FARGO – Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX
Here’s an instance where my love of a current show compels me to say something about it. Fargo, the FX TV series, has three seasons to date, but it’s worthwhile looking back to the first season, which won multiple awards at the 2014 Emmys.
Here’s my take-away from Fargo, Season 1: be wary of strangers who say “friend”; you might be on the verge of entering into a dark conspiracy. The show and creator/writer Nick Hawley are not suggesting we become vigilant against “evil doers” but rather that we recognize how we’ve lost the ability to diagnose “evil.”
I’m thinking of Fargo’s sinister sociopath Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), buying Adderall from Calamity Joe (Roger LeBlanc), the black market drug and weapons salesman (1.3, “A Muddy Road”). When Calamity Joe explains that his all-purpose “zombie apocalypse” pack is for when the world “gets all dog-eat-dog,” Malvo responds,
It’s already dog-eat-dog, friend. Not sure what worse a bunch of zombies could do.
And, if you’ve seen the series, you can bet that Rick Grimes (from The Walking Dead) has more to fear from Malvo than some silly old zombie.
The incidents are not, of course, “true,” despite the opening caption that tells us, “This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006.” However, Hawley has established an important truth: the world seems to have run out of genuine friendliness.
This territory has been explored before by the original writer/director brother team, Joel and Ethan Coen, who are (along with Hawley and three others) executive producers of the FX Fargo TV series. Fargo the film had that bleak and hopeless sense of a murderous avalanche building—senselessly, relentlessly. But, as Hawley notes in a Salon article from April 2014, the series owed as much to another Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (2007), prompting Hawley to see his show as “No Country for Old Fargo” “because you want to be afraid of those characters.”
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the mysterious stranger in No Country for Old Men, is one of these characters: when asked by the hick gas store clerk where he hails from, Chigurh responds, with that unsettling dead-eye stare:
What business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?
Like the kindly but oblivious folk who inhabit the town of Bemidji in the show’s first season, the Texaco clerk from No Country for Old Men has unwittingly entered a conspiracy with a malevolent force.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “friend” can be “used as a polite or ironic form of address.” Characters like Malvo and Chigurh use the word “friend” to take advantage of the innocent instinct of those people who are friendly to everyone. The word is dropped, defenses are let down, and the trap is set.
So, near the end of Fargo’s Season 1, after Malvo has killed in Bemidji, fled, and then returned to the little town to conclude his dark purpose, we should not be surprised when he addresses another kindly soul in Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine), Deputy Molly Solverson’s father and owner of Lou’s Coffee Shop: “Thanks, friend,” Malvo says as Solverson sets down the piece of apple pie (1.9, “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage”). Lou Solverson, a former state police officer, is not a naïve as the other townsfolk; nor is his daughter Molly (Allison Tolman), who pieces together the plot linking Malvo and benighted Bemidji insurance salesperson Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). But knowing the presence of malevolence, of malice, does not provide any assistance in understanding it. Again, shades of No Country for Old Men.
In his video essay “Souls at Hazard: The Coens and Their Cops in Fargo and No Country for Old Men,” Tim Klobuchar creates his own montage, combining the voiceover of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) with the opening scenes from both No Country for Old Men and Fargo the film. But I could more easily see Sheriff Bell’s voiceover as a fitting introduction to Fargo the TV series:
The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure… A man would have to put his soul at hazard.
Lou Solverson would probably agree, as would Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk), the largely befuddled but now morally disillusioned Sheriff of Bemidji who admits to having “an unquiet mind” in the face of the “inhumanity” he’s witnessed (1.10, “Morton’s Fork”).
It’s a bleak pronouncement that we’ve reached a point of no return, that the end to civilization is close, and that the “country”—arid or snow-filled, but indelibly stained with blood—is for no one, old or young. Hawley’s Fargo has made that word friend the equivalent of Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. The question is, do we stay or go? Because, apparently, there’s no stopping what’s already here.