This week fans of Fargo will be delighted with its return to SBS. Creator, director and writer Noah Hawley is in fine form with his third iteration of the crime drama inspired by the Coen brothers’ classic Academy Awardwinning black comedy thriller of the same name. Not unexpectedly, given Hawley’s gifts, it is another mesmerising 10-part fable, a style already dubbed “prairie-noir” by admirers, about a group of good Minnesota folk who are driven “blood simple” by wrath and human folly.
Some of them are decent people who just make the wrong decisions and become caught up in the savage momentum of the plot, forcing them into collisions with others — often in the most comical of ways.
This is a show in which anything can happen to anyone at any time, usually when you — and they, of course — least expect it. With Hawley the problems of guilt and complicity are always pleasurably manoeuvred in such a way that murderers may not be caught, and may in fact be the characters with whom we most identify.
The evocative expression “blood simple” was a title for another Coen brothers movie, derived from the 1952 Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, where it is used to describe what happens to someone psychologically once they have committed murder. “They go ‘ blood simple’ in the slang sense of ‘simple’, meaning crazy,” explains Joel Coen.
Part action thriller, part caper homage, and this time with touches of the horror movie genre, the new series is similar to the preceding two insofar as it is ingrained with the trademark Coen brothers’ humour and that quality of socalled “Minnesota nice”, which made the movie so popular.
It is usually defined as a disinclination to intrude, the result of a natural distaste for conflict and confrontation, and a propensity for understatement. It can also make what might seem like the most benign interaction absolutely perplexing to an outsider. It is crucial to an under- standing of the show. Hawley calls it “a heightened friendliness and sense of community that sprang up around a region that was historically isolated and in the frozen tundra of winter”.
The Fargo creator spoke recently to The Hollywood Reporter about how he references the Coens’ many movies in the show — you’ll easily spot touches of No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. He said he settled on the notion of making “No Country for Old Fargo”, “where we need a dramatic crime infrastructure that sustains the level of threat throughout, where you’re always a little worried about everybody and the threat of violence is always there. And within that, you can have these comic moments.”
While the series is conceptually based on the Coens’ film, each season is a separate crime case, with new characters, conceived as a limited series in the style of True Detective and American Horror Story. Hawley calls it “a mixture of really dry, compelling drama with comedy, with true crime and violence, and this other element which sort of mixes a little absurdity, a little mysticism and a little philosophy”.
While the first two seasons had obvious connections to the movie, Hawley calls this “a new book”, and this time sets it in 2010 in the aftermath of the financial collapse.
The first episode, titled Law of Vacant Places, introduces two brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor, who looks like he is having enormous fun). Emmit, the older brother, sees himself as an American success story — the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota” — while under threat from someone called Rita Goldberg, the so-called “storage queen”. The more sympathetic Ray, a balding, pot-bellied parole officer, forever a supporting player to his industrious brother, spends most of his days collecting urine — “piss tests” they’re called — from his unsavoury assortment of parolees.
Their father died when they were teenagers, leaving one of them a stamp collection and the other a Corvette. They traded, and ever since there’s been bad blood between them. Ray still drives the Corvette — his numberplate reads “Ace Hole” — and the stamps are now worth a fortune.
Emmit, though, has a problem. He borrowed a million dollars (with no collateral required) from an out-of-town investment firm. Now, the sinister VM Varga (David Thewlis), representing this shadowy entity, wants payback in the form of “partnering” with Emmit’s company, an association hardly likely to be above legal scrutiny.
Varga is one of Hawley’s inspired creations, a frightening creature who could have stepped straight from a Stephen King novel, an enforcer with an unusual gift of the gab. “The words ‘begin’ and ‘end’ — are these the same?” he asks Emmit when he attempts to pay out the loan. “So why talk about ending something that’s just begun?”
Then there’s Ray’s sexy brunette girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), one of Ray’s parolees. She’s obsessed with competitive bridge, and she and Ray make a cool team fleecing the local competitions. Also in the mix is Emmit’s hard-nosed, fast-talking lawyer and consigliere, Sy Feltz (Michael Stuhlbarg).
When Ray hires hapless Maurice LeFay (the very funny Scoot McNairy) — a small-time stoner and thief who spends his life breaking into rich people’s digs and stealing their flatscreen TVs — to conduct a robbery, the murderous fun really gets under way.
In the middle of it all is Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon), the steady chief of the local police department. She’s a newly divorced mother who is handy with a police-issue shotgun but all at sea with modern technology, especially the mobile phone.
The cast is exemplary — their complex Minnesota accents ring true and their comic timing is perfect. Hawley’s dialogue is so pithily streetwise it reminds you of Elmore Leonard. It shows an uncanny ear for wry, lifelike chat: colloquial speech, adjectives absent, punctuation sometimes awkward, and the odd slang.
Hawley and his director of photography, Dana Gonzales, who came up through the ranks working with Paul Haggis, Julie Taymor and David O. Russell, bring a new visual style and colour palette to the show’s aesthetic. They consciously reference the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, with its distinctive wintry look, taking the blues out of images, and as Hawley says, making colours such as red, orange and yellow “really pop in a different way”.
It gives the series an almost expressionist German film-noir quality, where pools of shadows surround and sometimes overtake small centres of light, adding to the nightmarish drive of the plot as the body count builds up. (Watch out for a particularly malevolent air-conditioning unit.)
Hawley’s filmmaking is controlled and objective, again echoing the Coens’ approach, moving his cameras in classical ways. Some scenes are played out in one shot — the framing is often almost symmetrical, sometimes quite comically — and there are many close-ups and reverse angles of faces reacting to events. It is a story about departures and lapses from the world of Minnesota Nice, and the series’ visual approach enhances the transformation from quotidian reality to nightmare.
Heck, this is simply the classiest piece of TV drama around. It’s instantly entertaining, even if you’ve never seen any of it before and have never heard of the Coen brothers or that movie called Fargo. Wednesday, 8.30pm, SBS.