In 1987, during a white-out winter, a bloodied man stumbles through snowdrifts, toward a fence where he buries a briefcase full of cash and marks it with an ice scraper. Some years later, a desperate husband finds the stash, only to be blackmailed in 2006 by his wife and then a con man. The latter is caught by a pregnant and determined cop. This cop’s dad runs a coffee shop in 2006, but in 1979, he was one of the many officers involved in an infamous massacre that left a trail of blood through the small town of Fargo, North Dakota.
These are the stories told, in order, by Fargo, the Coen brothers’ film from 1996, and the first and second seasons of the Fargo television show, aired in 2014 and 2015 by FX and created by Noah Hawley.
The movie’s original set-up—its characters, its world—fractures and rebuilds inside the show. The story is continued, not retold. It digs into its roots, its lineage. It breaks apart the pieces of story that movies leave in absentia: the repercussions of violent acts decades before, the superstitions, the heritage.
This is a true story. 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.
In the world of Fargo, wilderness is active against the characters. It threatens, it looms, it engulfs. You may think you’re surviving, or you’re besting the elements, but then a patch of ice catches at your wheel, a bullet pierces the plush jacket that prevents your arms from touching your sides. Cars emerge from white out screens, driving between one danger and another. They skid, they ruin, they drift.
It’s 1987 and Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman desperate for money, thinks he has figured it out. He’s made a deal with two for-hire criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare), to kidnap his own wife, in order to demand ransom money from his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). It’s quick, easy money, if dirty, and he’s sure it’ll work because it has to. No one is granting his loans or accepting his grifts.
But Lundegaard doesn’t count on Showalter and Grimsrud reacting to exigent circumstances with a quick trigger. They kidnap Mrs. Lundegaard, then kill a cop that pulls them over, and then kill two innocent witnesses that drive past as Grimsrud is dragging the dead cop’s body back toward his squad car.
It’s a scene local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) arrives at the next morning: two bodies shot, splayed in the snow next to their overturned car. Gunderson is quick and intelligent and is able to piece together the disparate clues left behind by criminals better at leaving a mess than executing a perfect crime. She’s earnest and sincere and doesn’t understand why anyone would do these things, but she doesn’t need to understand. She only needs to catch them.
There is a danger implicit in choosing to live in a place so bereft and desert-like. Landscapes become disparate beneath the snow. It’s easy to come undone in a place like this, normal and yet other. To have your blood pump out of your veins, down your face, into your hands.
Which is what happens to Showalter when faced with Gustafson, who refused to let Lundegaard go to the meet in his stead. Gustafson won’t hand over the briefcase full of cash and Showalter won’t hand over Gustafson’s daughter. It’s a stand-off that ends in a sloppy shoot-out, leaving Gustafson dead and Showalter clutching at his hemorrhaging cheek. Showalter buries the money beneath a snow drift, marking it with an ice pick. He plans to return to it later, but he can’t, because Grimsrud stuffs him headfirst into a wood chipper.
When Gunderson arrives, Showalter has been reduced to red, mulchy snow and an ankle, still wearing its sock.
With Grimsrud in the back of her squad car, Gunderson says: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
Which is a refrain through each of these fractured stories: how does one understand the random, the brutal, the violent?
It’s now 2006 and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a belittled, bullied man living a small life in Bemidji, Minnesota. In his basement, next to the washer that never works, is a poster: a group of yellow fish swimming in one direction, and one red fish swimming in the opposite direction. In bold, white text, the poster asks: “What if you’re right and they’re wrong?”
After Lester murders his wife by bludgeoning her with a hammer, blood splatters across the poster, but he doesn’t take it down. It stays there, like a reminder to Lester: They’re wrong. You’re right.
Before murdering his wife, a door swung open in Lester after he met a hit man, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in the Emergency Department’s waiting room. Lester, there with a broken nose, mentions the bully who did it to him. Lorne asks if he wants him taken out. Lester doesn’t mean to agree, but Lorne hears the hesitance behind his refusal, and kills the bully anyway.
Lorne is a hurricane passing through a small town. Without his influence, Lester would have been tormented and demeaned by former high school jocks, his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law, for the rest of his life. But with two deaths behind him, Lester knows what he is capable of, and he knows what he wants. He wants more. He doesn’t want a small life. That anger unspools his wife’s blood across the concrete floor of their basement, splatters it across the inscrutable fish poster.
And he almost gets away for it, if not for Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a deputy and an officer from two separate stations in two separate towns, each pulled into the impossible labyrinth Lorne creates and Lester destroys. Molly and Gus see through Lester’s fumbling anger, even if Molly’s boss, Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) doesn’t. Solverson understands the length pent-up anger can drive someone to; Oswalt can’t see past the nice, quiet insurance salesman who would never hurt a fly.
Malvo tears through their small communities, ripping holes in fabrics left stitched up, allowing in other hit men with other inquiries. A man is found, frozen in his underpants, in the woods near an abandoned car. Men are dangled over a hole cut into an ice lake. A Supermarket King is plagued by a bloody shower, by crickets raining in his store, by fish falling from the sky.
