Email Roundtable #46 – Summer Television Secret Santa, Fargo

FARGO -- Pictured: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard -- CR. Matthias Clamer/FXThis week on the roundtable, we continue our TV Secret Santa. Kerri had Katie and gave her Fargo.

Here’s a recap, from the other week’s roundtable, as to the reasoning why Kerri made this choice:

What show did you pick for Katie to watch? The FX anthology series, Fargo.

Why did you make that choice? I chose Fargo for Katie selfishly. I watched the first season relatively recently and enjoyed it fully but so few people I know have seen it that I haven’t had much chance to talk about it (full disclosure: I would have chosen it for Jane as well). Fargo does a lot really, really well and has a beautiful, cinematic feel. Frankly, I don’t know if Katie has seen or liked the original film version and either way I think the show will be a joy to talk about. If you’ve seen the film and have some familiarity with it a few plot points in the show will likely work for you better than they would if you haven’t seen the film. But, I don’t think that having deep knowledge of the film (which I probably haven’t seen for over 15 years) is necessary to enjoy the show.

What do you think Katie will like about the show? I’m confident that Katie will love the female protagonist, Molly Solverson, because, as everyone (and I mean everyone) who has written about the show has stated and overstated, she is pretty much the best. I think Katie will also get a kick out of the off-kilter humour and some of the twists and turns that the show takes along the way. I think Fargo becomes addictive after the first few episodes because of the way it treats its central mystery and the way it treats its central characters. I think she’ll also enjoy some awfully fun cameos that happen later on in the season. She should also love the name Gus Grimley because it is the best name ever.

What do you think Katie might not like so much? I think there are a certain number of elements that you have to force yourself to get over when watching Fargo. First and foremost, the accents. If you can get over the accents you’re pretty golden. Also, like many Coen movies, the show can become very allegorical in sections. I like an allegory every now and then but I can understand how this can also keep an audience at a distance. I also wonder what Katie’s take will be on Lester Nygaard, the Martin Freeman character and Lorne Malvo, the Billy Bob Thornton character. I think these two characters, especially, can be divisive. Also, as this Slate article suggests, the end of the season may leave something to be desired (although I disagree with this article and will explain why when Katie and I chat).

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Kerri: Well, Katie. I guess we should start off by giving our readers a brief explanation of what Fargo is all about, if that can even be done.

Katie: Fargo is a beautifully shot character drama that is “based on the true story” of a bunch of crimes that were committed in Minnesota in 2006. Fargo features a whole bunch of movie stars, a whole bunch of blood and a whole lot of snow.

Kerri: Ostensibly, at least at the beginning, the show is about two characters, Lester Nygaard played by Martin Freeman and Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Lester is a meek, bumbling insurance salesman who “accidentally” kills his nagging wife. Malvo is a man with secrets, who arrives in town to, essentially, wreak havoc. I mentioned before that I thought Lester and Malvo might be divisive. What were your thoughts about them as the characters that move the show forward?

Katie: What do you mean when you say that the characters may be divisive? Were either character particularly hated or loved by the viewing population?

I enjoyed watching both characters quite a bit – Lester moreso than Lorne though. As interesting as Billy Bob Thorton’s acting was, I thought the character was basically evil with no chance of anything else. At least Lester went through some changes.

Kerri: I suppose what I mean by divisive is that your involvement in the show is, in large part, based on how you buy in to these two characters. I don’t think “loving” the Nygaard or Malvo is particularly possible – especially in the case of Malvo – but I do think that getting into the groove of the show is dependent on your ability to follow them. I can understand if the weirdness or the nastiness of these characters would throw people for a loop. I think the interesting thing about Fargo is that it sets the audience up to think that Lester is our guide at least until he murders his wife. Fargo is not a show about an anti-hero, at least not entirely, which is something I appreciate. We aren’t meant to find Lester redeemable, he becomes a villain over the course of the show, and I think that is interesting. He is our entrance into this world but he he isn’t meant to be our eyes.

I do agree with you about Malvo. He is, for all intents and purposes, the devil. He doesn’t shift or change or grow. His function is all bad all the time. What Malvo does is force others to change – to create more monsters in his wake.

Katie: I see what you’re saying about Lester and about getting onto the show’s wavelength. Lester is a pretty weird dude, even for TV. The reason I never even thought twice about the weirdness of the tone is because I fell hook-line-and-sinker for the “based on a true story” titles that appear in front of every episode. I guess because I thought it was based on a true story, I had no problem believing these people actually acted so weird.

More on the “based on a true story” titles — I actually had a big problem with those titles because I assumed that everything would work out OK in the end because it was based on a true story. Those titles really threw me.

Kerri: The titles are actually just a carry over from the film Fargo. The film had a similar title (“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. 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”). But those titles are all a lie, everything is fictional. Did that change things for you?

Katie: It did! I didn’t find that out until after watching the whole series.  I mean, I should’ve been smart enough to realize that 22 FBI agents probably weren’t murdered in Fargo in 2007, but I never looked it up, so I just fell for the whole thing.

I bet you didn’t think anyone was that gullible.

