The story may be engrossing and the world may be singular, but it’s the varied and deep characters that make the premiere episode of Fargo — FX’s new 10 episode event series loosely tied to the Coen brothers theatrical masterpiece of the same name — truly astonishing.
He is the bringer of chaos, this trickster God in disguise as a seemingly unassuming man, his voice just a bit slower and a lot out of place. When he walks into a motel, he disrupts the flow of things — verbal abuse, nothing too severe but damaging all the same. We think this darkly attired stranger is sent to empower this poor bastard whose only sin is cutting corners. He tells him a story about pissing in a gas tank. “Guy insulted me once, I pissed in his gas tank, car never drove straight again” he says as he leaves the thought to blossom in the fertile soil of someone who doesn’t know any better.
I don’t remember if the motel sign said anything about having cable or HBO in the way that motels like that do, advertising the only thing that makes them an ounce better than a sleeping bag in a bus stop, but as Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) looks out the window, he gets all the entertainment he needs when he calls the front desk to let the aforementioned verbal abuser know that her feeble minded subordinate has his dick in her gas tank. This man is something else.
Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is the bland wallpaper that has begun to peel off the walls of the guest bathroom that nobody uses. Nevermind the minor success that was covering those walls for his entire life, doing his dreadful job, keeping a roof, and living with a wife who moons over the things that she doesn’t have while picking at that wallpaper whenever she sees it — and she is not alone.
Sam Hess is connected, a dastardly fuckface with ill-begotten gains. This is the kind of person who makes you wonder if the sacred notions about karma and order and justice are at best bullshit and at worst a soothing song to keep us sedated and in line. Hess peaked in high school, but the world is broken and so he goes home to a sterling home and a wife that looks like Kate Walsh after a day of dragging his knuckles along the sidewalk with his dim and lightless offspring standing by his side, chortling at how nervous papa bear makes poor Lester outside of the appliance store. You would think that Hess would be secure with the life that he has fallen into, but he needs to jut out his chest, reading off his list of accomplishments to Lester while regaling his twin lead paint snackers with tales of past brutalities and a tugjob that he once got from Lester’s soft-handed wife.
Fear, quite literally, throws Lester into a wall on two occasions in this episode, sending him to the hospital each time. On the first trip there, he meets Lorne, who may as well be the devil. “Yes or no” Lorne says, waiting for Lester to tell him whether he should kill Sam or not. There is no answer given, but chaos gains permission from the silence and Lorne pays a visit to Sam Hess.
Lester and Lorne meet twice more in this first episode, once in a coffee shop and once in a bloodbath. At the coffee shop, Lorne has the contented look of a man who believes that he has done a good deed — killing Sam and later planting the seeds of malefaction into the head of another idiot.
Lester isn’t as easy to read. Is it guilt or is it fear that weighs on him? He does seem more fixated on the blame than the deed, doesn’t he? Even later, when he finally snaps, there is a pause to ponder what has been done before he continues with an attack that is underwritten by a kind of apologetic viciousness (Freeman, like a lot of the other actors, veers toward parody while grappling with the Dakota/Minnesota cadence, especially as he repeatedly rears back with his hammer while whispering “oh jeez” repeatedly — the show’s lone misfire) before hurried calculation to avoid the consequences of his actions
“The shit they make us eat…” says Lorne, nudging Lester away from order and out of line with a hollow story about pushing back that evades the realities of cause and effect and effect, but the trouble is, it’s life advice from a murderer and hypocrite.
Lorne likes to think that he is above order, moving from town to town, a mysterious executioner who finds delight in the suffering of those that he has judged as deserving, but when he guns down the police chief (a subtle and solid appearance by Big Love actor Shawn Doyle) — who is introduced to us as a good man with a child on the way — Lorne realizes that he has taken an innocent.
On the way out of town, Lorne gets pulled over by a kindly cop/father that is played by Colin Hanks; but as Hanks’ Officer Gus Grimly confronts Lorne, the cold killer reveals himself to be on the run before telling him, “Maps used to say there be dragons here, but now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.”
There’s a beat in between that moment and Hanks’ reaction, a moment that makes us wait to find out what kind of show this is going to truly be. We hear Officer Grimly’s daughter come over the radio once more, causing Lorne to inexplicably use that connection, that loyalty to one role over the other to redouble his efforts to get Officer Grimly to yield, but as we see Grimly lose himself in the internal debate of the moment as the exhaust from Lorne’s stolen car mixes with the cold air and the red lights from Officer Grimly’s squad car to almost look like a dragon’s fiery breath, it occurs to us that this is the closest thing to a good deed that Lorne is capable of. The bringer of chaos craves a bit of order.