The FX series “Fargo,” inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film, is based in northern Minnesota. As northern Minnesota’s leading pop culture, news, entertainment, iron mining and invasive species blog, MinnesotaBrown is here to review the show through Minnesota eyes. Now, to this week’s episode:
For the past 10 weeks, the makers of “Fargo” have treated us to great television. I started reviewing these episodes because complaining about the depiction of Minnesotans in the Coen Brothers original movie “Fargo” has been a local cottage industry since I was a teenager. I thought there was some kind of weird niche I could fill, and the fact that my commentary was featured on a Grantland piece this morning shows I must have guessed right. What we got from “Fargo,” though, was more than I expected. Far from being just a regional oddity, “Fargo” touched a much deeper chord.
Producer/writer Noah Hawley has delivered the best series of the year, a 10-episode sprint that defies old TV definitions of “movie,” “series,” or “mini-series.” It’s just some gosh darn good art, you know. I’ve got plenty of northern Minnesota readers checking in on this show, but I have some from England, Sweden and Texas, too. Why? Because this is a show about human nature, not just one particular place. What 14 hours of action allowed that the movie didn’t, was for “Fargo” to show that it’s not about making fun of Minnesotans — it’s about contrasting the structure and decency of a place like this with the chaos and evil that also exist in the world. If my fellow Minnesotans can’t see this, well, folks can believe whatever they want. Ain’t my deal.
If ya don’want spoilers, you should go come back later.
One last time, I’ll review “Fargo” with my patented Minnesota rating system, topping out at “Oh, ya!” and continuing down past “Pretty Good,” “Could be worse,” and the midwestern mark of shame: “Interesting.”
“Fargo” Episode 10, “Morton’s Fork,” takes its title from a rhetorical device that uses contradictory arguments to achieve the same outcome. Molly deploys a “Morton’s Fork” story about lost gloves (the ultimate Minnesota philosophical device) during a key section of dialogue. I initially read the use of this title as meaning that whatever happened to these characters was always going to happen, no matter how much they struggled against their fate. That being said, the episode’s emotional resonance comes from the fact that these characters do control how they treat each other, and this decency helps us sort the good from the evil. (“Decency” will be the word of the day.)
First, I have to call out the special way they do the “previously on “Fargo,” preview of this and earlier episodes. The voice-over announcer this week (a woman’s voice) says “precedently on ‘Fargo.'” Last week it was “erstwhile on ‘Fargo'” with a male announcer. Clever. Quirky. Very Coen Brothers-y. Oh, ya!
The episode starts kind of like the opening motorcycle scene of “Lawrence of Arabia,” only with snow machines. We see mountains and go “what, I thought this is s’pose to be Bemidji?” And then we see a tipped-over snowmobile and finally a hole in the ice. Who’s in that hole? We’ll find out. Nice misdirection, with foreshadowing. Oh, ya!
Back to last week’s murder scene in Lester’s insurance office. Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) leaves after shooting poor Linda (Susan Park), presumably to go find Lester (Martin Freeman), his actual target. Lester is shocked, but in a diabolical sort of way: he realizes how close he came to being the dead one. So he goes back into his well-worn role of the escaping prey. He hastily assembles an alibi by going to Lou’s Cafe. Lou (Keith Carradine), Molly’s dad the ex-cop, can detect something’s up with Lester, but Lester continues his set-up, covertly calling the cops to check out the murder scene and find Lester there in the cafe. But he left the boarding passes in his coat … which is on Linda, the dead wife he just reported anonymously. I’ve had this feeling when I lock my keys in my car. I imagine it’s much more powerful when you are committing conspiracy to cover up a murder. Oh, ya!
At least Molly (Allison Tolman) knows how to keep Lester from messing up a crime scene. As many tricks as he’s developed, Lester can’t get away with much anymore. Still, fictional Bemidji is awfully loosey goosey with its crime scenes. Pretty good.
The map of Bemidji that Molly uses in her briefing appears to be accurate, and there are numerous references to Highway 71, one of Bemidji’s actual major thoroughfares. Nice touch, Big Hollywood! Oh, ya!
Lou to Molly: “He’s not going to stop. A man like that might not even be a man.” This episode layers on the notion that there are such things as animals who walk around as men, and that Malvo is just such a man. All of the “predator” and “prey” references over the past ten weeks came back to the forefront in this episode, to the point that I’d have to go back and re-watch the whole thing to reconnect the dots. I imagine this series would go down real smooth in a binge watching session. Oh, ya!
The middle section of the episode shows Malvo simultaneously hunting both Lester and the police and FBI contingent now patrolling the area looking for him. (Prowlers! Prowlers everywhere!) It’s almost like the guy is a brilliant “anti-cop” to Molly’s brilliant cop. He knows how to mimic an FBI agent, how to call off back-up, how to tail people at just the right distances — always baiting his potential captors and attacking them from a hidden angle. He carries around some kind of claw, and one can’t help but recall the velociraptor claw that Dr. Grant carried around in “Jurassic Park” to describe how those dinosaurs hunted. Malvo is like a velociraptor. And the devil. He is a Devil Raptor. That’s bad.
Meantime, Gus is just driving along, trying to talk Molly out of getting herself killed, when he has to hit the brakes for a wolf. Then, looking to his left, he SEES MALVO’S CAR. (In the movie, this is where Frances McDormand yells out “The kyar! I see the kyar”). He waits for Malvo to leave and enters the cabin. Get out of there, Gus! Call for help, Gus! But the guy who can’t go five minutes without spilling coffee on himself, who accidentally shot the woman he loved, does neither. Oh, wha?
