Were Fargo TV Viewers Duped, Like With True Detective?

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Billy Bob Thornton in a scene from 'Fargo.' The constant danger of good going bad.
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

There are plots constantly 
being hatched against the innocent TV viewer, in which the present writer is perennially implicated as the guilty party. It has to do with a malaise of epidemic proportions, namely “spoiler-
phobia.” At worst, its symptoms are a deadly dread of getting to hear even the minutest detail of a TV plot before the viewer gets to see it with his own eyes, at his leisure, as it presumably spoils the viewing fun forever.

The noun “plot” in English has six distinct meanings, according to the 
Oxford English Dictionary. Two of them are pertinent here: “Plan made in secret by a group of people, esp. to achieve an unlawful end; a conspiracy” (from the 16th century); and “The plan or scheme of a literary or dramatic work; the main events of a play, novel, film, opera, etc., considered or presented as an interrelated sequence; a storyline” (17th century).

In a sense, the plot of an episode is, at the same time, a plot shrewdly contrived by the creators against the characters, and, indirectly, against the viewers, who insist on ignorance as they don’t want their (dubious, in my mind) pleasure of finding themselves duped to be spoiled.

Having laid the groundwork, allow me to say a few things after watching the 10th and final episode of “Fargo,” created by Noah Hawley and based loosely on the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. The series as a whole deserves it, and I’m fully aware that not all of you have seen all of it yet, so I’ll tread lightly around the plot details.

The villain of the piece – that’s not a spoiler, he is presented as such from the first frame – is one Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a deadly efficient, dispassionate gun for hire. He’s as evil as it gets, but this is just the beginning of things. Soon enough, we see his seductive charm in action as he entices the seemingly innocent loser, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), to stand tall and refuse to be bullied by life in the small town of Bemidji, Minnesota.

There is a moment in one of the episodes when Lester, for some reason, covers his face with bandages, leaving only his eyes and mouth in view. As he does that, Freeman looks, for a fleeting moment, very much like Thornton, and Nygaard and Malvo sort of merge into one. Indeed, that is one of the main themes of the series (with some biblical overtones): the eternal struggle between good and evil, the intoxicating drawing power of evil, and the constant and deadly danger of good going bad.

That leaves the main female character, rookie deputy Molly Solverson – was she so named to hint that she will solve the mysteries for us? – slightly out of the equation. But she is one of the main links to the original movie, which saw Frances McDormand win an Oscar for her performance as a heavily 
pregnant deputy. Molly (Allison Tolman), with her slightly detached demeanor, is also the one who solves the cryptic question uttered in one of the episodes by the malevolent Malvo.

The answer to that particular question, says Malvo, will explain all the mysteries of the comic-horror, Grand Guignol plot, and Molly knows immediately that this is a remnant of the (ancient?) times when man was – like many other animals – a predator. That, indeed, is the other main issue raised by “Fargo”: the fact that, under the not-so-thick ice covering the lakes of Minnesota, lie deep and murky waters in which man kills man as part of his daily routine.

And that is ultimately the “moral,” such as it is, of the series. By the end – and I’m not divulging the details about how it ends – we will know that even predators have their own “moral code”: killing for profit, vengeance or fun is ultimately punished, sooner or later.

Justice – not neccesarily the legal kind – will eventually come. Self-
defense (where “self” includes one’s family) is another matter altogether, and sometimes – as Gus Grimly, the cop turned postman (Colin Hanks) finds out – when you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.

In that sense, the innocent viewers have, in a way, been duped here, much the same as happened with “True Detective,” the other hotly debated and critically acclaimed new series of 2014. For the eight consecutive weeks of the airing of “True Detective” (with its own criminals, occult world and honest, but flawed, policemen) and 10 weeks of “Fargo,” we were presented with a very bleak, depressing and frightening vision of a world in which there is very little, if any, hope. However, by the end of both series, there are some rays of sun upon the snowy plains of wintery Minnesota and the green fields of summery Louisiana. All may still be well in our best of possible worlds.

Creator Nic Pizzolatto is currently working on the second series of “True Detective,” with completely new protagonists, and he’s revealed that the new season will be about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” A second series of “Fargo” has yet to be commissioned, but that is presumably only a matter of time given its critical success.

Both series successfully created a distinctive aura, comprised of the places they occur in and the people inhabiting them, enough of one to sustain another plot. They can hopefully once more ensnare a different set of characters and tell the TV viewers something pertinent about the world they – the viewers, wherever they are – are living in.