‘Fargo’ recap, episode 1: Modern noir with a single ‘uff-da’

Bob Odenkirk as Deputy Bill Oswalt (Matthias Clamer/FX)

Note: This is the first in a series of recaps of the new “Fargo” TV series on FX. Spoilers abound.

Is “Fargo” the FX TV series like “Fargo” the 1996 Coen Brothers movie? Yes and no.

Both are set mostly in sleepy, outstate Minnesota towns disrupted by the arrival of shady characters. And both seem to have a modern-noir perspective about what happens along the sometimes short path toward morality’s version of Chapter 11. Both are seasoned with violence, randomness and random violence. But FX’s new series isn’t a retelling, a remake or even a reboot. The only thing not new is the title.

Over the course of the season, we’ll be recapping each episode’s plot points and Minnesota touches, and grading on a scale of one to five North Stars.

Let’s get Fargoing.

Allison Tolman as Bemidji cop Molly Solverson. (Chris Large/FX)

What Goes Down

The opening is familiar enough; a car on an icy road at night, an icy-eyed killer at the wheel; an unexpected stop, followed by a flight across a snow-covered field. The next day, the scene is investigated by a local police chief who will soon be a parent, partnered with a bumbling deputy. There are a couple of differences from the movie here: Billy Bob Thornton crashes into a deer and goes off the road. His lone passenger escapes from the trunk and hoofs it in his boxer shorts, and Thornton lets him vanish into the night. No explanation is given as to why Billy Bob Thornton was driving a half-naked man around in the winter in the trunk of a car, but it doesn’t look like a fraternity prank. As for the cops, we’ll come back to them here in a jiff.

The next day, in nearby Bemidji, insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) endures his wife Pearl’s passive-aggressive jabs about Lester’s more successful younger brother Chaz, then returns to the office to experience some additional failure on the professional front. Generally speaking, Lester can’t catch a break, until he encounters an old high school (and now adulthood) bully Sam Hess on the street, and ends up flinching so hard he fractures his own nose on a storefront window. Lester is the lovable loser type — or would be, if he were lovable.

Let’s meet the “Fargo” police chief, Vern Thurman. Vern’s an expectant dad and a competent investigator, in apparent contrast to his underlings Molly Solverson and Bill Oswalt (“Breaking Bad’s” Bob Odenkirk, nearly unrecognizable beneath his aged-Scandinavian makeup). Is he this story’s Marge Gunderson? Probably not, for reasons that will later become apparent.

Off to the hospital, where Lester’s path crosses that of the as-yet-nameless hit man, there to get his automotive injuries attended to. A short but intense conversation about Lester’s injury leads to the hit man’s declaration that Sam Hess deserves to die. Lester isn’t entirely down with this, but he doesn’t flat-out say no, either. Later, all bandaged up, he and Pearl show up at Chaz’s house, ostensibly for dinner but ultimately to get a new wing added to his inferiority complex. When Lester breaks Chaz’s prized machine gun and Chaz goes off on what an embarrassment and disappointment his brother is, Lester turns out to have something of a violent streak after all. Even if it is a little misdirected, not to mention belated.

Putting off his dispatcher, who is based in a storefront phone bank somewhere in the Southwest, the hit man visits Sam Hess’s trucking company to size up the man, his idiot teenage sons and the serious-looking fellows who are also hanging around. He later follows Sam to a strip club, and then to the back room, where he interrupts Sam’s intimate assignation with a club employee by burying a knife in the back of his head. So the victim probably died happy, but we can’t be picky when it comes to pro-bono murder. We’ll later find out that Sam had ties to the infamous Fargo mafia, so that will no doubt provide some added wrinkles as well as some tangential justification for this “Fargo’s” title.

Billy Bob Thornton as hitman Lorne Malvo (Chris Large/FX)

Lester gets wind of Sam’s death via his job at the insurance agency, and after having seen his new acquaintance still skulking around town, confronts him at a local diner about Sam’s death. The killer is unrepentant, as one might expect, and even gives Lester an earful of his half-baked philosophy of Darwinian amorality. Billy Bob Thornton is clearly enjoying himself here, with his Julius Caesar haircut and his outdated coats and his dry, wry manner. But his character is enjoying himself even more. This guy is one of those fortunate individuals who is able to do what he truly loves in the course of making his living. There’s no good reason for him to pull stunts like manipulating a motel employee into peeing in his boss’s gas tank and then tattling on him, or to call one of Sam Hess’s sons with a fake story about how Sam left all his money to the other one, other than sheer enjoyment. Murdering people may be his vocation, but his avocation is to mess with ’em.

