Season One, Episode One
The series begins the same way that the Coen brothers’ film does, stating that the story to be told is true and while the names have been changed, out of respect to the dead this is exactly what happened. We’re in 2006 Minnesota and the Jerry Lunegaard version of the show is Lester Nygaard, a healthcare salesperson who is a fragile man in a turbulent marriage at best, and one who is constantly being pushed around.
He first bumps into Sam Hess, a former bully in high school. Sam Hess is with his two sons, both who are bigger than Lester already. Sam provokes and taunts Lester until he finally scares him to flinch right into a wall, breaking his nose. In the emergency waiting room, that’s where he meets Lorne Malvo, the man who will change his life. Played by Billy Bob Thornton, Mavlo is your anti-hero, a man with a calm and cool sense of power, and even though he’s a crook and a murderer in every sense he has a code that he lives by. He lends Lester some words of advice and advises him not to be pushed over anymore. This leads to a great scene when Malvo is waiting for Lester to give him a “yes” or “no” answer to kill Sam Hess. He doesn’t give him the okay, but to Malvo he doesn’t tell him not to either.
Lester continues to be pushed around. He visits his younger brother who is enjoying success with his recently installed surround-sound and his heavy duty assault rifle. As the screw up Lester is, he drops and breaks the weapon, causing his brother to admit he sometimes tells people that his older brother is dead. The show cuts to Lester and his wife driving home with his wife asking why he punched his brother. This is the sort of quick pace Fargo displays in its pilot, and one that builds up a scene only to cut away from the action. This sort of tactic is proven very useful later on.
Then we meet a few more important characters. There is Chief Vern Thurman, a handsome and happily married man awaiting his first newborn with his wife, who seems too good to be true. He’s polite and caring towards his wife, never showing any signs of being annoyed when she can’t make up her mind what color to paint the bedroom. His partner is Deputy Molly Solverson, a smart go-getter who Thurman claims will be Chief one day. They investigate a car accident that Mavlo was involved with in the first scene. The Chief is very well-respected and Molly looks up to him dearly. It’s impossible not to compare Thurman to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson because of the kind way they carry out their day, even when it involves murder.
Malvo strikes when he carries out his promise to Lester and kills Sam Hess. As the police investigate the killing, Lester is pushed to the limits after failing to fix the washing machine. His wife pushes his buttons, saying he’s not a man and how she pictures someone else when they’re having sex. She’s not even slightly afraid when Lester picks up a hammer and threatens her with it, and frankly neither was I but Lester proved both of us wrong by sledging her in the head once, and then over and over again. It’s a horrific scene but as we watched the tension build up within Lester, I couldn’t help but hearing Malvo’s voice over and over again to not be bullied and to stand up for yourself. While killing your wife certainly isn’t the correct road to take, Malvo didn’t reprimand Lester for his actions.
And then comes the most shocking moment of the episode. When Thurman drops by Lester’s house to ask him a few questions about his visit to the hospital, he discovers blood on the floor and then Lester’s dead wife in the basement. As he draws his gun and orders Lester to submit, Malvo blows Thurman away with two blasts of a shotgun. Just like that, our purely good character is gone. Molly rushes in a few moments later but Malvo has already escaped and Lester gave himself a concussion to remain innocent.
The world of Fargo has certainly been transferred from the film to the series. With the bright eyes and courtesy of those from Minnesota being mixed together with forces of evil from the outside, we get the black comedy that the Coens showed so well in their 1996 film. The difference here is Malvo, a much more likable character than the kidnappers of the film. Here, Malvo doesn’t seem like he wants to kill whoever for whatever reason, he does so because he feels it’s right. And for those who just are in the wrong place at the wrong time, he gives them an out if it’s possible. Sometimes you don’t always get a second chance, but if it were up to Malvo you would. That’s what he’s given to Lester.