In Which Billy Bob Thornton is a Wood Chipper

WTF is Fargo, season one?

Back in 1996, there was a movie called Fargo that everyone saw and nobody remembers except for three things: 1) it was set in Minnesota, so there was snow and funny accents; 2) it was about crime; and 3) someone stuffed a dead body in a wood chipper. The wood chipper is the most famous character by far.

Fargo, the TV series, is an anthology that re-mixes some of the same elements from the movie. Season one of Fargo is about some hapless guy named Lester who has the bad luck to meet a contract killer right before he murders his wife. Meeting the contract killer throws police attention on him as he’s trying to cover up the murder, and the story follows Lester, the contract killer, and the police investigating them as they all try to out-manoeuvre each other. Billy Bob Thornton is the contract killer, Bilbo Baggins is the Lester, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks are the cops, Molly and Gus. Allison Tolman is the only one I’ve never heard of before and it’s a shame because she’s amazing.

You’re sort of supposed to cheer for Lester and the contract killer at various points in the story, but mostly you’re supposed to cheer for the cops to bring them down. There are also a whole bunch of other characters who keep jumping in to cause havoc, and the body count keeps rising as the season goes on.

The part where Molly is the only smart cop

This is actually my favourite part, even though I always find it hard to believe that only one person is smart.

In what is probably the most interesting, layered, deftly-executed story line of the season, we watch as Molly tries to solve several murders while the rest of the police force holds her down. Specifically, Molly’s boss tells her in the first episode that her superior detective skills have put her next in line for promotion, even though her colleague, Bill, has seniority – he is then immediately killed and Bill’s promoted to Chief.

Chief Bill spends the rest of the season ignoring everything Molly tells him, even though the viewers know she’s right. He also belittles her, and fumbles every step of the investigation. This is all handled in a way that will probably ring true to anyone who’s seen someone incompetent get promoted. What’s interesting, though, is that Bill is not a bad person. He’s terrible at his job, but he’s also shown to be caring, generous, and well-intentioned. We’re frustrated that he’s messing everything up, but we don’t hate him, and neither does Molly.

As the season draws to a close, we get a much more unrealistic scene in which Bill tells Molly he’s realized that this isn’t the right line of work for him and that he’s stepping down to make her Chief – but, up until then, it’s a very nuanced, interesting look at power structures in the workplace.

The part where Lester touches all the evidence with his bare hands

The best example of this part is the episode where Lester plants fake evidence in someone’s house and, in the process, touches a bunch of metal objects and glossy photos with his bare hands before remembering to wipe his prints off the gun he’s holding. And you may say, “It’s reasonable that Lester could have touched any of those things except the gun at some point, so why should he wear gloves or anything?” but why not? It’s not like Chief Bill’s dusting for prints, but why not?

The part where Gus doesn’t go to jail

This totally spoils the end, but I can’t not say it, because it’s the most frustrating part of the show.

At the very end of the season, the cops are on a manhunt for Billy Bob Thornton’s character, and he goes to hide in some cabin somewhere. He’s injured from a fight with Lester, and he’s just sitting on the couch, trying to bandage his leg, not really able to defend himself or murder anyone at the moment, when Gus comes in and kills him. This would be bad enough if Gus were still a police officer, but he isn’t – he quit that job and became a postal worker late in the season.

When the cops show up, not only do they not arrest Gus, they give him a medal. They give him a medal for murdering someone in cold blood.

Like, Billy Bob Thornton’s character is not a good guy. He’s a sociopath and a murderer, and, if Gus doesn’t kill him, there’s a good chance he’ll escape police custody – as he’s already done once – and continue killing other random people. And, the moral question the season is posing is whether it then makes sense, ethically, for Gus to murder him because of that. Gus and the show seem to believe that it does – I’m not sure I agree, but that’s not my problem with this scene. My problem with the scene is that, whether or not that’s the right thing to do, it’s sure as fuck not a legal thing to do. Just because some guy’s a murderer, that doesn’t mean that any random person can just come up and murder him. Oh my god.

The part where it’s a black comedy

I’ll tell you straight up that I was willing to go along with this season and cheer for whomever it wanted me to cheer for at any given time (up until Gus didn’t go to jail), but there was still a little voice in the back of my mind that said, “Why are we going along with the guy who murdered his wife?”