Of course Lester doesn’t know this, so when he gets home he takes his destiny in hand, along with a few tools, and endeavors to repair the washing machine that until pretty recently was the deepest thorn in his side. When this goes as well as everything else in his life, Pearl’s put-downs rapidly go from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive. Once again Lester takes destiny and tool in hand, threateningly waving a ball-peen hammer at her. Pearl simply continues mocking him until that hammer cracks her skull open. Guess he showed her.

So now what? Now that his basement contains both a dead washer and a dead wife, Lester calls up the only person he knows who might have experience with at least the latter of the two: his new hit-man buddy.

Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard  (CR. Matthias Clamer/FX)

Lester claims he wants the killer’s help with next steps, but then he loads a shotgun and rehearses accusing him of Pearl’s murder. Yet when the knock comes at the door, it’s not the hit man but Chief Vern. Deputy Molly, you see, has put together a theory that the mysterious, bloody-headed man Lester Nygaard was seen talking to at the hospital might be connected to the crashed car they found in the field — and to Sam Hess’s murder. Lester’s nervousness is just about enough to give him away, but it doesn’t have to; Vern spots the blood on the floor, finds Pearl’s dead body in the basement, and is just calling for backup when the hit man appears out of nowhere to blow Vern away. With Lester’s shotgun, no less.

Now police backup is en route, and when Molly shows up, the killer — the original killer, that is — is gone. It looks like the jig is up for Lester as he panic-dithers in the basement, but before Molly finds him standing over the body of his wife, Lester has a stroke of genius that inspires him to run head-first into the wall and knock himself out to make it look like he was also a victim of whoever killed Pearl and Chief Vern. Which is actually half true. So Lester is still in the game, but now it falls to Molly to deliver the news to Vern’s widow, as well as the paint he was thinking of using in the new nursery. Downer.

The killer moves on to his next assignment in Duluth, where he’s pulled over by one Officer Grimly (Colin Hanks). Calmly and reasonably, the hit man intimidates this young father into letting him go about his nefarious business. Grimly clearly regrets it, but at least he’s alive to do so. Back in Bemidji, Molly commits to solving the murders, turning down an offer of a nice safe hostess job at the diner owned by her dad (Keith Carradine). And Lester wakes up in the hospital with a minor owie on his hand to prove it wasn’t all a bad dream. And away we Fargo.

Talking Minnesota

As different as the show’s story may be, it certainly sounds like the movie. The “Fargo”  accent, as it’s probably been known nationwide since ’96, is widely prevalent here.  It’s a bit distracting, but it sets up a nice contrast with Billy Bob Thornton’s regular speaking voice, marking him as a stranger from out of town. Obviously not everyone in Minnesota speaks that way, but fortunately not everyone in the cast does either.

• Related:  How to talk Fargo (this subject did not flee the interview) Tony Alcantar, a dialect coach, worked with actors on set in Calgary, Alberta, including British actor Martin Freeman and Texan Allison Tolman. He talked to MPR News’ Molly Bloom about what defines the Minnesota accent:


Other than a couple of references to a temperature of “negative ten” rather than “ten below,” the Talking Minnesotan is pretty solid. Some superhuman act of restraint limits the 90-minute premiere to a single “uff-da,” and the obvious gag of someone moaning, “Oh, yah, yah, that’s good” in the throes of passion has been, one hopes, efficiently dispensed with. There’s also plenty of that distinctly Minnesotan brand of verbal indirectness. Given that this is the same network that airs “Sons of Anarchy,” it’s safe to say that this show’s conspicuously mild cursing is part of that, up to and including Lester repeatedly sobbing, “Aw, jeez” as he smashes into his wife’s cranium.Tony Alcantar helped the cast get the accent right.


Looks Like Home?

Behind the scenes outside "Bemidji:. "Fargo" was filmed in Calgary (Chris Large/FX)

Location-spotters will be hard-pressed to find familiar Bemidji landmarks, given that the series was filmed in Calgary. The production design certainly nails the homey, slightly rundown Main Street look, even if it’s more applicable to a smaller town like Aitkin or Remer. I appreciated the reference to nearby Camp Ripley, as would anyone else who has passed an Army convoy on Highway 371. But the one big “You Are Here” moment was near the end, with a partial glimpse of Duluth’s illuminated Lift Bridge in the background at night. Digitally inserted, no doubt, but nice to see.

Real Good?

I give the premiere 4½ North Stars. It’s good, but I’m giving it room to get better.