Kerri: I am actually very curious about that but it honestly didn’t cross my mind as an issue until you brought it up. I knew the title was fake because of the film version of Fargo. What is your relationship to the film? Did the film have any bearing on your viewing of the show? I mentioned that I haven’t seen the film for years and my recollection of it is pretty hazy. I was fairly oblivious to the show’s connections to the film until I read about them later (in essence, the show is a very loose sequel to the film).

Katie: I’ve seen the movie Fargo, but I didn’t realize it wasn’t based on a true story.

The film didn’t have much influence on how I watched the show, other than I expected it to have long weird-ish interludes (like the scene where a dude gets his tooth pulled in extreme close up for no real reason other than aesthetics.)

Kerri: That’s good. I didn’t want to get too deep into the show/movie connections because I don’t feel particularly well-equipped to talk about them.

We’ve started our conversation where the show starts, with its villains. Very quickly though the show moves much of its focus to heroes, Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks) and Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). What did you think about Molly and Gus, their relationship and how they change the focus of the show?

Katie: Well, I gotta say that I adored both Gus and Molly (as I’m sure a lot of viewers did.) Molly is such a strong character – she’s a good police officer, good daughter, good friend, and she persists while all the others give up. Where Lorne Malvo is the devil, Molly is the angel of Bemidji. Perhaps that’s a bit on the nose, but I honestly can’t think of a bad quality that she has.

As for their relationship, I enjoyed watching Gus and Molly slowly get together, even if that eventually togetherness was projected a mile away.

What are your thoughts?

Kerri: There is a whole pile that I want to say about Gus and Molly – specifically Molly (and the extraordinary Tollman who plays her so well) – but I suppose I’d like to focus us on a couple of things. Namely, what you’ve already said about Molly being the angel of Bemidji plays into what I think works so well about the character in relation to everyone else. The show is very interested in morality – each episode’s title is also the title of a parable – Malvo is the devil, various plagues are delivered onto Stavros, etc. The show has Biblical and allegorical interests. I think these things are all very interesting, especially on TV where we are often presented with deeply flawed, horrible people that we end up rooting for. On Fargo, you end up rooting for good people. On one side you have Molly who is extremely smart and an exceptional cop – the best cop on the force. On the other side you have Gus who is, at the start of the show, a terrible cop but a deeply good man and a very good father.

My biggest fear, throughout the entire show was that Malvo would win. And if he did, what would that say? In a lot of ways, Malvo DOES win. Except that Molly solves the case. She figures Malvo out, even if no one believes her. Molly is rewarded for her kindness and intelligence.

Going back to the parables, I think a lot of it is there in the parable that Gus’ Jewish neighbour tells him about the man who tries to save the world by giving away his money, then his kidney, then commiting suicide. The neighbour says, “only a fool thinks he can solve the world’s problems”. Gus responds by saying, “But you’ve got to try, don’t you?”

In some ways the above statement is Gus’ downfall. When he kills Malvo he is trying to solve the world’s problems but he loses part of himself by doing it. Molly succeeds in using what she already has – her kindness, her smarts, her diligence – to take down Malvo and is a better person for it.

What did you think about the ending of the show?

Katie: In a word, relieved. I’m glad the good guys won.

By the end of the series, we the audience are fully on Molly’s side, so I suppose it would have been more satisfying had she been able to arrest Lester. But things never turn out perfectly. We have to take Molly’s perspective on things. When Gus mentions that he will be receiving a medal of honour for killing Malvo, Gus says that medal should have been Molly’s. Molly responds warmly with, “No, that’s yours.” Molly is made chief of police and that’s hers. You just have to take facts as they are and be positive about what is, not what might be. It might have been nice to arrest Lester, but she figured him out and he won’t commit any more crimes, so that’s good. Not perfect, but good.

Kerri: I really like your reading of the ending, Katie, but mine is a little bit different. I linked to the Slate article above where Willa Paskin was disappointed that Molly didn’t get to have a final showdown with Malvo. I suppose it is true that, like you say, having Molly arrest Malvo would have been the most satisfying. And, like you also say, this is not what the show is out to give us. The show does not give us Molly as the capital-H hero like we might want. But I’m not convinced it makes Gus into a hero either. When Molly says to Gus, “That’s your deal; I get to be chief”, she’s saying that the medal of honour is his, sure, but so is everything that goes with it. Gus has to live with blood on his hands.  So, the ending may have not been satisfying but it allowed for Molly to stick to her convictions. Molly ends up, quite literally, on top.

Is there anything else you want to talk about? Anything that didn’t work particularly well for you as the story unfolded?

Katie: I thought the series was quite consistent. I’m not a huge fan of blood and guts, so there were definitely scenes that I didn’t like, but overall I thought most of the stories were pretty interesting, and well tied together.

Some of the guest casting was distracting for me. In the minor distraction category: Glenn Howerton, Key & Peele. And in the major distraction category: Lorne Cardinal as a patient in the dentist’s office.

Just a few too many stars, in my humble opinion.

Kerri: I didn’t find too much of the guest casting distracting, mostly because I don’t know most of the people you mentioned from other stuff on an intimate basis. I liked the Key & Peele cameo mostly because I like Key & Peele.

Any final shout outs?

Katie: Shout out to Billy Bob’s disgusting bangs! And shout out to whoever made up the name Gus Grimly. Lastly, shout out to you , Kerri. Thanks for the great pick!

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