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The Distinct Charm of TV's Coen Brothers Remix

FX's 'Fargo' is less a tribute to the film than the entire oevre of the directors'

Matthias Clamer/FX

Although it is ostensibly based on the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Noah Hawley's "Fargo," which wraps its first ten-episode season on FX tonight, bears less and less resemblance to its cinematic forbear the closer you look. There's an enterprising female detective, a greedy, scheming salesman (insurance this time rather than cars), and lots and lots of snow—a deceptively pristine blanket that covers the rocky terrain beneath. But apart from the bogus claim that the series' true-life story has been told "exactly as it occurred," the show and the movie overlap only once, when the show's Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) digs up the money buried by the movie's Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). 

Throughout the season, Hawley has left a train of Easter eggs, repurposing dialogue and visual cues, drawing not only from the movie but from the Coens' entire body of work. "Fargo" is less an adaptation than a remix, stripping small pieces from the Coens' oeuvre and recombining them into something familiar, yet incontestably distinct. 

A partial inventory: 

There's a preening, thick-skulled fitness instructor who resembles Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading.

There’s a rabbi like the one in A Serious Man.


An odd-sock pair of semi-competent thugs resemble the ones in Miller's Crossing (a movie that was itself an un-credited purée of Dashiell Hammett's novels).


But Fargo's most pronounced borrowing is from the Coens' No Country for Old Men, whose sinister Anton Chigurh is reincarnated in the form of Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo, another enigmatic killing machine with a weird haircut. 

On one level, the show's references are simply in-jokes for fans, a wink and a nod to a core audience. But it's also a way of staying in dialogue with the Coens despite their absence from the set. (The brothers gave the thumbs up to the series, but they have not been involved in its production.) At times, that means indulging their fondness for grotesques without their superlative command of tone, letting characters like a former stripper who puts her body to work expediting her late husband's insurance policy tip into glib caricature. But it also allows “Fargo” to engage with a theme that has increasingly come to dominate the Coens' movies: the nature of evil and the struggle to be, and do, good.

Television, of course, is full of antiheroes, your Walter Whites and Don Drapers and such. What it lacks is heroes, figures whose devotion to the right and honorable course is not cast as delusional or self-destructive. (How's that working out for you, Ned Stark?) As played by the wonderful Allison Tolman, “Fargo”’s Molly Solverson is a heroine in every sense of the world, a dogged deputy who never lets her superiors' dubiousness throw her off the scent. With a surname straight out of a young adult mystery series, Molly isn't a mystic seer like “True Detective”’s Rust Cohle, just a tenacious sleuth with on-point instincts. After she's accidentally shot by the equally good-hearted but less judicious Deputy (Gus) Colin Hanks, Molly works the case from her hospital bed, diagramming the connections between suspects in Sharpie on her hospital-room window. As Time's James Poniewozik put it, "In 'Fargo,' decency isn’t a superpower or a curse. It’s just hard work." 

Without giving away any specifics, the series' final scene—no second season has been announced; ratings have been solid but unspectacular—snaps the variations on a theme into sharp focus, subtly but firmly hinting that we've simply taken a different road to a similar destination: Where Jeff Russo's music has riffed on Carter Burwell's theatrical score, in the finale it finally gives way to the movie's memorable theme, itself an arrangement of a Scandinavian folk song

With episode titles like "Buridan's Ass" and "The Six Ungraspables," (drawn from, respectively, a logical paradox and a Zen parable), Hawley has framed the season as a new version of an ancient tale—an awfully grand undertaking for a freshman series, and not one it always fulfills. (It's the rare show that might be better were it a little less sure of itself.) “Fargo” has proven expert at remixing Joel and Ethan Coen's oeuvre into something unique; next season, it would be thrilling to see the show start from scratch.

Images courtesy of: FX, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Vantage, Focus Features