Solverson’s father, Lou (Keith Carradine), owns a small diner that he bought after retiring from the force. He sees the danger, the ineffability of it, and he sees his daughter running into the storm. He worries. He warns her, mentioning the Sioux Falls Massacre, the case that pushed him into retirement. When Molly goes off, chasing after Malvo, her father grabs his gun and sits outside her house. He’s there to protect what’s his, against the impossible.
Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) is standing in a parking lot, blanketed with snow, outside a waffle house where he has just shot down a local judge, a waitress, and a cook. His escape is interrupted by three shining orbs, pulsing with light in the sky, spinning, hovering. They belong to a ship, and it’s not a ship from Earth. Rye stumbles back. He looks at it. Not sure what he’s seeing, or why. Which is when a car skids down the street and into his body. His head crashes through the windshield. The car pauses. No one gets out. It shifts into gear. It keeps going.
So begins Season Two, which builds on the world Season One built: same rules, but a different game board.
The story is set in 1979, during the Sioux Falls massacre Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson in the second season) hinted at throughout the first. The historic massacre served as a warning baritone in the first season. In the second, we find out why.
Rye’s disappearance and death unlocks the rest of the season. The Gerhardts, an organized crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota, think Rye was taken by the Kansas City Mafia, who they’ve been going up against for years. The Kansas City Mafia comes to town, led by Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). The conflict quickly becomes factioned, fatal. The Gerhardts bring in their trump card, the Indian, Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon).
What they don’t know is where Rye went. They don’t know if he’s alive or dead. If he’s in the wind or if he’s been kidnapped.
Rye was hit by Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst). She drives all the way home. She thinks he’s dead, so she doesn’t bother disposing of the body. She leaves it on the windshield and goes inside to make dinner. It’s not until Rye wakes up and tries to escape, that Peggy’s husband, the weary Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons), finds any of this out. Ed kills him. Their fates are sealed. Peggy tries to explain the situation away, and because Ed loves her and wants to have children with her, he handles it.
Meanwhile, Lou and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) can’t figure out the three bodies in the diner and the tire tracks outside in the snow. Solving the crimes becomes an imperative, especially as the body count ratchets up, but at home, Lou’s wife and Hank’s daughter, Peggy (Cristin Milioti) has incurable cancer, and Lou’s daughter, Molly, is too young to understand. They don’t have to go outside to find trauma; it’s found them, in their own living room.
These different stories crack and build and coalesce: the Gerhardts go after the Kansas City Mafia, both go after the Blumquists, and the police try to figure out what’s going on. Fighting becomes infighting. A traitor is shot in the head. A fixer is gunned down, for coming in too soon. Danger is next door, is outside, is waiting. It’s there. If anyone were to step half an inch in the wrong direction, that would be it. The end of their story.
The UFOs hover in the background of a shoot-out at a local motel. Lou Solverson is seconds from death, hands wrapped around his neck, choking, when they’re interrupted by ships, bobbing in the sky above. Lou, splayed out in the parking lot, stares up at the lights. He doesn’t know what he’s seeing, or why he’s seeing it. The Blumquists are cornered in a hotel room. The approaching gun men are distracted by the otherworldly lights long enough to let the besieged couple escape.
Ed stops. He looks up at the sky. He asks his wife if she’s seeing it. But Peggy’s eyes are on the ground, toward survival. She tugs on Ed. “It’s just a flying saucer,” she says. “Ed, we gotta go.”
Throughout the worlds of Fargo, characters are looking to understand. Faced with the unexplainable, they say, “I don’t understand.” They shake their heads. The violence, the confusion, the strangeness of it all doesn’t fit into the specific, strong lives they’ve built for themselves.
A wife has cancer. UFOs appear but never arrive. An intelligent Sheriff scribbles indecipherable symbols across his office, with an eye toward an impossible, universal language. A hired Indian asks his mark to cut his hair. A hit man, job done, is shuttled to an office with a door and a view of another office building. They’re cornered. They’re kept.
But despite all of this, the characters persist. They may not understand, but someone still has to put dinner on the table, someone still has to clock-out every night, someone still has to make sure the front door is locked.
“Goodnight, Mr. Solverson,” Betsy says to Lou as they settle into bed beside each other.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Solverson.” Lou replies. He pulls the covers up. Rolls over so he’s looking at his wife. “And all the ships at sea.”
Each story is Shakespearean in the way it can be broken down into pieces and built again, only to be more compelling, more intense, more questioning. Each story told has similar parts: the deal gone wrong, the hit man, the career criminals, the good cops, and the regular people caught in the cross-fire. The bones here are so fine, so strong, that an endless reordering and retooling would create stories as compelling and hard and endearing.
The characters are all navigating their own lives, doing their best and their worst: what does happiness mean, they wonder, and how do we achieve it? How can I get what I want, and do I care if that want interferes with the wants of those I love? What does it mean to be a good person? Is it a small thing, or is it big? Is it enough to try?
They don’t find answers. They won’t. Just like they won’t come to understand the motives behind the deaths that pile up, the bodies that fall, and the violence borne from blindness.
It’s enough to survive.
Turn the criminal in and then go home. You’re pregnant and your husband’s painting was accepted for the three cent stamp. Retire from the force. Open a coffee shop, deliver mail, have children. Take care of what’s yours. Be a good man, a good woman. Whatever that means.