Apr 16, 2014

Fargo: “The Crocodile’s Dilemma”

By Josh Oakley

In the paradox of the crocodile’s dilemma, a beast struggles to stick to their word. Simply put, if a crocodile steals a child and promises its return upon the father’s correct guessing of whether it will give the child back or not, what does the crocodile do if the father guesses that the kid will not be returned? In this case, the crocodile cannot return the child, for that would make the father’s guess incorrect, in which case he should not receive the child in the terms of the deal. But if the crocodile withholds the child, he has also wronged the father, who has now guessed correctly and deserves his son back. There are a number of reasons that this paradox serves as a perfect title for the pilot of Fargo, but the most striking may be this: morality, and a person’s word, are incredibly difficult things to both define and maintain.

This should come as no surprise, given that the show’s source material is a film made by the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen specialize in playing with the moral code of their worlds, either warping into chaotic unfairness (Burn After Reading) or playing along the lines of a strict karmic justice (nearly all of their other films). The television show Fargo, which has their blessing but not their input, is still around nine hours from its conclusion, so it’s impossible at this time to parse exactly what code it lives by. But the title of this episode, and the actions already undertaken by the main characters prove that it has these larger questions in mind.

The first of these characters that we meet is Lorne Malvo, played with cold exactitude by Billy Bob Thornton, in what is already likely to become one of his defining roles. The scene quickly establishes that he’s a “bad man” when a man clad only in boxers escapes from his car and runs to die in the cold forest. Instead of following this man, Lorne looks at a deer he hit. It’s impossible in the moment to read exactly what he thinks of this creature, whether it be pity, mourning or triumph. By the end of the episode, we have yet to fully know Lorne, but he does not seem like the kind of man to cry over spilled deer’s blood.

What’s most fascinating about this first scene is how it plays with the expectations provided by the film the show is adapted from. Similar (if not identical?) music plays as the text on the screen promises the viewer that this is a true story, and only the names have been changed. We see, as we do in the film, a car grow in the frame, nearing or departing from something we’re not yet privy to. Here’s where the scene deviates from the film both dramatically and thrillingly. In the original, the opening is an in-media-res look at the police involved with the dismantling of the crime the movie has followed. Though it’s more bittersweet than joyful, we’re ultimately following the good guys in their victory. Here, however, we’re watching Lorne, a man whose only principles seem to be to indulge in whatever makes him happy, damn the lives or well being of those around him.

This scene also quickly proves that Lorne is not in any way a carbon copy of the film’s two central villains. The shot of the man in his boxers, running from the car is nearly identical to one that sees the movie’s Gaear (Peter Stormare) shoot a departing victim from afar. But Lorne is more level headed than this. He can see that his man will die, and that there is no point in wildly shooting a gun, only to possibly make things more difficult for him in the long run (that the cops figure out the man’s connection to Lorne anyway says a lot about where the show may be headed morally). Lorne is a symbol of bottled chaos; he is a man capable of controlling the elements of his evil. But when he meets the weak-willed Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), that chaos becomes uncorked, and begins to leak all over this small town in Minnesota. 

Lester is a pathetic man. He is, unfortunately, constantly reminded of this by those that should be loving and supportive, but the fact that he is bullied doesn’t take away from the truth of what these cruel people say. Look at him attempting to sell insurance and doing a miserable job, scaring potential customers away with his meekly threatening talk of accidents. He seems like a nice enough guy, but the show never presents any real reason to like him. Sympathize with him, possibly, at least until the later events of the episode, but no reason to think he’s any better than the assholes around him do.

When Lester meets Lorne, they’re both in the hospital for wounds to the face. The former knocked himself out while flinching from a fake-out from his old high school bully. The latter was sent into his steering wheel when the shock of nature conflicted with his nefarious actions. This scene is a delight, playing the tones of the two actors’ performances off of one another, with Freeman’s “aw shucks” attitude seeming less and less realistic in the face of Thornton’s quiet calculation. Behind the two men, throughout the scene, a sign in the hospital has a set of arrows, all leading from Lorne to Lester. It’s a smart foreshadowing of influence, and before the episode is over we’ll see exactly how poisonous Lorne can be, and how susceptible Lester truly is.

