Fargo is an anthology TV show about imaginary crimes told in a storytelling style – as truthful as possible. It was released by FX in 2014, and the creator Noah Hawley was inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen‘s movie of the same name, dated back to 1996. It was a renowned success that received numerous recognitions during its four seasons, including Emmy Awards, Golden Globes, and Critic’s Choice Television Awards.
The concept of Fargo in its adaptation for TV is transformation and change. How people can, when given the opportunity, become the worst version of themselves. A fifth season is expected, and it’ll probably be the last.
Noah Hawley is a familiar author in the television industry, as well as on TV shows like Legion and Bones, and considering he is now busy making the TV show on Alien (based on the homonymous movie by Ridley Scott), it’s understandable that he wants to bring Fargo to a close.
I have pieces that will have to survive. They’re not connected. I think it would be good to create an ending, and deliberately come to something, knowing it’s the last one and see how one might wrap up this anthology.Noah Hawley to Vanity Fair
Fargo, the movie
Although being inspired by a movie, the stories in Fargo have little to do with the characters in the movie. Not in a classical way, at least; they are linked more in a metaphorical way.
The plot is very different, and the only thing in common is the fact that murder is a central element. The location is also very similar: claustrophobic but vast snowy landscapes are a must. Of course, the characters, as archetypes, are very similar to those of the movie (especially in the first season), but what really unites both film and TV shows is the underlying theme, what moves the actions of the various characters. The cause-and-effect mechanisms, and how choices can affect not only the so-called destiny but are what makes a human a human. In Fargo, even in the most absurd, tragic, or extreme situations, being kind or vicious (and all the effects that this causes) is an act of self-determination, and everyone has to take full responsibility for it.
Noah Hawley, then, while writing the show, focused on why “Fargo is Fargo”, “what made that movie that movie”, as he said himself. Hawley managed to make the Coen philosophy his own, to the point of attracting the attention of the two directors. They’re not big fans of imitations, but Hawley convinced them to join the project as executive producers.
Fargo, in fact, is not a mere imitation. It’s a world of its own that travels on the same tracks of the movie, despite being a different train. Some differences were indeed necessary. For example, the characters in the show are deeper and darker, and the comedy is pettier. This is because, as Hawley himself said to Salon:
Fargo is actually a very comic movie, and if I did the tone of the movie exactly, people would think I got it wrong because it would be too comical.
A singular caption
The movie of Fargo is a true crime story that isn’t true. In the sense that it’s not a reenactment of a crime, but both characters and events are portrayed as real. The same goes for the show. At the beginning of each episode, there is a statement that highlights how the story narrates true events. And, just like in the movie, that’s actually not true.
This is a true story. The events depicted took place in ____ in 19__. 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.Caption at the beginning of each episode of Fargo
This creates a more powerful connection with the viewer, allowing the authors to play with reality, treating as plausible a narrative material that, in a completely fictional context, would have been too random. In this show accidents happen, randomness is always present; but this doesn’t lead to pointlessness, rather to a universe that remains open to interpretation.
An anthological structure
Fargo is in fact an anthology series: each story begins and ends within a single season. The fact that there’s a limited time (10 episodes) to solve an entire story arch, means a need to enrich every episode with characters’ dynamics and events. The goal is to leave audiences constantly on edge.
Billy Bob Thornton himself, who played the killer Lorne Malvo in season one, said he accepted the job for this very reason.
I didn’t really wanna get involved in a television series that might run five or six years, so… This feels more like you’re doing a ten-hour indipendent film, which is great.Thornton to CityNews
Not a place, a state of mind
What unites all seasons, is the underlying theme. Fargo is indeed a way of living, of transforming oneself. It is not what happens in the show that matters, but how it happens. Why it happens.
Fargo is a metaphor; it’s like a state of mind. It’s a word that describes a sort of frozen hinterland that makes you think of a certain type of story. Not all of the moments in this season take place in the region. Some of them take place outside, but they’re all part of a larger story that is connected to this place.Noah Hawley to Hollywood Reporter
Good and Evil
Everything happens because there is a battle going on, and that’s also the central theme of almost all the Coen brothers’ work. The war between Good and Evil. Life and death, light and darkness. Those on the side of the true Good would never perform an evil act. Violence and evil cannot be justifiable.
Just take the first season as an example.
On the one hand, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), the cold and calculating serial killer: absolute Evil, calm and composed. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), as his counterpart, is a coward who thinks about revenge through a good dose of Evil – good intentions, but wrong means, just like the famous character Walter White from Breaking Bad.
On the other hand, there is the Good, represented by the policemen who investigate the case, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). Average people, with their flaws, but who act in the name of justice, their idea of Good.
These characters’ juxtapositions are subtly shown through ubiquitous symbolism. For example, always taking the first season as a reference, all the characters have a connection with animals. Whether it’s more direct (Malvo finding himself in front of a wolf) or indirect (Molly going fishing with her father).
There are also moments of pure citation (for example the bowling scene in season three, taken from The Great Lebowski) and even real fantasy moments. For example, in the season two it’s a recurrent view that of a UFO flying over the city, sometimes spotted even by the characters themselves.
Well, it was part of the moment. Post-Vietnam, it was that both the political paranoia and the conspiracy theories went all the way to the top — with Watergate; that sense that people were feeling paranoid on some level. If you look at the internet research device, there was a state trooper/UFO incident in Minnesota in the ’70s, which I thought was interesting. And then also Joel and Ethan [Coen] had included some of those visuals in The Man Who Wasn’t There. There was definitely a UFO runner in there.Noah Hawley at the ATX Festival
All these moments seem at first out of place, but they actually express the level of uncertainty in everyone’s life. Chance and Chaos exist, and people can only experience them without ever really understanding.
Chance and Inevitability
What leads to the resolution of the skein, in the concatenations between cause and effect, is the intervention of another force: Inevitability. Opposed to a complementary element that seems to guide every choice of the characters: Chance.
Like Evil and Good, Chance and Inevitability are also at war, and the former seems to prevail throughout the story. Pure chance often activates the chain of events. Sometimes characters die not because someone wants to kill them, but because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But all these inexplicable coincidences never justify or disempower the characters, nor their choices and feelings.
The subtle conflict behind this structure is simple: how impactful can free will be in one’s life? A question always present in other Coen brothers’ movies as well, such as No Country for Old Men or A Serious Man.
It really looks like a true story
All these mechanisms are actually Fargo‘s inner strength. The stories, even if imbued with dark humor, symbolism, grotesque developments, and absurdities, seem true because they address real issues. And that’s what attracts the viewer’s attention. No newspaper will ever talk about a real Lorne Malvo, a real Lester Nygaard, or a real Molly Solverson. But it all seems to convey the idea that they could.
So, maybe, the statement “This is a true story” isn’t so wrong, after all.