Fargo walks a very fine line in the first few episodes. It carefully controls the circumstances in which Lester murders his wife by making it so that a) we don’t like her, b) we blame her for the problems in their relationship, and c) we understand why he flies into a rage in the scene where he d) impulsively, rather than premeditatedly, kills her. All of this helps smooth the way for us so that, even though we don’t agree with what Lester’s done and we want him to get caught, we can also sort of chuckle at him as he tries to find a way out of his predicament. Because his wife is so horrible, we still have some empathy for him when she’s gone. At the same time, it’s kind of icky.

The part where it’s suddenly one year later

Usually, if a TV show suddenly jumps several years to the future, it’s because the series has gone on for so long that it’s exhausted all the possibilities of its original premise, and the only way to revitalize it is to say, “X number of years have gone by and the situation is different.” Fargo has the opposite problem. The writers wanted to tell a story where it first looked like Lester won, but then his fatal flaws caught up with him and he lost. And, because it’s an anthology series, there couldn’t be a long payoff where, three seasons from now, Lester is a changed man who makes a mistake that gets him caught by the police. It had to be a time jump to the future.

And what an awkward time jump it was.

I think “one year” must have been arbitrary, but the situation seems to have changed too much in that short amount of time. For one thing, Molly and Gus, who met for the first time this season, are now married and Molly’s about to give birth. Lester, who gained new confidence after getting away with murder, has gone from being the worst insurance salesman ever to being such a good insurance salesman that someone’s awarding him a trophy for salesman of the year. Also he owns his own firm and has purchased offices for it on the other side of town and can afford to take his new wife – he’s now remarried – on expensive vacations. And he sold his house and bought a nicer one, too. That’s a big change in only a year, even if he got a pay-out from his wife’s death. I also wonder who’s giving Lester an award, if he’s gone into business for himself. And whether his town has enough business to sustain another insurance broker at all, even if he’s so good at it, now. And whether Lester has any employees besides his wife. And why they keep their passports at the office instead of their house.

Anyway, the point of the time jump is that Lester’s gotten away with it, and it could stay gotten away with, if he didn’t cross paths with Billy Bob Thornton again and deliberately choose to stir things up. This is the first of many choices he makes in the final stretch of episodes that teach us he’s a bad person at the core – not a regular guy who got caught up in outrageous circumstances, but a selfish, angry, entitled douchebag who doesn’t care what happens to anyone else as long as it benefits him.

This brings me back to the part where it’s a black comedy, and the uncomfortable thing were the show seems to assume that we’ll partly be cheering for Lester and still feel sympathy for him after he murders his wife. The latter part of the season is supposed to reverse that, by making us see that the world is divided into good people and bad people, and Lester is one of the bad people. But, the fact that it seems to need reversing is still kind of icky. Because, if the world were divided into good people and bad people, wouldn’t someone who murdered his wife be a bad person to begin with? Like, whether or not he later walked up to Billy Bob Thornton in an elevator and wanted to murder someone else?

Which reminds me…

The part where the world is divided into good and bad people

I don’t care how artfully this worldview is articulated in fiction – and it’s articulated pretty artfully, here – I’m never going to think it’s true, and I think that’s what bothers me about this show. The entire premise of the first season is that Billy Bob Thornton is a predator among peaceful human beings and the peaceful human beings have to get over their qualms about putting him down. Lester either masquerades as a peaceful human being or masquerades as a predator, but he’s the character who moves between worlds. Most of the other characters are peaceful and good.

That’s why Gus gets a medal for committing murder at the end – because he’s a good person. And, while I don’t dispute that Billy Bob Thornton’s character is a bad person, there’s a part where he tries to explain why he’s a bad person that doesn’t ring true to me at all. Or it rings true to me as an explanation of why a person who is not actually a psychopath would convince himself that he’s a psychopath – why he would take on a cool, dark identity and build a legend around it – but that’s for a world where people aren’t just good or bad. It’s for a world where wolves are pack animals who feel love and kinship – not for a world where they’re just an analogy for evil we dare not speak.

In conclusion

The first season of Fargo is interesting, infuriating, confusing, and entertaining to watch. A few years from now, the only thing you’ll remember is some bumbling guy and a wood chipper, but that’s probably the way it should be.

Image: Fargo; FX Networks | December 18, 2015