It’s fitting that the premiere episode of Fargo starts off on a freezing cold note: a car crashing through a snow bank, a shivering bloody deer on his last legs, the icy stare of a murderer, and the frigid conversation between an unhappy married couple who painfully smile to keep up appearances. Between the snow in the background of every outdoor shot, the giant furry hats that so many people don, and the way you can see every characters’ breath when they talk, it’s as if Fargo wants you to shiver right along with it.
At the center of Fargo is Lester Nygaard, a pencil-dicked and rat-faced pushover. We first meet him getting scolded by his faux-sweet wife and then later, while daydreaming about owning the combination washer/dryer that may better his life, he gets picked on by a high school bully, Sam, and Sam’s Beavis and Butt-Head-like sons. Lester doesn’t just get two for flinching — he turns and runs straight into a glass window and breaks his nose. Lester is so pathetic that he’s lost a fight without anyone ever touching him.
This is the greatest trick that creator/writer Noah Hawley has pulled: quickly getting the audience to feel for this pathetic character. Poor, poor Lester. Lester’s brother Chaz is a massive dick who would rather tell people that Lester’s dead rather than say that he’s less-than-impressive; Lester’s wife is a shrieking shrew, veering close to annoying caricature, who complains that she married the wrong Nygaard; Lester’s peers include a high school bully who brags about hooking up with Lester’s wife. The first half of the pilot really piles this on. Lester’s terrible at his job, Lester can’t fix an angry-sounding washing machine, Lester can’t even drink a goddamn grape soda by himself. Lester is such a sad mess that we immediately gravitate toward to him, maybe even relate to him. Then Lester just straight whacks his wife in the head with a hammer and — what? What the hell just happened?
But let’s rewind. While in the hospital waiting room, Lester has a chance encounter with Lorne Malvo, a philosophical hit man. Upon hearing the details of Lester’s “fight,” Lorne intones that he would have killed someone like Stan Hess. Plain, matter-of-fact advice: Kill the guy. “Maybe you should just kill him for me,” says a flustered, frustrated, endlessly polite Lester. He quickly takes it back, but there is surely a part of him entertaining this notion. What if someone kills Sam? Wouldn’t that solve a little bit of his problems? As you would guess, Malvo does kill Sam — stabs him in the back as he’s having sex with a stripper. There’s your FX-guaranteed sex scene.
Meanwhile, there is Molly Solverson the smarter-than-her-boss Deputy who, despite knowing that she’s right, will often talk shakily. She investigates the opening crime — a man ran out of Malvo’s trunk and then froze to death — as well as the Hess murder. She finds out about Lester mentioning Sam Hess while in the hospital and wants to follow that lead; her partner, Chief Thurman, takes it up instead.
Solverson will likely get her bigger moments later in the series but in “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” — the episode title borrowed from the paradox of a crocodile stealing a child and telling the father the child will be returned only if the father correctly guesses whether or not the crocodile will return the child — it’s Lorne Malvo who steals many of the scenes. Billy Bob Thornton knows how to play this quietly funny and dangerous character, a guy who murders someone as a favor for a man he’s just met. There are wonderful nuances in Thornton’s performance (that bemused laugh while saying he has no pets is so odd, so memorable) and “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” sets Malvo up as a purely chaotic evil. He convinces a teen boy to piss in someone’s gas tank, only to them have the woman catch him in the act. He pits the two Hess sons against each other. He doesn’t necessarily want to watch the world burn, he’s not against dousing his surroundings in gasoline. Malvo’s more interested in manipulation and seeing what he can convince other people to do. Everyone is capable of shitty things, Malvo is here to goad them until they realize this, drop all pretense, and break the rules.
Fargo seems to be positing the idea that Malvo — that evil — lives inside of everyone. It’s well-trod, yes, but it’s still jarring and fascinating to watch in this particular instance. It doesn’t come completely out of nowhere; there are seeds planted throughout. In one telling scene, Sam recalls something Pearl said: “She caught you standing in the bathroom with your toothbrush in your hand just looking in the mirror. Foam was coming out of your mouth, like a rabid dog.” Lester’s been quietly foaming for years but the strange combination of meeting Malvo, Hess’ murder, and that fucking washing machine is what sets him off.
“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” is evenly-paced in the beginning, maybe even slower than some would like, but it really picks up steam toward the end. Lester has another meeting with Malvo and claims that he never said yes to Malvo killing Sam. “You never said ‘No’,” Malvo calmly replies, “You spend your whole life thinking there are rules. There aren’t.” Malvo tells Lester that he’s more of a man than he was yesterday — and this is the recurring bit in the pilot that loses me, this repeated point that Lester’s masculinity is being threatened (by Sam, by his wife, etc.).
“That’s so I can picture a real man,” Pearl spits out, as acidic as a person can sound with that accent, when remarking on why she doesn’t face Lester during sex. This is an iffy road for Fargo to travel down but the rest of the pilot — and the other episodes that I’ve seen — make me think that this isn’t the point. It’s not a show about questions of masculinity; this is about Malvo honing in on Lester’s specific weakness — Lester doesn’t think he’s a good anything, let alone a good man — and exploiting it to push Lester over the edge. He plants these ideas in Lester’s head so, when confronted about the washing machine he’s failed to fix, Lester’s quick reaction is to whack his wife in the head with a hammer. (And that little shrug and smile Freeman gives before the first hit? Christ.)
Things pile on when Lester calls up his good pal Malvo to help him out but really, to frame him for the murder. Chief Thurman shows up before Malvo does, following up on the Hess lead, and notices the trail of blood. Malvo eventually shows up at the perfect time — shockingly blasting a hole through Thurman before disappearing. Lester makes himself into a victim and Molly arrives, finding two dead bodies and unconscious Lester. What a day.
There’s still a bit more to the episode, with the introduction of Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) who stops Malvo, only to be talked out of it. Grimly could continue to investigate Malvo but he runs the risk of never seeing his daughter again or he could let Malvo drive away and stay alive. Grimly chooses his daughter. “Some roads you shouldn’t go down,” Malvo says, and he’s right.