By: Kaitlin Traynor
“This is a true story.” So begins the movie Fargo, and so too begins every episode of the miniseries that recently aired on FX. It’s an interesting way to set up the story, and the decision to do so is not accidental or a question of merely following suit with the structure of the movie. That declaration gives the story that follows a “stranger than fiction” tone that evokes an episode of A&E’s Cold Case files. You see normal folks behave in sickening ways and there are no climatic wins for our heroes. By pretending to be true, the story is told in an unassuming way that is much like the mannered Minnesotans it depicts. This is the art of the anti-climax and Fargo the TV series handles it skillfully.
The only beat in this story that defies that realism is the character played by Billy Bob Thornton, Lorne Malvo. Evil incarnate, Malvo is a charlatan and a force of chaos and destruction. Billy Bob is straight up hilarious in this role, using some dry humour that falls right in line with the Coen Bros.’ sensibilities. Malvo doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything other than a sheer love of savagery and his powers to provoke disarray sometimes comes across as borderline supernatural. He loves messing with people. I’ve seen him compared to Anton Chigurh, the hitman from that other Coen Bros.’ favourite No Country For Old Men. Malvo is certainly as ruthless and unstoppable as Chigurh, but Thornton’s slinky movements and mischievousness make the character uniquely his own. His grim monologues and thrilling one-liners elevate the series from the get go.
Malvo’s narrative foil is the character of Molly Solverson, a figure of grace and gumption as played by Allison Tolman. Molly is strong lady police and routinely comes up against inferior police officers that rank above her in experience and title. She goes after Malvo like a dog with a bone and the audience’s hearts are with her throughout this story. Colin Hanks plays the meek Gus Grimly, a police officer and single father from a neighboring town who has a near-miss encounter with Malvo early in the series. Martin Freeman plays a Lundegaardian figure in the put-upon Lester Nygard, a character that lies at the center of all this small town big trouble. The evolution of this character is perhaps one of the most loathsome to behold, as his exposure to Malvo turns Lester from a stammering Walter White into a cold-blooded Heisenberg.
The movie is a classic. The TV series is great. You don’t have to be a fan of the Coen Bros. to enjoy this story, but those who are will not be disappointed. A few weeks into its run, it was being hailed as the answer to pop culture’s “Breaking Bad” or “True Detective” prayers. This is not just hype. The writing is sharp, the performances are formidable and there is a fun tie-in to the original Fargo universe that I will not speak further on for fear of spoiling it. There are a few loose ends that trail through the story, but in the end, this only serves to reinforce the faux-realism that has been stated from the outset. In real life, some people and their stories just fade away, with questions still lingering and explanations lacking. That’s just what happens with a true story.