“Fargo,” HBO, Season One
I guess ‘binge watching’ really is a thing. It occupies the time of many workers, not just kids or college students with too much time on their hands. Sort of a drug, better than religion, a form of escape. Escape from what, you might ask? The present U.S. social reality is certainly one item to avoid by long stretches in the dark room of television.
I watched “Fargo” on HBO, Season One, a story that takes one season to tell – which is actually an innovation in long-form television, as most stories extend year to year. The series is inspired by the film of the same name, and bills the Cohen brothers as producers. The same exaggerated Minnesota accents, snow-scenes and winter highways populate this film, as well as the conventional homey interiors, bad food and mundane lives of small towns in the state. Hey, it's pretty real! Why the film is called ‘Fargo’ when it is set nearly all in Minnesota is probably a joke. At least to most Minnesotans, Fargo in North Dakota is a much more benighted place than Minnesota’s Iron Range. ‘Fargo,’ then, is kind of a feeling.
The key character is a nebbish insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard, a good Minnesota name, who lives in Bemidji, a real northern Minnesota town. You might remember the prior nebbish in the ‘Fargo’ film was an auto salesman, Jerry Lundegaard. So ‘sales’ seems to be the province of conventionally nice but wimpy men - who you might have to be on 'guard' for. Mild-mannered talkers, ya know. These are not exactly working-class jobs but instead are jobs in which men attempt to ingratiate themselves for money. After watching the whole series, you have to wonder – who IS this ‘typical’ small-town male? Who is Lester Nygaard?
Into this idyll of conventionality roams death. The reason Lester breaks the stereotype is he kills his irritating wife, and then is involved with a contract killer in the murder of the beloved chief of police and one of Bemidji’s leading creepy citizens, in a perfect non-conformist trifecta of violence, two of which take place over a few short minutes. A stain of blood remains on Lester’s living room floor through the whole show, like some Lady Macbeth problem. In “Deadwood” Swearingen was always wiping up blood stains on the wooden floors too, but here it takes Lester forever to even call a cleaning service. Lester spends the rest of the series trying to hide his involvement, but then gets ‘too big for his britches,’ as they say in northern Minnesota, and that is his downfall. How can something like this happen?
The Cohen’s dark humor meditates on the ‘devil’ in a number of films, like Cormac McCarthy's ‘No Country For Old Men.’ Here there is indication that the devil is involved again, straight from the ‘garden of Eden.’ This is because the other key character is the sadistic killer Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Malvo is a hired gun who is smarter and more ingenious than the slow-witted small-towners he deals with, which he proves while leaving bodies in his wake and not being caught. Malvo escapes time and time again, making the FBI, some random hired syndicate killers and local Bemidji and Duluth police look like amateurs. Which they are. (Mal means ‘bad’ in French.)
Sensing a weak but ‘kindred’ soul, Malvo takes Lester under his wing and helps him cover up his murder of his wife. Note that the initial dead are all the key authority figures in small towns – the top cop, the richest businessman and the queen of ‘home-life’ – the wife. The real mystery is why this small-town schlup would work with a big-city assassin. Evidently Lester’s marriage was a really bad marriage – and Lester didn’t know divorce existed. Or perhaps … and I think this is the Cohen brothers point here … the ‘devil’ is in superficially ‘nice people who are really sociopathic creeps underneath. So it is a slam against Small Town America, which is populated by supposed criminal syndicates (!) and defective losers. Anyone reading the news knows that in the racist imagining gruesome murders, abductions and shootings are only the province of black neighborhoods in big cities. But they actually happen in sleepy little white burgs. Then everyone says – and this happens even in the city: “He seemed like such a nice guy.” Because it’s usually some ‘nice’ white guy who kept the curtains drawn.
Lester compounds his arrogance by eventually antagonizing Malvo in Las Vegas while Malvo is slickly setting up another profitable murder. This fit of hubris leads to the death of Lester’s pretty Asian second wife – something Lester saw coming and avoided like a coward, sending his wife in his place. So who is this detestable coward, Lester Nygaard?
The pretension of the film is that it is a ‘true’ story, a statement which is part of the introduction for each episode. This is not true, as nothing like this has ever happened in Minnesota. A wood-chipping did take place on the East Coast in Newton, Connecticut, perhaps inspiring the initial story. Is this purely a cultural creation to perhaps undermine ‘small town values’ that are so celebrated, even though small towns are some of the most clannish and limited places in the country? No. The dénouement turns that on its head. One of the most frightened characters, a former Duluth animal control officer, surprises and kills Malvo on his own. So Small Town America ultimately gets its revenge on the big city and on one of its own traitors – though it takes awhile.
Who is Lester Nygaard? The people of Bemidji are polite, humane, persistent but somewhat clueless at the same time. He is actually quite devious. Nygaard himself is desperate to pretend nothing happened, to get back to normality while proving he is a ‘man,’ not just a salesman. Lester ultimately comes across as part of the ‘diseases’ of the big city – divorce, violence, self-centeredness, deception. The Cohens have crafted a conservative morality tale of murder and retribution where ‘small town values’ win.
A great story, but not quite true.
I’ve lived in a number of small towns. ‘Small town values’ are what is thrown into the face of leftists and liberals quite frequently by Republican politicians, and even some Democrats. Given very little of the population of Minnesota and nearly every other state lives in a small town anymore, it is somewhat of an ‘anti-democratic’ plea. Small towns don’t normally have factories, are dominated by a few wealthy families that own the biggest stores, ranches or farms and work with other small businessmen to run the towns. The culture is limited to drinking in bars and television and perhaps hunting and fishing. Young people escape if they can. Most working-class people are dependent on the boss who ‘gives’ them a paycheck, so they normally see things the boss’s way. Outsiders are just that – outsiders. Anti-intellectualism is normal. Religion is still taken seriously. Mostly these towns in the U.S. are white or white-dominated, as in the South. There are of course some benefits to small towns, but politics is not one of them.
So I’m thinking my take on ‘small town values’ really lean more to Sinclair Lewis’s version than the Cohen’s version. Sinclair Lewis made fun of the small town U.S. in the novels "Babbitt," and "Main Street," his fictional recreation of the insular and business boosterism of towns like Sauk Centre, Minnesota. There are large bits here of this view in "Fargo", but ultimately the 'salt of the earth' prevail. Whether they really should or not is another matter.
Reviewed below: Prior Cohen film: “Hail Cesar.” Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God,” “Suttree,” “The Road” and “All the Pretty Horses.” Other television long-form dramas reviewed – “Deadwood,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire.”
October 20, 2016