Fargo Recap: Lester’s Bangs

Photo: Chris Large/FX
Episode Title
The Crocodile’s Dilemma
Editor’s Rating

Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is a special kind of imp. He gets off on turning bereaved (albeit, Neanderthal) siblings against one another and encouraging a disgruntled motel staffer to pee in his boss’s gas tank, only to rat him out and watch the ensuing tussle with omnipotent pride. He abides a loose philosophical code about not getting washed away by red tides and respecting that “maps used to say there’d be dragons here.” But, to quote an MTV tagline of yore, Lorne’s motto may as well read, “Throw out your rules — these are the road rules.” 

He lays that out pretty square to poor sucker Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a meek life insurance agent whose chance encounter with Malvo — after the latter pulled a Doc Hollywood and 86’d his car roadside en route to bigger commitments — sets off a chain reaction that leads to Lester’s direct and tacit involvement in multiple murders.

First, there’s Sam Hess, a Biff Tannen-esque bear of a man with the aforementioned pair of dimwitted sons (named, like an apt Stooges misnomer, Mickey and Moe) who bullied Lester in high school and still torments him today. Sam owns a namesake truck depot and, as we learn, is affiliated with a Fargo crime syndicate (the small Minnesotan city of Bemidji is this show’s central backdrop). When a banged-up Lorne encounters freshly bloodied Lester in the ER, Malvo offers his unique skillset, mostly out of boredom and bloodlust. After all, a perfectly good kill escaped out the back of his trunk (he was later found, frozen to death, yards away), having ostensibly swapped places with a hemorrhaging doe. As if he were more effectively selling Lester’s own policies, Lorne talks the gullible sap into killing-for-hire without him even realizing — on a conscious level anyway — that he’s entered into verbal contract. Before long, big Sam is bowed over a strip-club dancer in the middle of dispassionate doggy style, dead and bleeding from a knife wound to the back of his neck. Lorne, sporting his already signature winter coat and wispy ’do, looms over his handiwork and gets a good, long look at Sam, not that different from how he surveyed his once-breathing prey hours earlier.

You can tell this wandering hit man — we see his boss briefly, via phone call, advising, though not exactly rushing, him to continue toward a job in Duluth — enjoys the setup and execution of another’s fall. Some of his crimes are relatively victimless, like posing as an estate lawyer and informing Mickey that all of Sam’s inheritance goes to his “favorite son” Moe. This, naturally, leads to a broken collarbone and hospital trip for unsuspecting Moe. 

Others plans are more vicious and insidious, even owed to chance. Take Malvo’s mind games with Lester, who’s all but under his new mentor’s spell and virtually programmed to rain hammer blows upon his nagging wife when she just won’t drop the subject of his imperial inadequacy. And when lame-duck Police Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle, joining Jeff Fahey of Under the Dome in recent TV’s annul of sacrificial small-town head cops) arrives at Lester’s door to ask some questions about Sam Hess, Lorne’s all too happy to blast two shotgun rounds through the expecting-dad’s back and chest. It’s brutal stuff, and a crossroads for the premiere, which for its first two-thirds, introduces and dispatches characters with an antic charm befitting its roots in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 dark cinematic comedy. Hess had it coming, and said diminishing spouse Pearl’s verbal harassment was so over the top that, if she was going to die, it may as well have left an equally excessive mess on the basement floor, feet away from her precious washing machine.

But, if one could reason away those homicides as an end to twin cycles of abuse — not that a grinning, reborn Lester appeared inclined to quibble — Chief Thurman’s death only sets another, much more dangerous relationship in motion. Through Lorne, Lester’s allowed some sinister part of himself out to run amok, but he may soon realize that it can’t just be Beetlejuice-d back inside that mousy insurance agent who could barely convince a young couple of their own mortality, let alone expedite someone else’s. And for that matter, Lorne may come to regret having created a monster, wishing instead he just manipulated Lester into an isolated, humiliating confrontation.

“The Crocodile’s Dilemma” foremost sets up the leads’ quirky and combustible tandem, but it’s a safe bet that coming weeks will give us more intel on Marge Gunderson doppelgänger/Bemidji deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), who’s now in the catbird’s seat following Truman’s passing; Duluth Police Deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, in the role he was meant for), a good cop who likes to play walkie talkies with daughter Greta (Joey King) while on duty and goes cold after staring down Lorne and his web of psychotic riddles; Gina Hess (Kate Walsh), Sam’s conniving widow; Bemidji Deputy Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk, yay!), a composite of Odenkirk’s simpleton Mr. Show creations who upchucks at bloody crime scenes but may be wilier than given credit for; and several additional oddballs, sadists, and ordinary folk marginally or not-yet-unveiled.

One hour in, Fargo the “limited drama series” gingerly distinguishes itself from Fargo the motion picture, before clearly marking its territory with a dizzying series of dubious choices and callous acts. But the real star might be Bemidji, a part of the country both more and less incongruous with sophisticated American life than in 1996 (there’s some progressive gender politics evident, but it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s ever been far past their snowy stoops). Whatever the fate of Lester, Lorne, and all those within range, Fargo will survive or fail on whether it convinces us that, even if this story could happen anywhere, nowhere is quite like northwest Minnesota.

Apart from all that:

So, the Hess men were basically rural Minnesota’s analog to the "O’Doyle Rules!" clan from Billy Madison?

The premiere didn’t necessarily live and die by its dialogue, but you had to love Lester’s sister-in-law earnestly imploring he and Pearl “come on in” because “Chazz is working the ham!”

Ode to Goodfellas with the guy-in-trunk opening moments?

One wonders what treasures await at downtown Bemidji’s The Neverending Emporium store. 

Just floating the idea that Chief Truman was invariably at the whim of local crime lords, a la Romero in Bates Motel or a host of Justified sheriffs. 

Good to see Keith Carradine back on the scene.

The Oriental Grill can’t possibly have very good Chinese food. 

Lester’s really taken with that poster in the basement.

Small towns beget small gestures (i.e., Lester’s misconstrued “yeah” green-light to Lorne and Molly’s negatively affirming head shake to Mrs. Truman).

Man, you could actually feel Gus’s balls shrinking up back inside him.