Fargo Season 1, Episode 1 “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”
Written by Noah Hawley
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX
Our introduction to Fargo, Noah Hawley’s Coen Brothers-produced adaptation of their 1996 cinematic classic, begins with a very goofy looking Billy Bob Thornton, driving down a long, desolate Minnesotan road (sound familiar?) with someone in the trunk. Bathed in the red of his brake lights, our first look at Lorne Malvo (small spoiler here since we don’t learn his name in the pilot; you’ll survive) is littered with homages to its source material and symbolism, drawing ties to the original (a briefcase! snowy roads! People running through snow!) and silently introducing Lorne as the Devil incarnate – not only is he surrounded by the color red in the opening sequence, he also hits and kills a deer, a beacon of innocence and purity that Malvo eventually stuffs in the trunk of his broken down car.
From there, Fargo begins slowly building its world (a process that will take the show multiple episodes to do; there isn’t even sight of Adam Goldberg, Oliver Pratt, or Key and Peele in the 70-minute first episode), filling in the margins of Bemidji, Minnesota (the show’s primary setting, complete with Paul Bunyon statue) with a cast of predictably fucked-up (and white as the snow in Adam Bernstein’s many long shots of Minnesotan landscapes) characters. At the center of them all is Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, who gets his English and Minnesotan accents confused throughout the first season), a failing insurance salesman facing the typical emasculation seen in the first hours of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and the like. His wife pretty much hates him, and his high school bully still wanders the streets torturing him – eventually sending him to the hospital by making him flinch, the ultimate display of non-masculinity.
Fed up with his life, Lester sits in the ER and finds himself sitting next to Malvo, who quickly points out what an idiot he sounds like. “This man had relations with your wife, and you want to apologize to him?” It’s here where Thornton’s masterful performance begins to take over, extending the Apple of Eden to a man who’s been pushed to the brink of his own “good”ness, asking him if he’d like for his old bully to stop breathing, permanently. And its in Lester’s lack of a response that Malvo finds his answer: “I didn’t tell you yes!” Lester later exclaims, after Malvo’s put a knife in the back of Sam Hess’s head (which in turn, appears to ignite the larger, more complex narratives of the show). “You didn’t tell me no” is Malvo’s malevolent (see the similarity there?) response, a nasty grin sliding across his face as he forces Lester to contemplate a life of action, rather than reaction.
Every scene with Thornton is a Fargo highlight – especially in “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”, an episode that meticulously builds characters and local nomenclature into a thoroughly familiar story about white mid-life crises, right down to Lester facing the ultimate emasculation at the hands of his wife, who shits on his career, their sex life, and his character in one fell swoop, igniting Lester to take Malvo’s advice and take control. It leads to the highlight of Fargo‘s opening hour, a sequence that leads to a dead sheriff, dead wife, and a scrambling, panicking Lester trying to cover his tracks with the help of the mysterious murderer he met in the hospital, putting Deputy Molly Solverson on Lester and Malvo’s trail in the process.
Smartly, “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” doesn’t use its extended running time to show the true expanse of its narrative and characters; outside of a few mythology-building scenes (like the man answering numerous phones, referring to people by locations only), the first hour of Fargo is concerned with building the characters in its hometown (and then promptly removing a few of them from existence). As one might expect, a lot of it is colorful dialogue (“uff da!”) and slow-paced character building, pausing for moments where Thornton talks about how the civilized world’s collared our base instincts, those which act without remorse or fear of consequence.
In that sense, Fargo really isn’t anything new: at its heart, it’s about the angst of middle-aged white men in small town full of white people, with no real interesting female characters to speak of (outside of Molly, of course, played wonderfully by Allison Tolman as the series continues). But trust me; Fargo‘s world opens up rather quickly over the next few episodes, the events of “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” catalyzing a larger, much more complex story about dirty businesses, bad cover-ups, and the ever-present Prince of Darkness (who takes his role in this world very literally at times) whispering in everyone’s ear like the shop keeper from Needful Things (or being very quietly threatening, as he is with Colin Hanks’ single-father suburb cop character). Things are only beginning to unravel in Fargo, a dark comedy that may initially exist in the shadow of its predecessor, but definitely has some tricks up its sleeve in the future to keep things from feeling too familiar.
– Welcome to our Fargo coverage! For extended thoughts on the first four hours of the series, head over to Processed Media to read my full review of the series.
– I’d be willing to bet that M-249 Lester nearly breaks is Chekov’s Gun, no? (also, there is mention Hess was involved in some kind of gun running, connecting the dots between Lester’s brother and Hess for the show to pick up on later).
– another great bit of color: Lester’s massive orange jacket, as Lester embraces the evil power of the dark man inside him.
– What If You’re Right, And They’re Wrong?
– Kate Walsh hasn’t been given a lot to do yet as Hess’s widow, but I do enjoy the over-the-top quality she brings to the few scenes we’ve seen her in (and her idiot children are particularly hilarious).
– The Crocodile’s Dilemma refers to a paradox: in it, a crocodile offers a father his child back safely if he can correctly predict whether the crocodile will return the child.
– The wardrobe design in the ER scene was absolutely perfect; Lorne and Lester are both wearing coats of the same shade of gray, with Lester wearing a light shirt underneath, and Lester dark: Lester’s fully embraced the darkness inside him, while Lester is still trying to insist there is some good within him, even as he reluctantly embraces the evil he’s always kept at bay.