Following 'Fargo,' Where Business-as-usual Turns Out to Mean Mayhem-for-all

'Fargo' has it a bit easier than the other series competing with it for the crown of 'artistic achievement' on prime-time TV, fitting into an already recognized, and recognizable, 'style,' set by the movie.

The sheriff (Ted Danson, left) and his son-in-law (Patrick Wilson) in “Fargo.” Grimly comic.
Chris Large / FX

This is a fair warning to all ye followers of the “Fargo” series, second season: the following two (or five) paragraphs contain spoiler(s). But do not switch off (your attention) as yet: they will be minor ones, not divulging any unexpectedly surprising turns of the twisted plot, or plotted twists, but having to do with visual and minute effects that set (in the eyes of this writer) the specific, original and widely applauded tone of the whole series.

The following is a description, to the best of my ability, of the opening sequence of the seventh episode of the second season – with two to go as you read this. It is titled “Did You Do This? No, You Did It!” and had 1.24 million viewers on FX in the U.S.. It’s aired in Israel by HOT Plus (and on VOD). The scene: an office in a high-rise building – the view through the glass window in the background is wide, blue and unlimited. The speaker, evidently a CEO, in a grey business suit, instructs his assistants in the ways of conducting some business negotiation. Those who have been following the series know that the business lingo and the suit are a cover for mob activity in which business-as-usual spells mayhem-for-all.

As he speaks, delivering instructions that sound commercial, but spell life and death sentences, the silhouettes of two window-washers rise up behind him, outside the window, on a platform being hoisted up by an unseen crane. When they are sort of level with the scene in the office, we see the back of one of the assistants slowly rising from his chair. At the same moment, the window-washers produce machine guns from their dark overalls and spray the room with bullets, shattering the glass and everything else. Then one of them presses the button of a remote control, and the platform is lowered out of sight.

The next shot is of the face of an elderly gent, his expression sort of neutral; the initiated viewer recognizes him as Otto Gerhardt, patriarch of the local mob – immersed in water, face down. In the next shot we realize that his head is being held down in a toilet bowl by two men. And the shot after that supplies a bit of an artistic comment: water swirling in a sink or possibly a toilet bowl, and disappearing into a dark, rusty hole.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is “Fargo” the series, as written and produced by Noah Hawley and inspired by the 1996 film of the same name by the Coen brothers (executive producers of the series). More than the locale (Minnesota and the sub-suburban vicinity), the characters and the plot (which matter, but do not “make” it), it is about the tone: a matter-of-fact daily occurrence, somehow boding ill for someone and suddenly erupting into violence. But that violence is somehow overdone, surreal: it is rarely a single shot; more often than not it is a hail of bullets. It is not always necessarily about blood, but when it is, there are wet red splashes all over the place, in a nearly Grand Guignole fashion. It is frightening and violent, but in some way also weirdly and grotesquely funny. The viewer is fascinated, but somehow cannot take it seriously. And there is, once in a while, a frame that yells “Hey, I’m an artistic visual comment, look at me for my own beauty’s sake.”

This is where “Fargo” has it a bit easier than the other series competing with it for the crown of “artistic achievement” on prime-time TV – “True Detective,” written and produced by Nic Pizzolatto for HBO, also in its second season. While “True Detective” has to reinvent itself in its own, new fashion, “Fargo” has to fit into an already recognized, and recognizable, “style,” set by the movie: a mixture of gray, mundane everyday life and the wildly and ruthlessly violent, with a pinch of the grimly comic, plus characters larger than life yet somehow fitting into the overall picture.

The ‘Fargo’ cocktail

Both series toy with the notion of “truth.” “True Detective” implies that it is not concocted fiction, adhering to the formula of a police procedural, but something that reflects life as it really is. The detective does not always catch the villain and the events do not explain themselves or fit into a pattern one can live with, and anyway, underneath it, all the characters are somehow corrupted. “Fargo,” on the other hand, claims during its opening sequence that: “This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in [year]. 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.” This is an example of a “disclaimer” if there ever was one, and allows the writers and creators to be as creative and imaginative as they can. And they can.

The main ingredients of the “Fargo” cocktail, apart from the tone-seasonings described above, are also the characters that belong, roughly, to one of the three following categories: 1. Mobsters, local and “national,” fighting over territories, creating most of the bloodshed but also contributing some memorable weirdos to the plot, and allowing for crosses (to bear) and double-crosses to occur. The mob members of the Gerhardt family hate and annihilate each other with passion. 2. The Innocents, drawn into committing the most bizarre crimes while trying cover up their unfortunate and instinctive acts of folly. In the first season it was the hapless insurance agent, played by Martin Freeman. In this one it is the Blumquist couple – the bit-too-eager beautician, Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and her very gullible husband, the butcher’s assistant, Ed (Jesse Plemons). 3. The Policemen, in this particular plot a father-in-law, the sheriff (Ted Danson) and his son-in-law, a local cop (Patrick Wilson), who are trying to solve a crime. But they find themselves trying to capitalize on the mob infighting, trying to serve law and order by playing the rival gangs off against each other. That section also supplies the dose of “reality,” which was policewoman Molly Solverson’s pregnancy in season one of the series, and her mother’s cancer in the second season, which is in a way a “prequel” of the first.

One of the charms of “Fargo” lies in its incongruities. For instance, there is the Kansas City henchman Mike Milligan, looked down on by his mob superiors as the “Negro” who has to deliver results, or else. At the same time, with a blank expression, he quotes Latin saws and speaks in parables and riddles, and outsmarts and outguns (and out-knives) his employers deftly and swiftly (his “predecessor” in season one was the inscrutable Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton). In another scene, a Gerhardt thug who claims, as a true patriot, that there is a pressing need to repossess the South Dakota crime scene that the Kansas City mob had taken from them, because, he says, “there is where they have the carved faces of presidents” (meaning Mount Rushmore). Be that as it may, season two of “True Detective” had ratings twice as high as “Fargo,” but the latter is faring – with two episodes to go – much better with the reviewers, where reputation matters more than popularity. All this pales against the facts, when the powers that be have to decide whether the series is over or will be renewed for a year or a season. “True Detective” ended its second season a couple of months ago, and Pizzolatto has a three-year contract with HBO, but as of this writing there is no news about a possible third season; whereas “Fargo,” its second season not over yet, has already been renewed for a third season, with Hawley remaining firmly at its helm. Who, in series-land, can ask for anything more?