak-willed insurance salesman Lester Nygaard into murder and its cover-up, which Molly persists in investigating despite her superiors’ dismissals.

Billy Bob Thornton owns the part of Malvo, perfectly starting out the series, while Martin Freeman convincingly portrays Nygaard’s evolution from pathetic pushover to slimy alpha male.

Malvo is a cold-blooded killer, an archetypal psychopath comparable to Hannibal Lecter or Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (adapted to film by the Coens in 2007). He goes on a killing spree to eliminate his organised crime rivals and takes advantage of Lester apparently just for fun. 

Yet Malvo has a charismatic charm and deadpan sense of humour that makes him irresistibly captivating from his first moments onscreen.

He escapes arrest by Gus through sheer intimidation that leaves him too stunned to act, and even when taken into custody Malvo is able to bluff his way out by using a false identity. 

Malvo cannot resist toying with Gus by planting clues to his whereabouts, which turns out to be his downfall. And even when hunted down by Grimly, Malvo sneers through beastly bloody teeth, an apex predator to the very end.

In season two, set in a gloomy 1979, Lou Solverston deals with a mob war between two crime families that couple Ed and Peggy Blumquist - played by real life couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst - accidentally get caught up in. Both sides of the battle recruit mercenaries paralleling with Malvo.

From the Kansas City crime family is the elegant Mike Milligan, an enforcer who kills with brutal and unshaken efficiency, but otherwise outsmarts adversaries with his strategic cool-headedness and clever wordplay. Bokeem Woodbine delivers with a lyrical eloquence that makes Milligan a gripping enigma.

The Gerhart family of Minnesota has Hanzee Dent, a steely Vietnam War veteran whose firearm and hand-to-hand combat skills make him a match for Milligan.

Hanzee, played by Native American Zach McLarnon, is subjected to racism despite his loyalty to the Gerharts - with Native persecution being a running theme of series two. 

He breaks away to form his own criminal empire, eliminating the Gerharts alongside Milligan to set up the events of season one. It is disappointing, though, that we are denied a Milligan versus Dent showdown.

 an unusual portrayal of a middle-aged man with an eating disorder

Season three jumps forwards to 2010, using the grip of the Great Recession to touch on the themes of greed and materialism. A spat over money and inheritance causes a sibling rivalry between twin brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, both played by Ewan McGregor. Ray and his jailbird girlfriend Nikki Swango hatch a plot that mistakenly results in the murder of Ennis Stussy - coincidentally the stepfather of Burgle, who is left to crack the case through her bereavement.

Meanwhile, Emmit has unwittingly taken out a loan from V.M. Varga, a globe-trotting white-collar crime boss posing as a corporate investor. Varga coerces Emmit into using his car lot business as a front for a massive money laundering operation.

Varga is portrayed by David Thewlis, who previously starred alongside Tom Hardy in Legend, Brian Hegeland’s 2015 dramatisation of East End gangsters the Kray twins. Like the Krays, the soft-spoken and articulate Englishman Varga is a sadistic bully, but also a gentleman villain who coordinates his outfit with a business-like sophistication. Varga avoids getting his hands dirty, dispatching his henchmen to take out adversaries. Admiring Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin, he uses technology as his weapon, spying on social media accounts and sending malware to computers to target and blackmail opponents. He suffers from bulimia, an unusual portrayal of a middle-aged man with an eating disorder. Neurotically fixated on control, Varga is ironically disgusted by Emmit’s affluence and always smartly-dressed in a discount suit. 

Despite his own cosmopolitan status and apparent intellect, Varga expresses antisemitic prejudice and a belief in conspiracy theories that makes him seem like a disciple of the modern alt-right. Pursuing power and wealth for its own sake, he stands as an emblem of capitalist exploitation, the dark side of the information age and the soulless face of bureaucratic evil.

The final moments of season three unfold in 2016, with Burgle finally tracking down Varga. But whether he is brought to justice, or escapes through deception, is left to our imagination.

In the Coens’ Fargo the antagonists are comically incompetent, but in Hawley’s we get the sense they are almost superhuman, only undone by their own arrogance. A reoccurring motif compares them to the fairy tale Big Bad Wolf, an unstoppable force of malevolence. As forces of nature, they are both a physical threat and a spiritual test of strength for the leading characters.

Hawley’s Fargo is a prime example of how television has become an artistic medium on par with cinema. The show is currently on hiatus, leaving a fourth series in doubt. But Fargo’s fanbase will be sure to avidly anticipate the next chapter of the story.

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