While Freeman’s Lester Nygaard is the anchor of the pilot episode, the poor schmuck whose life is in shambles and is repeatedly kicked around by everyone he knows, Thornton’s mysterious Lorne Melvo is the show’s wildcard. He doesn’t seem to have a counterpart in the Coen film, and is only Chigurh-like in his seemingly sociopathic demeanor, and as I mentioned before, that hair. It’s impossible to determine as of yet just where his motivation lies, but I suspect that will be developed more as the season progresses. Right now, it’s almost as if he descends on Bemidji simply to troll its citizens, telling them to piss in gas tanks only to rat them out moments later. He has the serial killer’s casual prowess with any weapon, but also a cult leader’s ability and charisma to influence the actions and dispositions of his subjects—Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson rolled into one. And he does so with a charm that amuses us all the way along, a quality of playful deviance for which Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast.
The rest of the cast is also, in the words of Lester, “oh ya, real good.” Freeman himself is characteristically superb, transforming into this hapless buffoon, complete with convincing accent and anxious mannerisms. He’s been a favorite actor of mine since The Office; somehow he finds a way to express a multitude of emotion through just his breathing. Then there are the police, including the excellent Shawn Doyle, the aforementioned presumed heir to the role of Marge Gunderson, Allison Tolman, and Bob Odenkirk, who is playing wonderfully against the Saul Goodman type he knocked out of the park on Breaking Bad. Odenkirk also gets more room to play around comedically here than he was able to on Nebraska, although he is now surely becoming an expert on regional Midwestern telecinematic storytelling. And speaking of Nebraska, the dynamic between the Hess sons sure is reminiscent of that film’s two memorable cousin characters. Heck, even Colin Hanks seems to fit in perfectly with the tone of Fargo, and the likes of Oliver Platt, Glenn Howerton, and (still sort of baffled by this) Key and Peele themselves have yet to be introduced to us.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that the next few episodes, which were sent to a selection of critics, are even better than the pilot, but I have to say, I found this premiere to be extremely strong. The central mystery that the police are investigating is a nice narrative hook, and is unfolding perfectly well. The principal strength of the show though—for me at least—is a quality it lifts from its source material, and that is the unique sense of place it establishes through a combination of photography, music, and the rhythm and pacing of its editing. It’s not just the snowy landscapes, but the sparseness of the townscapes, the expanse of parking lots and huge spaces from one building to the next. The music is reminiscent of that memorable theme from the film, but there’s also a certain musicality to that Minnesota accent that adds an extra dimension to the regional specificity of the characters.
The editing, as well, draws out something from the original film that I didn’t detect, or at least couldn’t articulate, after seeing it a number of times. The slow dissolves between scenes jumped out at me, paired with the music which almost sounds like slowed down Godfather music, and finally the pacing of Fargo was made clear, specifically that it’s a leisurely pace, one that isn’t in a particular hurry to get anywhere it’s going. It’s slow, but not sluggish. It feels like the way things move when you get out of the big coastal cities. Although, when it needs to, it will draw emphasis to a ticking clock, as if to remind the characters as well as the audience that time is still out to get them if they’re not careful. Oh, you betcha.