That inability to back away from influence is key to the definition of Lester. Rather than a Walter White-type, who delves into pockets of his soul that have always been aching to get out, he’s just following orders. Those directions may be different from his wife and brother who called him pathetic, but he’s still defining himself in the context of somebody else’s plans. When Lester kills his wife, truly setting off the fuse of the show, it’s him adapting his code from Lorne. Lester is a pathetic man because he has no spine. Even the evil, seemingly individualistic choices he makes are because of an outside force.

Fargo is one of the many shows of this period of television history that plays with the ideas of masculinity, but one of the few that does so explicitly. Early in the episode, the idea that Lester isn’t behaving like a man should is brought up frequently, often by himself. He should be able to fix appliances around the house, and provide extravagant goods for his wife. He should be strong in the face of adversity, knocking down those that look to harm him. When you think about it, the advice given by Lorne is only a slightly warped version of what Lester’s family members tell him. They’re all jostling him, and the subtext of some becomes the text for Lorne. The tethering of masculine ideals to violence is dangerous, potentially creating a volatile concoction when placed alongside the wrong influence. In some ways, this could be seen as a rebuttal of the standard masculine archetype explored often on TV: the anti-hero isn’t an example of a man, or what a man should strive to be. Or, more accurately, it’s a rebuttal of the pockets of the Internet that indulge in worshiping men like Walter White. By having his equivalent here by a weak-willed man, Fargo aims to challenge these basic ideas.

Another way the show plays with both its source material and ideas of being a man, is in the relationship between Vern Thurman and his wife, Ida. The closest connection to the film is Marge and her husband Norm. Where that relationship swapped the typical gender roles for the characters, this one switches them back, though it still plays with their individual roles. The moment where Vern answers his phone late at night is shot in the exact same way as a similar scene that kicks off Marge’s plot. One key difference here is that Ida, the wife, does not offer to make breakfast, whereas Norm insists on doing so in the film. It’s a subtle deviation, but a vital one.

Unfortunately, this relationship is short lived for the viewer, as Vern’s death comes towards the episode’s close. Lorne shoots him in the back, quickly adding to the body count that already includes two central characters. It was a bold move for the pilot to spend so much time on Vern, giving us a sense of the kind of man he was, and why and how he will be missed. His death hangs heavily over the last scene of the episode, as Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) walks away from her father, feeling the weight of both her friend’s death and the reminder that she could easily be next.

Molly isn’t as fully defined here, though Tolman does an excellent job of making sure she’s capable of anchoring a large chunk of the show for the rest of the series. Given how much this pilot episode must set up, it’s a wonder that we get to know all of these characters as well as we do. Lester and Lorne are the most fully rounded here, but Molly has enough shades of both competency and kindness that set her up well as an opposing force against the evils of this world.

The question of the show’s moral code is most interesting in the context of Vern’s death. He was, by all accounts, a good man. He loved his wife, was ready to love his child; he was a good police chief and a good friend. So why did he have to die? The chaos of this world is clearly unfair, already defined by this quick end to a heroic character. But just because the heroes are punished does not mean the villains will get away free.

Molly seems too wise, too able to link pieces together, to allow Lorne and Lester to fill the world with their bad deeds. But then look at the power Lorne wields over Officer Grimly (Colin Hanks). This is a terrifying man, one who is unknowable, and one who fucks with the natural order of the world for his own amusement. Whether or not Lorne is allowed to continue to infect everyone around him will be the key to unlocking how Fargo the television show views the world it inhabits. And, by virtue of this being a “true story” and all, how it views the world we inhabit. Good people die everyday, but that doesn’t mean that evil always comes out on top.

Grade: A

  • Everything involving the motivational poster that seemed to first mock Lester, then cheer on his murderous actions, was delightful. The image of it spattered with blood was a perfect example of this show creating something both outside of the Coen brothers’ world, and within their mindset.
  • Also delightful: Lorne downing an entire can of grape Faygo.
  • Another seeming similarity to the film: Fargo isn’t where the action takes place, but rather the source of the evil in the world; Molly mentions a crime syndicate located there a couple of times.
  • The fact that Vern says “that’s some good policework there” in Lou’s Coffee Shop has got to be a reference to my favorite line from the film, doesn’t it?
  • Finally, one that is clearly a reference, albeit to a different Coen brothers film: the drink special for a White Russian

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