With more murders stacking up, just a year after the last pile of bodies, Chief Bill (Bob Odenkirk) tells Molly he’s hanging it up. He’s got an “unquiet mind — that’s what the wife calls it. The job has me staring into the fire, drinking.” We realize in this scene, though it’s been clear for a few weeks now, that the mistakes Bill made as chief were due to his faith in humanity, his belief that people couldn’t be as evil as they sometimes are, even in Bemidji. He bemoans the loss of innocence. He asks Molly to be the next chief, after the baby comes. She’s cool and classy, as usual. What’s nice here is that while Molly was very frustrated with Bill at times, she maintained a basic level of respect and was kind to him when he needed kindness. One gets the sense that she’ll see Bill around town for 20 or 30 years and they’ll remain friendly, even if their time working together goes down as the worst time in their lives — which it probably will. Oh, ya!
Anyway, Key and Peele will be resuming their day jobs shortly. If this show proved one thing, it is that their FBI agent characters Pepper and Budge were exceptionally bad at sitting in a car and keeping an eye on things. They’re good for some riddles and smooth repartee, though. Could be worse.
You catch how last week Lou referred to the ghastly “Sioux Falls incident” that caused him to leave police work, how he described to Malvo how the bodies piled up like cordwood. In this episode, Malvo piles bodies up behind a woodpile, as a matter of routine. This is what Lou was talking about. This really is Sioux Falls all over again.
And I’ve got to give a very special shoutout to commenter MattNOVA who correctly predicted that the trap from Chaz’s hunting gear would be deployed in the final episode. Sure enough, as Lester lures Malvo into his bedroom with a fake call for help, the trap is set in a pile of old dirty clothes. Not only was MattNOVA correct, but it makes total sense now looking back at Malvo’s monologue to Mr. Wrench in the hospital, about the bear who chewed its way out of a trap to die on its own terms. Oh, ya!
It should be noted that Lester just can’t seem to keep blood stains off his flooring. It’s a real persistent problem. Interesting.
In watching Malvo patch himself up from the trap, you could not avoid comparisons between this show and a different Coen Brothers movie, “No Country for Old Men.” Malvo is a lot more like Anton Chigurh than like any character from the movie version of “Fargo.” And in a way, mashing up the concepts makes for a much better TV show. You still get the morality play of “Fargo,” mixed with concepts on fatalism from “No Country.” It expands on the Coen Brothers genius in a whole new way. Oh, ya!
On that penultimate scene with Gus Grimely (Colin Hanks) and Malvo: I’ve already noticed some commentary that giving Gus the final showdown with Malvo was not fair, not true to the characters in the series. It was Molly, the relentless, competent, clear-thinking cop who should have stared down the beast. I think it makes sense, though, that Gus would have this moment. First of all, Gus would probably agree with the TV critics who said he was outmatched. He gave up being a cop during the sequence of this series. His lifelong dream was to deliver mail. But he ferociously loves his family — his daughter Greta and his new wife Molly. He knows Molly well enough to know that, even eight or nine months pregnant, she would have gone after Malvo herself. He knows that no one else in Bemidji would be successful in stopping Malvo. So when he sees the chance to catch Malvo unaware, he quietly takes it — not for himself, but to protect his family. Further, since he’s not a cop and his goals are only tangentially related to the law, he doesn’t have to try to “arrest” Malvo, or warn him, or give him a chance. He only has to shoot him. And that’s the only way you can put down Malvo — like a rabid predator on the edge of town. And the one-time animal control officer was qualified enough to do that. “I figured out your riddle.” Well, actually Molly did. But he married her, so “Oh, ya!”
We end with the nuclear family — Greta, Gus, Molly and future baby-to-be. They’re safe. They have endured, each of them facing some form of fatal peril in the last year. They survived partly through luck, partly through wits, but mostly because they were decent, kind people. And that’s what “Fargo” is about.
But wait, we get a quick snowmobile chase with Lester, heading into a foot race on thin ice in Glacier National Park. Why, we saw this at the beginning of the episode! He’s wearing his partridge plaid Stormy Kromer again. Uh, oh — the ice, it’s giving way! HOLE. And as dramatic and satisfying as it was for me to see the show end with MY Stormy Kromer rising to the surface, I would add that I highly doubt my identical Stormy Kromer would float after total submersion. Still, pretty good.
So that’s the end of “Fargo,” for this season anyway. We’ll have to wait and see if they decide to do a second one, which according to Hawley will involve entirely new characters. Maybe they’ll set it a few miles east on the Iron Range? Maybe they’ll hire me to write treatments? A boy can dream. But we got some good TV out of this series, which will stand alone for a long time: I dare say on equal footing with the great film it was based upon. Any of the main cast members — Tollman, Thornton, Hanks or Freeman — should be nominated for Emmy’s, along with the show. I think Tollman is the one who deserves it most. Look for someone like Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg or Russell Harvard to sneak up for a nomination, too.
My aforementioned meta-mention in Michael Tortorello’s Grantland piece paraphrases me as saying that my criticism of “Fargo” is that “we’re not nowhere” in talking about Northern Minnesota. To be fair, that is my general criticism about most of the writing done about Northern Minnesota, including that which is generated by our own leaders and newspapers right here. I think Hawley’s “Fargo,” excusing a few errors and assumptions made by a Hollywood-based writer, does a good job of showing that while most of America might not know Northern Minnesota, we do have human beings here whose lives and choices have consequence. Not only does that deserve recognition from our narrow regional viewpoint, but is that not the point of art, generally?
Thank you for reading my “Fargo” reviews. You take care now.
Aaron J. Brown is a northern Minnesota author and radio producer. He wrote “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,” an earnest, humorous look at the people, history and culture of the unique rural-industrial landscape of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He is the producer, writer and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio, an ultra-local traveling comedy and music variety show. A columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, his work also appears regularly in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and the Daily Yonder.